February 12, 2018
TSC IntelBrief: Israel Strikes in Syria
In the last week, the skies over Syria became even more dangerous. On February 3, al-Qaeda affiliated rebels shot down a Russian Su-25 fighter jet in Idlib province in northern Syria. On February 10, Kurdish fighters from the YPG downed a Turkish helicopter near Afrin, also in northern Syria. Also on February 10, an Israeli F-16 was shot down by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile. All the while, the combined Russian/Syrian air campaign killed hundreds of civilians in eastern Ghouta and in Idlib. The war is escalating—not just between the regime and the rebels but between external actors, with little hope for de-escalation.
The downing of the Israeli F-16 is the first time since 1986 that the country has seen one of its military jets shot down by enemy fire. The February 10 incident, in which the Israeli pilots survived, came as part of a large raid by the Israeli air force into Syria, after an Iranian drone was shot down after it entered Israeli airspace. The raid targeted 12 sites; 8 Syrian, and 4 Iranian, including the T4 base near Palmyra from which the drone was launched. It was the largest raid by Israel since the start of the Syrian civil war.
Up to now, Israel has conducted dozens of small raids on Hizbollah targets as part of its goal to not let the war dramatically improve Hizbollah’s military capabilities, a tall task given the now expansive Iranian military personnel and capabilities in Syria. The February 10 raid suggests that Israel might become more active as the regime and its Iranian/Russian backers slowly grind down the rebel opposition. Israel will certainly act to disrupt a semi-permanent Iranian military presence in southern Syria, along with the related but separate threat of Hizbollah. The presence of Russian military personnel and equipment near or among Syrian and Iranian units is another complication that Israel must account for in its risk versus gain analysis, as the U.S. has done repeatedly in the last year. As noted in previous IntelBriefs, Hizbollah has warned of a new area of conflict with Israel; the statement by Hizbollah that the downing of the Israeli F-16 was the ‘start of a new strategic phase’ regarding Syria and Israel suggest that it is well underway.
Syria is being pulled apart, not just internally but externally. In the north, Turkey is now deeply involved in an intervention aimed at dismantling the armed Kurdish presence there along the border. On February 10, Turkey announced the deaths of nine Turkish soldiers, and the wounding of 11 more, near the town of Afrin, in fighting with Syrian Kurdish fighters belonging to the People's Protection Units (YPG). Also on February 10, Turkey acknowledged the downing of one of its military helicopters near Afrin and the death of two soldiers aboard it. The YPG claimed credit for shooting down the helicopter, which is the first loss of a Turkish military aircraft since the war began. The fighting in Afrin has also increased the already heightened tensions between Turkey and the U.S, which has supported the Kurdish groups now being attacked by fellow NATO member Turkey.
All the while, the killing of civilians continues at an increased pace. Air strikes by the regime killed more than 200 civilians in the besieged suburb of eastern Ghouta, while Russian air strikes killed dozens more in Idlib province. The specter of the world’s worst civil war in decades is becoming demonstrably worse by the week—and even more complicated by the actions of outside forces—creating a perfect storm of chaos and suffering in Syria.
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