ANALYSIS: Assad Signals: ‘My Position Is Improving – I Can Take Risks’

A picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Reuters/Omar Sanadiki/File)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in giving his order to fire missiles at Israeli planes operating in Syria, has chosen to alter the rulers of the game that were in effect until now. From now on, the Syrian president is signaling to Israel, we will act differently than we have until now. We will no longer exercise restraint, and will respond to every attack.

The most major, and perhaps most serious, incident between Israel and Syria since the upheaval there began six years ago, occurred this past Friday morning. There were several “firsts” involved in this event, proving that the status between Israel and Syria and Lebanon is no longer what it used to be, and any change in the rules of the game may lead to places that none of the sides wants to get to.

In theory, it sounds nice. But in reality, it is different. Damascus understands very well that there is a huge gap in the capabilities of the Syrian army and Israel. Those in the Syrian capital also understand that now is really not an ideal time for them to enter a conflict with Israel.

Overall, since the beginning of Russian intervention, Syria has improved its positions, and has made significant progress. It is not interested in rapidly losing all that it has accomplished because of some useless conflict with Israel.

As far as Israel is concerned, there is a significant change here when it comes to reports of Israeli activity within Syria. For the last five years, when the rest of the world publishes reports about aerial strikes that Israel carries out in Syria against local targets, and most importantly, against convoys transporting weapons that can alter the balance of power from the Syrian-Iranian side towards Lebanon, Israel has always ignored them. Here and there, defense sources drop some hints, but never did Israel officially take responsibility for these attacks.

On Friday, for the first time, the IDF announced, “Yes, we attacked in Syria.” There was no information about what exactly was the target. Foreign sources and reporters in Syria and Lebanon reported the attack on a weapons convoy of the Revolutionary Guards that was carrying Scud D weapons with a range of 700 kilometers that were being taken to warehouses in Lebanon. The convoy was hit, reports in Damascus said. There was no information about casualties.

During the actual operation, the Syrians, Hizbullah and all the other elements did not disturb the attacking planes. According to a statement by a Syrian spokesman, the Israeli planes did not enter Syrian territory. They came from Lebanon, and hovered at a certain point, from where they fired their missiles.

Then, after the planes were en route back to their bases, the Syrians suddenly fired two ground-to-air missiles at the retreating Israeli aircraft. The planes were at no point in danger of being struck and no damage was done.

According to various signs, the Syrians used SA 5 missiles, or SS200, as they are sometimes known. These belong to the Russian SS series of missiles, which have lower capabilities than the ones the Russians are using in Syria – SS300 and SS400 – that the Syrians have not received to date.

When Israel’s air defenses noticed the Syrian missiles fired in the general direction of the planes, the order was given to activate the Arrow 2 anti-missile system to intercept them. It was the first operational launch of the system. Initially, the Arrow 2 was not built to combat anti-aircraft missiles. However, two years ago, several changes were made to the system, and since then, they are also effective against anti-aircraft missiles.

Would something significant have happened if Israel would not have fired the arrow missiles? It’s safe to assume that not. The Syrian missiles in any case would not have struck the Israel planes, and would have fallen somewhere in the Jordan Valley or Judean Desert. The radar showed that they were projected to land in open areas, yet nevertheless, the Arrow rockets were fired towards them in what appeared to be more of a test of the system in real time. It indeed proved that the changes that had been implemented have given the Arrow capability to intercept anti-aircraft missiles as well.

With that, Israel’s aerial defense system did not take any risks, and activated the air raid sirens in various towns where there was a chance that the Syrian missiles could land. Thus, sirens were heard in areas throughout the Jordan Valley and north of Yerushalayim.

The interception of the Syrian missiles took place over the Israeli-Syrian-Jordanian border, which caused parts of the Israeli and Syrian rockets to scatter over the whole region, in Jordan and in Israel. The explosions were heard from the Jordan Valley to Yerushalayim, Maaleh Adumim and Modiin.

It should be noted that there is nothing new about Syrian rocket fire towards Israeli planes. Damascus has done this in the past, and on occasion, the missiles have caused damage. Nevertheless, the Syrians continue to report after each such incident that they have downed one or two Israeli planes. In reality, no planes were downed, because the Israeli planes operate at great distances from Syrian territory. From these distances, the aircraft fire “wandering” missiles that coast towards the target and strike them without the launching planes entering the range where they can be harmed.
The question remains: what led Damascus to decide that this time it is retaliating immediately after the Israeli strike on the smuggling convoy to Lebanon? We can imagine that President Assad’s self confidence has risen recently, after he achieved several important victories and after the Russian government has declared over and over again that it is backing the current Syrian leadership.

Did the Russians help Syria activate the missiles or pinpoint the targets based on their radar? There is no answer to this question as yet. In the past, the Russians said they would not help the Syrians or the Israelis, and it is safe to assume that this is the case now as well. If it emerges otherwise – then that will be the big surprise of this incident.

The incident raises the level of tensions on Israel’s northern border, primarily if Damascus will react to every Israeli action from now on. The two sides do not want war. With that, the reality on the northern border is explosive, of that there is no doubt.