Why does Israel focus on striking Syria’s air defenses?
Enab Baladi – Muhammed Fansa
Israeli air strikes, most of which take place from outside the Syrian airspace, have been frequent since the beginning of this year, targeting the Syrian radar and air defense systems mainly or as secondary targets.
This raises the question about the motives for targeting the air defense systems and the success of the Israeli strikes in destroying them and killing Syrian soldiers, despite the repetition of the saying, “Our air defenses intercepted the aggression’s missiles,” which is reported by the official Syrian News Agency (SANA) after each Israeli bombing.
During the most recent Israeli strike, on 19 November, SANA said four soldiers were killed, another was wounded, and some material losses occurred, the nature and extent of which were not specified, as a result of an Israeli bombardment from over the Mediterranean that targeted some points in the central and coastal region.
The Israeli Alma Research Center said, “the air strike was carried out in the geographical area west of Homs, towards the Syrian coastline (Banias-Jabla). It is estimated that warehouses connected to the Iranian corridor that transfers weapons to Syria and Lebanon were attacked.”
On 21 October, an Israeli airstrike hit sites in the western countryside of Damascus, targeting a radar of the Syrian air defense system and the runway of the Dimas military airport.
Damages in numbers
A study by Diaa Qaddour for the Harmoon Center for Studies on 23 November showed that the Israeli aerial bombing that hit the Syrian air defenses since 2013 constituted about 12% of the total attacks carried out by Israel throughout the Syrian geography.
Of every nine raids that Israel carried out on Syrian soil, one of them was intended to destroy the Syrian air defenses.
The current year occupied the largest percentage of destroyed air defenses (9 systems) compared to previous years.
The largest number of destroyed air defenses during the past decade was located in sites belonging to Damascus and its countryside mainly, at a rate of 53%, followed by sites in the central region at a rate of 28%, sites in the southern region at a rate of 16%, and in the coastal region at a rate of less than 3%.
The Russian Pantsir missile system topped the list of destructed air defenses during the past decade (11 destructed systems), while the Russian long-range “S200/SA-5” systems ranked second in the list, with seven destructed systems.
Why air defense systems?
Diaa Qaddour, an expert on Iranian affairs, told Enab Baladi that striking the Syrian air defense systems was not a deliberate strategy by Israel in the past.
Rather, it has now taken a “retaliatory approach” against each specific air defense system that posed a threat to Israeli warplanes.
This strategy has witnessed progress in the past three years, with air defenses becoming a “fundamental pillar” of the Israeli target bank, for which independent air missions are carried out.
Qaddour attributed this “development” in the “suppression” of the air defenses to pave the way for wider air strikes, as Israel carried out preliminary raids in which the air defenses were hit and then moved on to strike the main targets.
In October 2017, the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies published a report on “Russia’s Air Defenses in Syria: More Politics than Punch,” where it indicated that the agreements regulating the Russian military deployment in Syria provide for the protection of the most advanced Russian air defense systems such as the “S300” and “S400” in the areas where the Russian forces are deployed in the coastal Tartus and Hmeimim bases only. While the “ineffective” Syrian air defense systems cover all regime-held areas, as the Begin-Sadat Center describes.
The Israeli political researcher and writer Yoav Stern told Enab Baladi that Israel attacks the “air defenses in a manner that accompanies all the main targets, and considers it a need to clear the skies for the Israeli planes to carry out their missions without “disturbance” from the (Syrian) air defenses.”
As for the Syrian regime, it prefers to announce the damage to the air defense systems rather than revealing the central targets of the Israeli bombardment, which are related to the Iranian concentration, Stern added.
What is the danger of air defenses?
The Syrian air defense systems are from the old generations, most of which date back to the Soviet era, and lack the necessary capabilities to confront any advanced enemy aircraft, such as the Israeli aircraft or the International Coalition.
The air defenses that existed before the Syrian revolution did not pose any significant danger in the face of the Israeli attack that destroyed the Syrian al-Kibar nuclear reactor on 6 September 2017 in Deir Ezzor or after the revolution in April 2017, when 59 “Cruise-Tomahawk” missiles were launched at the “Shayrat” base in central Syria.
Despite the weak capabilities of the defense system, rare cases of responses were recorded, including the targeting of a Turkish “F4” reconnaissance plane in June 2012 and, years later, the shooting down of an Israeli F-16 fighter in February 2018.
Regarding the capabilities of the air defense system, researcher Qaddour said that the capabilities of the system should not be exaggerated, as the Syrian and Russian media are promoting.
It is also not permissible to “underestimate” it, such as the state of ridicule and derision left by the numerous Israeli air breaches, during the past decade, among the opposition, he added.
The Syrian defense systems are “old and dilapidated,” operating on a semi-automatic system, and are not able to confront sudden and deliberate raids, according to the researcher who covers Middle East affairs.
However, in special cases, it may pose a threat “in theory” to Israeli aircraft, and had it not been for this possibility, Israel would not have targeted the defense systems to this extent, according to Qaddour.
The Israeli analyst, Yoav Stern, agreed with Qaddour regarding the level of danger of the Syrian air defenses and that they are a source of “concern” for the Israeli Air Force, citing the incident of the downing of the Israeli fighter in 2018 and Israel targeting the defense systems when there are operations in the Syrian depth.
Why is Iran not protecting its interests?
The Syrian air defenses have become an Israeli target since the beginning of the Iranian penetration in the smuggling of weapons and the construction of Iranian bases in southern Syria.
The first Israeli attack on air defenses was in January 2013, when Israel bombed SA-17 surface-to-air batteries.
“The regime had obtained it with the aim of transferring it to Hezbollah, according to what was recently revealed by the former Israeli Air Force commander and current Director General of the Ministry of Security, Amir Eshel.
According to Qaddour, Iran is seeking to provide the regime with a more advanced air defense system, such as the “Bavar 373” system, which Iran developed from a Russian system, and transferring it to some sensitive sites to protect its interests in the country. However, the researcher ruled out that the Iranian systems would limit Israeli strikes.
According to Harmoon’s study on Israel’s Syria airstrikes, the air defense systems have come under direct Iranian command, especially the Pantsir missile systems and early warning systems, and this is evidenced by the presence of Iranian militia casualties after Israeli targeting of these systems.
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