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Jan 30, 2013 | 17:43 GMT

Israel: An Airstrike at the Syria-Lebanon Border

Israel: An Airstrike at the Syria-Lebanon Border
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Israel's strategic environment has changed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising. Instability now exists on all its borders, and Israel has behaved accordingly. On Jan. 30, the Israeli air force bombed a Lebanon-bound convoy from Syria. Two days earlier, Israel Defense Forces deployed two Iron Dome batteries to the northern part of the country. Recent diplomatic activity likewise suggests that Israel now feels threatened on its northern border.

Historically, Israel has undertaken pre-emptive military action when it has felt threatened. Famous examples include strikes on nuclear facilities in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. More recently in October 2012, Israel allegedly bombed a Sudanese arms factory believed to be supplying weapons to militants in Gaza. Israel's target in the airstrike remains unconfirmed — unnamed security officials claim the convoy carried Russian SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles — but the incident nonetheless shows that Syria's situation has deteriorated enough to merit military action. 

Reuters initially reported the airstrike, which was later confirmed by a Stratfor source. Four Israeli aircraft entered Lebanese airspace around 4:30 p.m. the evening of Jan. 29, but were relieved four hours later by other aircraft. Then at 2 a.m. the next day, these aircraft were replaced by yet another group, which remained in Lebanese airspace until about 8 a.m.

The duration of the operation is significant. The Israelis clearly anticipated a target to appear in a specific window of time; bombing a fixed target would not necessitate a prolonged mission. The revelations of SA-17s notwithstanding, the target of the attack remains unconfirmed. Leaks from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office indicate that the government has been anxiously monitoring potential chemical weapons traffic into Lebanon, a haven for Hezbollah militants. Israel's anxiety may be justified: On Jan. 28, Ynet reported that Hezbollah had established several bases in Syria near suspected Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles.

Visit our Syria page for related analysis, videos, situation reports and maps.

In addition to chemical weapons, Israel also fears the transfer of advanced conventional weapons, ranging from advanced anti-tank guided missiles and man-portable air defense systems to various types of artillery systems and larger vehicle-mounted surface-to-air missile systems. Such systems could jeopardize the Israeli air force's ability to conduct operations in the region, according to an air force spokesperson. If the reports were true that the convoy carried SA-17s, the airstrike would validate some of Israel's concerns

Managing Multiple Threats

Israel: An Airstrike at the Syria-Lebanon Border

Israel's Airstrike ok Syria, Lebanon Border

The reported strike is only the latest measure Israel has taken in recent days to secure its northern border. On Jan. 27, Israel deployed two Iron Dome batteries to the North — one in the Krayot area outside Haifa, and one in Galilee. The Iron Domes will reinforce batteries already stationed in Haifa. But more important, the new batteries could have been deployed in anticipation of retaliatory strikes for today's operation.

Meanwhile on the diplomatic front, Israeli National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror has been in Moscow since Jan. 28 to discuss the Syrian chemical weapons issue. Specifically, he has spoken with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, about the weapons falling into the hands of Hezbollah. Notably, the strike shows Russia that Israel will not stand idly by if it feels threatened by continued instability in Syria.
 
Taken together, the strike and the diplomatic activity reflect Israel's insecurity with regard to its northern border. But the strike also comes in the context of uncertainty elsewhere. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has called into question the future of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, which has shaped regional geopolitics since 1978. The situation in Jordan is no more encouraging. Economic woes have led to political problems for the ruling Hashemites, who find themselves dependent on economic support from Saudi Arabia and from Persian Gulf countries. Moreover, the Syrian crisis has prompted more than 21,000 refugees to enter Jordan over the past week alone. Jordan reportedly has since bolstered its military presence along its border with Syria.
 
Instability on every border has created a new strategic environment in Israel. And on Jan. 30, Israel clearly felt compelled to preserve its northern border proactively. Israel is continuing to develop its missile defense systems, such as Iron Dome and David's Sling. On its southern border, Israel has reorganized its military deployments, creating a new brigade under the 80th Division to increase security in Eilat and on the border with the Sinai. It has also built new fences and enacted security measures on the border. And in the north, Israel has now seen sufficient provocation to attack a target close to the Syria-Lebanon border. But unfortunately for Israel, such actions can actually make its border more dangerous.
 
The ultimate objective of the strike remains unknown. It could have been meant to take out an actual convoy of surface-to-air missile systems that challenge Israeli air superiority. Just as plausible is that it was meant as a warning to discourage Hezbollah from transferring weapons into Lebanon as the Syria crisis continues to degrade. Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: The new Israeli government faces the daunting challenge of managing multiple external threats on its borders.
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