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Piecing Together What's Just Happened between Israel and Syria

Something must be going down - the entire Israeli political and military leadership has managed to maintain over 24 hours of disciplined media silence. 

Here's what we think we know so far: there was an Israeli air presence in Syria during the early hours of Thursday morning that was engaged (unsuccessfully) by Syrian anti-aircraft fire.  Approximately twelve hours later, official Syrian sources announced that Syrian airspace had been violated, and that Syria was considering the nature of its response. 

Syrian ministers described the incident as an Israeli provocation that was indicative of Israel's disinterest in pursuing a peace option.  For good measure, they added that Syria would respond at a time and in a manner of its choosing.  Today, the Arab League issued its own condemnation of this "unacceptable maneuver," Egyptian and other Arab sources echoed this sentiment.  Even Turkey  felt compelled to clarify that Israel had not used its airspace in conducting this mission.  The US has not officially commented.  And in Israel - zip, on record at least.  The media is rife with speculation, and the military censor is working overtime and can anticipate a very restless Sabbath.  The Syria story dominates the news in Israel, and there are increasingly heavy hints by journalists and analysts that this was not a routine event. 

On Thursday, the very public Israeli official effort to broadcast business as usual seemed to have an intentional air of the unreal about it: the IDF top brass convened its annual Jewish New Year toast at military headquarters, all smiles and calm, in the full gaze of the TV cameras; while Ehud Olmert spoke to a large gathering of the Kadima Party faithful.  Olmert's appearance was timed to coincide (as these events often are) with the primetime evening news, but the only headline was what the Prime Minister did not say, namely, anything about Syria.  Most of the effort in the intervening period of time has been invested in attempts to de-escalate the sense of uncertainty.  The Jewish holidays, and the tourism they bring, are around the corner.  The situation with Syria was supposed to be calm after troop exercises were moved from the Golan to the South just last week, and attention was due to be focused on convening a peace summit in November.  Overnight, talk again turned to war speculation, intentional or miscalculated.  Ma'ariv's headline today screamed, "On the Verge of an Explosion," with their lead commentator, Ben Caspit, noting that "too many people from within the defense establishment are involved in personal bets about whether there will be a war with Syria.  Almost all of them are betting that there will be."  Never to miss an opportunity, neocon cheerleader, Dore Gold, had his  Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs put out a three-pager on Syria detailing just how evil the evil Syrian evilness is.

The incident itself remains shrouded in mystery, and the media's lips have been sealed.  As Israel Channel 2's military correspondent said this evening, when asked by the anchor what information can he could share with us, the answer was "very little."  While making sure to tell a story that implied there was lots to know.  

So what might actually have happened? 

Here are four scenarios.

(1) This was a pretty regular Israeli reconnaissance mission that entered Syrian airspace, and there's nothing dramatically new in that.  Under this scenario, it is actually the Syrians who decided to make an issue of this by opening fire and then going public with the story.  Most of all, what Syria cannot bear is to be ignored.  Given the recent de-escalation with Israel, and the likely exclusion of Syria from November's peace summit, Damascus was sending a signal - "Factor us in."  The Syrians may also have wanted to show off their newly acquired military hardware.

(2) That Israel wanted to create a minor and manageable provocation, specifically, to test both Syria's new toys and the overall nature of Syria's response.  There has been huge speculation in Israel, throughout the summer, regarding Syrian rearmament and possible military intentions.  This might have been a way of dipping one's toe in the water of Syrian potential bellicosity.  The Israeli website, DEBKA (part sensationalist, part propagandist, part psych-ops plaything) has suggested today that Israel was checking the threat posed by the new Russian-supplied Pantsyr Missile Systems that both Syria and Iran have taken possession of:

Western intelligence circles maintain that it is vital for the US and Israel to establish the location and gauge the effectiveness of Pantsyr-S1E air defenses in Syrian and Iranian hands, as well as discovering how many each received... Western intelligence circles stress that information on Russian missile consignments to Syria or Iran is vital to any US calculation of whether to attack Iran over its nuclear program... Syria took delivery in mid-August of 10 batteries... the Pantsyr-S1E had failed in its mission to bring down trespassing aircraft.

