It was without a doubt the most serious incident between Israel and Syria since the outbreak of the disastrous civil war which marked a bloody six year anniversary this past week.
Israeli jets, which had carried out airstrikes against several targets in Syria, were targeted by three anti-aircraft missiles which were shot down by Israel’s Arrow advanced missile defense system in the first usage of the system in a combat situation.
According to Arab media, the jets had targeted a delivery of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, and the Syrian army claimed to have hit one jet and shot down another with their missiles, likely the Soviet-era SA-5s, a claim denied by the Israel Air Force.
The Arrow 3
While there are few doubts about the IAF’s ability to prevail in such circumstances, it is curious as to why the decision was made to use the advanced Arrow interceptor.
The Arrow system has been in use by Israel since the 1990s, and in January the Israel Air Force officially took delivery of the first Arrow-3 interceptor, the most advanced Arrow system.
It is a highly maneuverable system designed to provide ultimate air defense by intercepting ballistic missiles when they are still outside the Earth’s atmosphere and the Arrow-3 is considered one of the world’s best interceptors due to its breakthrough technological capabilities.
Produced by IAI, the Arrow 3 forms the uppermost layer of Israel’s multilayered defense system along with the Arrow 2, David’s Sling and Iron Dome system.
Syria’s air defenses are largely Russian, with SA-2s, SA-5s, and SA-6s as well as the more sophisticated tactical surface-to-air missiles such as the SA-17s and SA-22 systems. And while the majority of them have been neglected during the war, it is not the first time that they have been used against Israeli jets.
In September 2016, Israeli jets who had carried out retaliatory strikes in Syria were targeted with surface-to-air missiles as they were on their way back to base. That time, too, no Israeli aircraft were endangered, despite Syria claiming to have shot down one of the jets. While it is a similar case to Friday morning’s case, Israel did not use any missile-defense countermeasures during that incident.
Up to a month after that incident, Israel enjoyed air superiority in the Middle East, despite the Russian intervention in Syria. In October, Russia deployed the mobile S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft batteries capable of engaging multiple aircraft and ballistic missiles up to 380 kilometers away – virtually all of Syria, as well as significant parts of Israel and other neighboring countries such as Turkey and Jordan.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin have met several times since then, including just last week, and the two have implemented a system over Syria to coordinate their actions in order to avoid accidental clashes.
Netanyahu is said to have reiterated to Putin Israel’s “clear and understandable” red lines obliging Israel to act to prevent “game-changing weaponry” from getting into the hands of Hezbollah, as well as Jerusalem’s “resolute opposition to the consolidation of Iran and its proxies in Syria.”
Israel is believed to have carried out numerous attacks targeting Hezbollah militants, weapons convoys and infrastructure in Syria since January 2013, preventing what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says would be “game-changing weaponry” falling into the hands of the militant group.
Israel has also reportedly carried out airstrikes inside Syria against senior Iranian and Hezbollah commanders such as against Jihad Munigyeh, the son of the late Hezbollah military chief Imad Munigyeh, near the city of Quneitra in January 2015, and prominent Hezbollah leader Samir Quntar in December 2015.
Following another reported Israeli airstrike in January against a target in Damascus’s Mezze airbase, the Syrian army command warned Israel against further strikes, saying that the “Syrian army command and armed forces warn Israel of the repercussions of the flagrant attack, and stresses its continued fight against [this] terrorism and [aim to] amputate the arms of the perpetrators.”
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