By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Israel carried out 200 airstrikes in Syria in a year and a half, according to a senior IDF source, The Jerusalem Post and Ynet reported. The reports on Tuesday reveal a massive increase in the number of airstrikes. According to the reports “In total, some 800 missiles and bombs were launched at targets on Syrian soil, the majority by IAF fighter jets.”
Of particular interest is the fact that in August 2017 a report in August 2017 in which Israel Air Force commander Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel said Israel had carried out at least 100 strikes in the last five years attempting to interdict weapons transfers to Hezbollah via Syria. So that would be 2012-2017, basically covering the period since the Syrian Civil War began. The amount of overlap between the Eshel statement and the 2018 report is unclear. If the 2018 report covers one and a half years than that would be the following dates:
2017: January, February, March, April May, June, July, August, Sept, Oct, Nov, Dec
2018: January, February, March, April May, June,
Now let’s say that the August 2017 report covered a period of June 2012 to June 2017, so there would be overlap of six months maybe.
Ynet notes “According to regional sources, Israel began carrying out military strikes in Syria in 2013 against suspected arms transfers and deployments by Iranian forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies, both Damascus’s partners in Syria’s civil war.” Eshel’s comments were actually more along the lines of: The number of Israeli attacks on such convoys since 2012 is approaching triple digits, said Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, the outgoing commander of the Israel Air Force.
So the increase is clear, because some of the 100 airstrikes referred to by Eshel may be in the second date set revealed in August 2018. Let’s say then that the average number of airstrikes in 2012 and 2013 was quite low, maybe 10 a year. Then in 2014 to 2016 it increased to an average of 20-25 a year. So by January 2017 there would be around 80.
Working with these numbers then by mid year another 20 and by the end of the year a major increase to 40 additional strikes by the end of the year for a 2017 total of around 60? Even with a number like that it’s clear that 2018 indicates a major increase.
Much of this is conducted in the shadows. In just one week between the end of August and the beginning of September in 2018 there were already mysterious incidents at Mezzeh airport on September 1 and then near Masyaf on September 4. Also Iranian-backed militias were also allegedly targeted in an airstrike in eastern Homs on September 2. The Syrian regime only blamed one of those strikes on Israel. The other was an “electrical” problem and the other remains a mystery.
Also the definition of an airstrike is not clear cut. The data says “200 airstrikes” including 800 munitions. Media reports say Israel struck more than 12 targets in February and 50 targets in May 2018 after Iranian-backed forces fired a salvo at the Golan. Those two raids could account for dozens of the strikes, or do they account for just lots of the munitions and actually represent just a handful of “strikes”?
It may be worth making a comparison: The US led coalition since 2014 “has conducted 13,331 strikes in Iraq, and 11,235 strikes in Syria, for a total of 24,566 strikes total in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.” It keeps detailed lists. The Coalition defines a strike thus: “For example, a single aircraft delivering a single weapon against a lone ISIS vehicle is one strike, but so is multiple aircraft delivering dozens of weapons against a group of ISIS-held buildings and weapon systems in a compound, having the cumulative effect of making that facility harder or impossible to use. Strike assessments are based on initial reports and may be refined.” So the Coalition could say 28 strikes and 37 engagements during a day.
The number of airstrikes have increased as the war changed and as violence in Syria actually decreased. In 2015 after Russia intervened the Syrian conflict began to include a series of “de-confliction” areas. Little by little the regime defeated the rebels in Aleppo, then around Damascus and southern Syria. Now it is focused on Idlib. But the reality is that Israel’s admitted strikes have mostly come in 2017 and 2018. This appears to be partly because of increased Iranian activity and also Iranian activity focusing on Israel as Iran changes its priority from fighting the rebels. It is also about sending a message about post-war Syria. Israel wants the US and Russia to encourage Iran to go home. But instead high level Iranian officials have been going to Damascus in August and September.
The last issue may be that the “window of opportunity” is closing for Israel. So long as there is still a conflict in Syria the regime can’t focus on Israel and it can’t claim its airspace is being violated because there is a lack of clarity. While the regime focuses on other priorities, focusing on each airstrike is more difficult. The regime may feel humiliated, but it would be more humiliated in times of peace and called upon to respond.
Israel also appears to have discussed its policy with Russia and the US. There have been many meetings with Moscow and although Russia sometimes has pressured Israel, such as during the large raids in February and May, publicly not much happens after the alleged strikes. Even the Syrian regime pretends they didn’t happen often. At the same time the US has indicated in recent reports that it views Iran as a major threat in Syria. A recent Department of Defense Inspector General report illustrated that the US has been looking closely at Iranian operations in Syria, and that the US took particular interest in the strike in June that hit Iranian-backed militia near Albukamal.
This is the context of the increase in 2017 and 2018.