This would neatly dovetail the renewed push in the American media this week for confrontation with Iran - that included a Washington Post editorial discrediting IAEA chief elBaradei, a new ADL stop Iran campaign and general neocon push.  I am not suggesting that the American Enterprise Institute has a hotline to the Israeli Air Force Chief.

But Neither scenario (1) nor (2) really help explain the pattern of commentary that is coming out of Israel at least.  Ofer Shelah, one of Israel's smartest analysts, writing in Ma'ariv had this to say,

What we have here is something far deeper and something that touches on the fundamental position of both sides... It is clear that both sides see it in this light... neither Barak nor Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would approve an operation that could be intercepted by the Syrians, unless it was for a goal that they deemed to be very important... It is a story that stretches back a long way, over many consultations, decisions that are made and then reexamined all the time.  All of the decision-making and intelligence services have been party to it. 

Yediot Ahranot military and intelligence analyst, Alex Fishman, talked of the unlikelihood of an operation that would be

high risk just for the sake of some tactical step, to improve our situation tomorrow morning.  This kind of action is only justified for an important goal, i.e., one that will be beneficial even in many more years. 

Of course this might all be hype and Israeli media hysteria and military cover-up, but, if this incident is of a different order of magnitude, how about scenario's (3) and (4).

(3) This was an irregular and highly unusual Israeli reconnaissance mission that had a degree of urgency, and was based on new intelligence.  Given Syria's missile air-defense capabilities Israeli planes don't just wonder into Syrian airspace on a whim, this is not Lebanon. There is often speculation that Syria is not only arming itself with advanced Russian weaponry, but that it is also pursuing a non-conventional weapons program.  Today, Josh Landis has a fascinating post on his well-respected Syria Comment blog entitled "Is Israel Looking for Korean Weapons in Syria?".  Landis reminds us that less than a week ago, John Bolton was  writing in the Wall Street Journal against the current diplomatic efforts with North Korea, and raised the claim that Syria may be providing "safe havens for North Korea's nuclear weapons development, or may have already participated with or benefited from it."

Other sources suggest that the US has new intelligence linking Syria with North Korea and that this information is known to Israel.  Such intelligence might also explain the degree of Israeli hysteria throughout the summer regarding the likelihood of a military clash with Syria, precisely because action against Syria was being planned.  Again, I am not suggesting that John Bolton is on Instant Messenger with IAF flight command.

(4) There is an additional scenario, this one more in line with the tone of the Israeli commentary, and even more far-reaching.  It is hinted at by several key Israeli commentators, all remember operating under the watchful eye of the IDF military  censor.  Alex Fishman, again, in Yediot, "Why did they fly there?  It is unlikely that someone suddenly decided that he felt like photographing northern Syria... at night."  Amos Harel in Haaretz is even more explicit: "Damascus is not saying what the IDF plane allegedly attacked."  Other TV commentators have hinted at Israeli satisfaction with the results of the mission.  The suggestion seems to be that  an actual military operation has been conducted in Syrian territory, perhaps against a possible or suspected or claimed non-conventional weapons production facility.

According to scenarios (3) and (4), Syria would be downplaying the story in order to cover for its own embarrassment regarding a suspected weapons program, and perhaps also at having taken a military hit without being able to effectively respond.  This might also explain the Syrian comment that it would respond at a time and in a manner of its choosing.  According to Ehud Ya'ari on Israel Channel 2, Israel also passed messages to the Syrians that there could be no small wars, or grabs Hezbollah-style, and that any, even partial, Syrian attack would be repelled with the IDF's full force.

