Lost a Jet, but Proved it Would Win the War
By Amos Yadlin
and Ari Heistein
was no surprise when two strategic vectors clashed this weekend on Israel’s
northern front: The Iranian determination to build an advanced military force in
Syria collided with Israeli determination to prevent that from happening.
a broader strategic level a conflict of this sort was expected, though the
timing and tactics were set by the Iranians in the latest round. The context of
this particular incident was the Iranian led-axis’ rising self-confidence in
light of its success in the Syrian civil war, and this led Teheran to field test
a new UAV (based on reverse engineering a U.S. model) as well as Israeli air
defense by sending the drone into Israeli skies.
battle on Saturday had four different stages. First, the Iranian unmanned aerial
vehicle (UAV) penetrated Israeli airspace and then it was detected and destroyed
by Israel forces. Second, Israel attacked the caravan from which the UAV was
piloted at the T-4 airbase deep in Syrian territory. Third, the Israeli F-16 was
downed over Israeli territory by an outdated Syrian SA-5 missile. And finally,
Israel launched an extensive strike that focused on Syrian air defenses and
Iranian forces in Syria.
unprecedented events took place in a single day of fighting: It was the first
time an Iranian UAV penetrated Israeli airspace under direct Iranian control; it
was also the first time that Israel launched a direct strike on Iranian forces
in Syria; and it was the first time that an Israeli fighter jet was brought down
by an SA-5 over Israeli territory. As to the last point, this was truly an
exceptional incident as prior to it not a single Israeli plane had been brought
down by enemy fire since 1982, and the Israeli strike last Saturday also
constituted the largest Israeli attack on anti-aircraft batteries since the
operation to destroy SAM sites in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon in 1982.
Hezbollah’s celebrations and the handing out of sweets on the streets of
Damascus on account of the downing of the F-16 indicate either lack of
understanding of the events or a successful disinformation campaign by the
regime. Even Israeli news commentators were shaken by the events, and they went
so far as to declare that the day signified that “Israel’s air superiority
had been cracked.”
fact, what happened on Saturday indicates exactly the opposite. Israel
demonstrated excellent capabilities in defending its airspace by intercepting
and downing the advanced UAV – its design based on a U.S. model that fell into
Iranian hands several years ago – and it established its ability to leave
Damascus exposed after destroying major components of the Assad regime’s air
defense system. By launching precision strikes on Iranian targets in Syria,
Israel also proved its superior intelligence and operational capabilities.
the most important message Israel sent that day was the one directed to Moscow
and Tehran about their “project to save the Syrian regime” from collapse. Through
its actions, Israel indicated that provocative Iranian steps infringing on
Israeli red lines and threatening its national security place the Assad regime
the attacks made it clear that taking on Israel will not be like the long and
grinding war the regime is fighting against the amateurish Syrian opposition
because the Israeli Air Force can strike the Syrian regime and its military
forces overnight in ways that can shake their very foundations.
appears that this message was understood rather quickly by decision-makers in
Iran, Russia, and Syria and that led to subsequent efforts to contain the
incident’s repercussions through diplomatic and media channels.
the pro-Assad coalition sought to defuse tensions is no surprise as each of its
members has compelling reasons to avoid a wider war. First, as seen in last
month’s protests, the Iranian regime is facing growing discontent among its
citizenry due to the poor state of the economy as well as its campaigns abroad,
so this is hardly an opportune time to intensify the fighting in Syria.
Russia sees its costs in Syria mounting and a political settlement remains
elusive, so it has no interest in provoking Israel and further complicating its
Hezbollah has already suffered thousands of casualties in Syria which has eroded
both the quality and morale of its fighting force as well diminished its support
in its traditional strongholds in Lebanon.
any conflict with Israel on Syrian soil could easily spread to Lebanon, and
another devastating war with Israel could hurt Hezbollah’s popularity at
critical moment as it prepares for the upcoming Lebanese parliamentary
President Bashar Assad seeks to consolidate the battlefield gains he has accrued
over the past 30 months and plans to embark on the costly reconstruction
process. He has no reason to jeopardize that in a war against Israel in which he
has much to lose and little to gain.
now that this round of hostilities have ceased, the two sides will now debrief
and seek to learn from their experience on Saturday.
the short-term, the Israeli focus should be on studying the downing of the F-16.
True, bringing down one advanced plane does not change the strategic balance and
in every war uncertainty, surprises and costly mistakes are a fact of life.
Nevertheless, it is critical for Israel to understand how such an advanced plane
could be brought down by such an outdated missile.
the medium term, Israel must plan for Iranian and Syrian actions beyond what we
have seen thus far, in particular long-range missile strikes. Israel should
prepare a possible response to such steps that includes actions that more
directly threaten the stability of the Assad regime, which would serve to
demonstrate that any escalation by Iran or its partners will cost the pro-Assad
axis dearly. In addition, Israel should seek to work together politically and
diplomatically with those states that believe that Assad’s regime has no place
in Syria’s future: the U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
the long-term, Israel must keep in mind that even if the incident was contained
this time and did not escalate to full-scale war, the clash of strategic vectors
has not been resolved. In fact, it can be expected to resurface and intensify
when a threat more significant than an Iranian UAV materializes – the
production facility for advanced missiles that Iran is building for Hezbollah in