It was beyond a doubt the most serious incident between Israel and Syria since the outbreak of the latter’s disastrous civil war, which marked a bloody sixth anniversary last week.
Israeli jets, which had carried out air strikes against several targets in Syria, were targeted by anti-aircraft missiles, one of which was shot down by Israel’s advanced Arrow missile-defense system in its first use in a combat situation.
According to Arab media, the jets had targeted a convoy of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, and the Syrian Army claimed to have hit one jet and shot down another with their Soviet-era SA-5s, a claim denied by the Israel Air Force.
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 2000, and in January the air force 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. The Arrow-3 is considered one of the world’s best interceptors due to its breakthrough technology.
Produced by IAI, the Arrow- 3 forms the uppermost layer of Israel’s multi-layered 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 that had carried out retaliatory strikes in Syria were targeted with surfaceto- 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 this resembled Friday morning’s incident, Israel did not use any missile-defense countermeasures during that encounter.
For about a month after the incident, Israel enjoyed air superiority in the Middle East, despite the Russian intervention in Syria.
However, in October Russia deployed the mobile S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft batteries, which are capable of engaging multiple aircraft and ballistic missiles up to 380 kilometers away – covering 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” redlines, which oblige Israel to act to prevent weapons 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 terrorists, weapons convoys and infrastructure in Syria since January 2013, preventing what Netanyahu says would be “game-changing weaponry” falling into the hands of the terrorist group.
Israel has also reportedly carried out air strikes inside Syria against senior Iranian and Hezbollah commanders, such as Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of the late Hezbollah military chief Imad Mughniyeh, near the city of Quneitra in January 2015, and prominent Hezbollah leader Samir Quntar in December 2015.
Following another reported Israeli air strike in January against a target at Damascus’s Mezze airbase, the Syrian Army command warned Israel against further strikes, stressing its “continued fight against [Israeli] terrorism and [aim to] amputate the arms of the perpetrators.”
While Syria usually refrains from commenting on alleged Israeli strikes and threatening against further strikes, the recent successes by the Syrian Army, backed by Russia and supporting militias, maybe have upped the confidence of the regime.
But despite the recent battlefield win and Russian air defenses, Israel chose to fire a costly ballistic missile to shoot down an antiquated surface-to-air missile. Perhaps Israel might be sending a warning to its northern neighbors: If Hezbollah continues to receive weapons supplies, Jerusalem is ready to use everything in its arsenal to protect its citizens.