Maybe none of these scenarios is correct, and many questions certainly remain unanswered.  A key one would be, "Why now?"  Perhaps there was a perception that, given where the political cycle is in Lebanon, Hezbollah's room for maneuver is now at its most limited, that Hamas is already pinned down in Gaza and does not want to encourage an Israeli invasion, and that the intensity of the  international diplomatic spotlight on the region would help prevent an escalation towards war.  Israel has carried out missions over Syria before without events spiraling towards conflict.  In 2003 Israel bombed a PFLP GC base in Syria, and in 2006 IAF warplanes buzzed the holiday residence of President Bashar Assad, sending a unequivocal message that he should reign in Hezbollah.

The Israeli military might simply be spinning in order to cover up for an unplanned incident that many in Israel would believe is reckless and irresponsible in the current climate.  In fact, those who write as if they are in the know suggest that the proof of any intelligence better be damn good.  Fishman, in Yediot Ahranot, says that "we can only hope that we can rely on the people who decided on it (the mission)."  He goes as far as to suspect that the Israeli leadership might try to conceal "uncalculated risks and adventurism."  In Ma'ariv, Ben Caspit pointedly comments that "we have changed roles with the Syrians.  Israel is the side looking for trouble and Syria is holding itself back." 

And Amos Harel's warning in Haaretz:

It is to be hoped that the story will end without war. But it is important to remember that Israeli intelligence does not always understand the behavior of the Syrian leader. Assad is not an Israeli and does not think like one. His reactions could be very different than what Israel expects or sees as reasonable.

And there are two other ways of explaining all this - one rather possible, and the other a bit of mischief on my part: the first is that it was all simply a mistake, and both sides are now, perhaps in a co-ordinated fashion, trying to calm things while saving face. An Israeli pilot took a wrong turn over the Med, and, whoops .... an incident needs to be covered up and explained in terms of the highest national interests. Back-channels, diplomats who used to know each other, third parties, friendly businessman get busy working the phones, you agree to say 'x', we'll say 'y' and this can all be forgotten.

Or was this an exercise whereby both Israeli's and Syrians were creating a mini-crisis so that the US would find itself engaged on the Israel-Syria track and stop blocking it? Provoke Washington into changing course. Of course, I think this is an unreal scenario, but it highlights a very real problem. The leadership in both Damascus and Jerusalem seems to believe there is a value in engaging on this track, but the US is stubbornly opposed, or at least determined to stay out, and this has become a crucial obstacle. If the US is not at this particular table, there is no table. And that approach only increases the likelihood of a planned or mistaken escalation, it makes movement on the Lebanese and the Iraqi front more difficult, and also will likely undermine the supposed peace effort that the US is now itself promoting.

TCF has just released two reports on US-Israel-Syria relations, by a leading American expert (David Lesch) and Israel's foremost authority on the subject (Moshe Ma'oz) - both advocate serious diplomatic re-engagement, and those in-depth reports can be downloaded here

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Comments (16)

Mr G.:

Per Gray's comments: I totally agree that the jettisons might have been dropped as part of a dodging maneuver, probably after an anti-aircraft missiles were launched at the jets. I simply didn't consider it a big deal, in terms of the F15's ability to do their mission.

As far as the purpose of the sortie is concerned, I agree that CNN's theory doesn't hold water, for the reasons you mentioned. On the other hand, as the leaks from both Israeli and US sources pile up, there's little to no doubt in my mind that the mission was offensive in its nature, rather than only for "lighting up" the new Russian air defense systems. My gut feel, based on the pieces one can gather from the press, is that the Syrians were building some sort of a non-conventional facility in this area, based on NK know how, and the Israelis simply wiped it out.

even without hard facts to support my theory, one should consider the following:

A - Getting very deep into Syrian airspace (over 100 miles off the mediterranean coast) just for lighting up air defense systems looks like an unnecessary risk for the pilots: Unmanned aircrafts can do an equally good job, and Israel is by no means short of those. Also - the public opinion in Israel would never endorse running this huge risk only for recon purposes (remember the Ron Arad tragedy), and although military decisions should be taken in total isolation from the public eye, I tend to believe that this is true only in theory.

