On Saturday 10 February 2018, a significant escalation took place in Israel and Syria, as an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) penetrated Israeli airspace. Israel responded by targeting Iranian bases in Syria and the Assad regime then fired at Israeli planes, downing an F16 jet. Israel subsequently destroyed much of Syria’s aerial defence systems. On 12 February BICOM hosted a special briefing with Lt Col. Jonathan Conricus, the Spokesman and Head of Social Media of the IDF. Conricus discussed the weekend’s events and answered questions from senior journalists. Below is an edited summary of his remarks.
The Assad regime and its response to Israeli actions
Israel has monitored the different offensives that the regime has undertaken. The reoccurring theme is that most of the heavy lifting has been done by other fighting forces rather than the Syrian Armed Forces. Today, their capabilities are a pale shadow of their former selves and we believe it will take some time for the Syrian Armed Forces to be a significant threat against Israel.
Israel is still looking into the Syrian decision-making process [in the recent escalation]. What is interesting is that it took place as Israel was responding to an attack carried out by Iranian forces from Syria who used its territory to attack Israel with a UAV. The Syrian decision to engage Israeli planes in a significant way, Syrian air-defence fired a massive salvo of missiles towards our planes, was unfortunate for the Syrians. We were initially targeting the command centre that was directly responsible for flying the drone rather than attacking Syrian targets or “punishing” the regime for allowing Iran to stage an attack from its territory.
There were pictures of celebrations in the streets in Beirut and Damascus that were staged by Hezbollah and by the Syrians to try to amplify their achievement. I can understand they are happy with the fact that an Israeli jet was downed, but I think that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) will continue to enjoy the necessary freedom of movement and will continue to build on its aerial superiority.
A better way of understanding the significance of what happened is to consider the events of an hour later, when Israel destroyed approximately half of the Syrian air defence array. Israel is continuing to assess what happened and we will have to see how things evolve over the coming days. As with many things in the military and in life, we will only know for sure next time they try to use it. We are cautious about those estimates, but we know it was a significant blow to the regime.
It is unclear how long it will take the Syrian regime to rebuild these defences. Important components – such as the command and control components, radar, launchers etc. – were destroyed, and it will take some time and quite significant resources to replenish.
Israel has no interest in getting involved with any other forces in the Middle East. We have quite enough to deal with ISIS on the southern border, Hamas in Gaza, different Palestinian terrorist factions in the West Bank, Hezbollah in Lebanon and now Iranian forces on the Golan Heights. We are not looking to engage with anyone else. Once an escalation happens, every military force (including the Russians) is more vigilant which is natural.
The general message is that of course, our interest is to preserve stability. We are looking to defend ourselves, our borders and our civilians. We are not looking to escalate the situation.
Iran in Syria
The Iranians deserve credit in the sense that they are very good at exporting their ideology and destabilising countries, as seen in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and now in Syria.
We see Iran working comprehensively according to an approach that has been demonstrated elsewhere. There are Revolutionary Guards, Quds Force and senior Iranian officers currently present in Syria with the aim of building a network of local Shia militias, as well as using foreign mercenaries – mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan – which Iran can utilise to attack Israel and reduce its “direct accountability”. We have seen Iran build different facilities, factories and forward operating bases for troops and they intend to build airstrips and establish a naval platform. We also know that Iran is attempting to transport developed weapons through Iraq via Syria to eventually reach their main Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. We monitor these shipments and have emphasised that this is not something we will tolerate.
According to our assessments Iran is still in the early stages of this strategy. But they have experience in inserting rogue elements into a country and operating proxies, and they move quickly.
Israel is naturally focusing on its security, sovereignty, and the safety of its civilians. Not being a global power, Israel’s priority is to defend its borders, and our primary concern is the Iranian presence in Syria and the fact that they are investing significant efforts in building a military infrastructure inside Syria to use for hostile purposes, first and foremost against Israel.
The threat posed by Hezbollah
Hezbollah has undergone significant changes in recent years and has been shaped by battle in Syria. In the past, Hezbollah relied on possessing large numbers of unsophisticated missiles, of which it had approximately 120,000 scattered over Lebanon. Today, Hezbollah is trying to upgrade its arsenal and acquire more precise capabilities and to possess guided, more accurate munitions. Instead of firing a salvo of 100 missiles and maybe hitting a target, they will be able to fire one or two and have a good chance of succeeding. That’s a significant threat.
Hezbollah has also learned valuable lessons in fighting as part of a coalition – how to manoeuvre, coordinate fire, conduct logistics, collect intelligence on the move and many other core military capabilities. Israel believes that Hezbollah feels emboldened and strengthened by these experiences, but Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah doesn’t boast about the heavy number of casualties – which we estimate as more than 2000 dead and 5000 injured – that the organisation has suffered.
I think Hezbollah takes into account what an Israeli response to an attack by the organisation would be. In terms of the strength and scope of the Israeli response, and the damage that it would cause Hezbollah and its infrastructure, it won’t be anything like the Second Lebanon War in 2006.