B - I believe that the Israeli government, being very fragile in light of the ambiguous results of the recent confrontation with Hizbullah, wouldn't run the risk of Syrian retaliation (which could easily deteriorate to an all out war), hadn't they had a very good reason to do so. Having nuclear capabilities in Syrian hands is certainly something worth of running this risk.

Gray:

This just in at Haaretz:
"U.S. warned N. Korea not to help Syria with nukes"
http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/903398.html

Actually, the conflicting reports confuse the matter even more. However, it sure will interest Mr. G that "a former Israeli official had said he had heard the attack had been carried out against a facilitiy capable of producing unconventional weapons." Well, I'm sceptical. After all, NK is still struggling to get a real nuke capability. Why should they slow down their plans by giving critically important equipment to the Syrians?

Gray:

One last point:
"The strike targeted a shipment of Iranian weapons which was either entering Syria or being transferred through it to Hezbollah in Lebanon, CNN said."
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6989961.stm

Imho this is utter nonsense. Check the map! How should those weapons from Iran have come there? By air, through US controlled Iraqi airspace? D'oh! By ship and truck? Then why didn't the IDF attack the port? Only other explanation would be through Turkey, but nothing indicates this NATO partner suddenly has become big friends with Teheran.

No, imho most likely this was about trying the new Syrian missile capability. The jets came from the sea and stayed close to the border while testing the air defense. Or maybe from the Iraq side, although this would have meant violating Jordan's airspace, too (not that I think the Jordanians would have risked to make a stink about that). But then the missiles came too close, the jets had to abort mission and came across the border while evading. This is the best explanation, fitting the different reports.

Gray:

Hmm, maybe I have been a bit unprecise. To say it more clearly: I don't believe the jets had any bombs on board, just additional fuel tanks. Most likely, they were really testing the syrian air defense (wouldn't be a good idea to carry bombs on missions where maneuverability is critical), and when the missiles came up they had to drop the tanks in order to evade. The Syrians never talked specifically about any bombs or missiles. I guess it will eventually emerge that "ammunition" is just a translation error, and tit really was "ordnance", more precisely, the external fuel tanks. Some of them landed on the Syrian and some on the Turkish side of the border, that's all.

Gray:

"The pieces dropped off the jet fighters were not bomb ordance but rather jettisons (=external fuel tanks, used to extend the airplane's effective flight range) - the dropped jettisons can be easily seen in the photos released by the Turkish press the other day."

Thx for confirming this!

"Dropping those is a standard practice during a bombing raid, to avoid overweight and improve maneuverability."

Overweight is only a problem at the start. What you mean is probably the inertia from the mass of the ordnance. This affects maneuverability, which is the real issue. Afaik external ordnance will always be dropped when high g maneuvers are required. Not necessarily in a bombing raid, as long as there is no thread. I stand by my conclusion that the jets had to evade something, most possibly missiles, and thus had to drop their tanks. Also notice, if this would have happend in a planned way, the pilots would have avoided violating turkish airspace because of the inevitable diplomatic problems.

"Doesn't indicate any real constraint of the F15's capabilities."

Sry, but the inertia of the ordnance actually limits the performance of jets. That's basic physics. Curves will have to be wider, and thus the g-rating lower. Also, there's a considerable strain on the wings. That's why ordnance will be dropped in an emergency situation.

As for your ideas about a NK/Syrian connection: Sry, I ain't got no crystal ball. Imho there are no hard facts to base any such theories on.

Mr. G:

The pieces dropped off the jet fighters were not bomb ordance but rather jettisons (=external fuel tanks, used to extend the airplane's effective flight range) - the dropped jettisons can be easily seen in the photos released by the Turkish press the other day. Dropping those is a standard practice during a bombing raid, to avoid overweight and improve maneuverability. Doesn't indicate any real constraint of the F15's capabilities.

One has to ask oneself how come the North Koreans all of a sudden bother to condemn Israel's actions on Syrian soil (something I can't remember them having done in the past). I believe it is not a coincidence and as the story unfolds, we are likely to learn that the airstrike was targeting North Korean weaponary on its way from Iran to Hizbolla (or simply to Syrian hands), a type of stuff with which Israel could not live (e.g. non-conventional or other mass distruction substance) and therefore was willing to run a risk of igniting a serious round of hostilities with Syria. This is pretty much consistent with option #4 in this blog post.

This theory might also explain the Syrians reluctance to reveal details about the attack: doing so would have been a confirmation of their questionable relationship with N. Korea - something they deny time and again.

Gray:

Sry, it's a bit late, but I can't resist:
I told you so!
"Mr Jaafari said the planes had come under Syrian anti-aircraft fire.

"They were fleeing and in order to speed up the planes they dropped the munitions," he said, quoted by the Associated Press news agency."
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6989961.stm

P.S. to John Smith: Weren't there rumours that Elvis is still alive? Less rumours, more facts, pls! :P

FDA:

Another possible scenario: How possible would it be that Israel was testing a good pathway to Iran just in case all the political and economical attempts to stops Iran nuclear program fails? After all, this will be the path of choice, preventing flying over Jordan and Turkey (which maintain relations with Israel and Iran)and Irak (which will require American permit).

weren't there rumors that Syria is storing/hiding Saddam's ABC WMD?

ABC = Atomic Biological Chemical
WMD = Weapons of Mass Destruction

Gray:

Well, you forget (or omit?) that there have been news about exterior fuel tanks from Israeli jets that have been found on turkish soil. So, the F15s (if at least this info is right) were forced to make high g maneuvers, and this supports your suspicion that Syria was indeed using its new missiles. But this also leads to the conclusion that, in a combat mission, those jets would have to drop their bomb ordnance to avoid destruction. So, even though the revamped syrian air defense might be unable to shoot down fighters, at least it seems to be effective in prohibiting bombing raids. Not exactly a development that the IDF will be interested in making public. This might explain the silence on the Israeli side.

HereComesTrouble:

Hmm, how about another possiblity. Both Syria and Iran have these new missiles? Then what better way for a test of effectivness without tipping ones hand then to have Israel test/report on them in Syria, and pass that info along to the good 'ole US of A.

SLC:

There is nothing very complicated about this incident. It is totally obvious that the IDF was testing their radar jamming devices on the new anti-aircraft batteries the Syrian Armed Forces have recently obtained from Russia. There effectiveness would be important information to know in case of the outbreak of war between Israel and Syria.

Druthers:

The blackout in the popular right-wing media is no surprise.
As usual your site keeps a candle in the window.

Hezy:

Daniel, you said that "Syria would be downplaying the story in order to cover for its own embarrassment ". If this is the case, why should Syria bring the story to the public? They could just as well ignore it.


I've been following this rather closely and thank you for the analysis.

However, there is another possibility that you didn't mention. I forget where I read it, but I'm pretty sure it was one of the Israeli papers - YNet? Ha'aretz? - but there was some speculation that it may have been an accident.

Specifically they suggested that there might have been a technical or navigation problem that resulted in the planes accidently going off course into Syrian airspace. This would explain why the Israeli gov't is so quiet about the incident as they wouldn't want to openly discuss and highlight such a problem or mistake. Israel has never been shy about its other raids over Syrian territory.

One thing I also thought was interesting was that the US-backed (and thus ostensibly aligned with other US-backed allies, like Israel) Fouad Siniora felt the need to publicly condemn the Israeli raid. This might suggest that he is realigning - or at least softening - his stance regarding Syria and its proxies in Lebanon.

John S.

the only thrue covering was publushed in "the marker blogs"(part of "haaretz" group).here is the link:
http://cafe.themarker.com/view.php?t=135935

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on September 7, 2007 4:13 PM.

The previous post in this blog was How About a Progress Report on Outposts, Checkpoints and the Separation Barrier.

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