Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Israel Destroys Weapons Depot In Syria, Deploys Air Defenses Against Missiles From Syria

Israel fires at Syrian missile after bombing of arms depots near Damascus

Israel’s air defense system - likely the Arrow - was activated late Tuesday night against a Syrian anti-aircraft missile, following an alleged Israeli air strike over the capital of Damascus. Media reports claimed that Israel struck weapon warehouses near the Syrian capital. 

There were no damages or injuries to Israeli troops, the IDF Spokesperson said in a statement.

According to unconfirmed Israeli reports, the launch was carried out from the northern city of Hadera, with pictures published on social media of a large tail of smoke heading into the sky and residents in the Hefer Valley Regional Council also reported hearing the sound of loud explosion.

It is still unclear whether any Syrian missiles were intercepted from the IDF's reported perspective.

Syrian state media reported Tuesday night that regime air defenses intercepted “hostile targets” west of Damascus during an alleged Israeli air strike, which according to local reports involved 22 missiles targeting sites including weapons depots belonging to pro-Iranian militias in Damascus.

Other locations reported by Syrian media to have been struck during the strike are as follows: pro-Iranian military positions located in the suburbs of Damascus, air defense facilities and headquarters of the 68th Brigade and the 137th Brigade of the Syrian Army in the Damascus area, a military headquarters belonging to the 4th Division of the Syrian Army in the Al-Muna area surrounding Damascus and military Unit 10 in the district of Qatana.

The IDF destroyed a cache of Iranian Fajr-5 missiles stored in a weapons depot near Damascus this evening that had the potential to threaten the area surrounding the Galilee, according to Israeli news agency Rotter.

According to the Jerusalem Post's sister publication Maariv, the official Syrian news agency SANA reported that a Syrian military official claimed, "Israeli air force planes attacked tonight, most of the missiles were intercepted before hitting targets." Later is was reported that three Syrian soldiers were wounded and that an ammunition depot was damaged in the attack. 

Israel said Tuesday night it had deployed its air defenses against a missile shot from Syria as Damascus attempted to repel an alleged Israeli airstrike against Hezbollah or Iranian targets near the capital.
The Israel Defense Forces said there was no damage or injuries from the surface-to-air missile fired from Syria at Israel.
“An IDF aerial defense system activated in response to an anti-aircraft missile launched from Syria,” the army said in a statement.

It did not say where or even if the missile was successfully intercepted.
Pictures shared on social media showed an air defense missile being fired near Hadera, a city some 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of the Syrian border where residents had earlier reported hearing a loud explosion.
Syrian state media said its own air defenses had opened fire on “enemy targets,” shooting them down, in what was reported to be an Israeli airstrike.
Syrian eyewitnesses and video on social media showed what appeared to be intense fire on targets near the capital.
SANA said the strikes beginning at about 10 p.m. were carried out from Lebanon and that a number of targets were intercepted.
“It’s an Israeli raid,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.
“Missiles fired from Israeli planes targeted… arms depots southwest and south of Damascus that belong to Hezbollah or Iranian forces,” Abdel Rahman said.
Syrian TV quoted a military source saying weapons warehouses were hit, and three Syrian soldiers wounded.
Lebanon’s National News Agency reported that Israel Air Force planes were operating over southern Lebanon.

Syrian air defense confronted a complex threat over Damascus Tuesday night. It comes after several months of relative quiet for Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime, which is grappling with a crises in eastern Syria as the US withdraws.

The airstrikes took place as the Syrian state media was seeking to highlight Christmas in Syria. Syria was witnessing a “victory over terrorism,” SANA said. However the airstrikes were the most serious since September when an Israeli airstrike targeted Latakia and resulted in Syrian air defense shooting down a Russian IL-20 aircraft. That incident caused Moscow to give Syria the S-300 system and warn Israeli “hotheads” against further incidents.

For months it has been relatively quiet. An incident on November 29 and December 9th worked up Damascus as air defenses were activated. But both incidents seemed minor. One was a false alarm apparently. However December 25 was a major escalation. It comes as Syria is seeking to deal with a major crises in eastern Syria as the US withdraws. 

US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal on December 19 and since then there have been discussions about what comes next. Turkey wants to launch a major operation into eastern Syria to strike at the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) which Ankara says are terrorists linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The YPG were partners of the US-led Coalition's anti-ISIS campaign. 

Syrian rebel groups aligned with Turkey have volunteered to help fight the YPG. One group already announced it would attack Manbij in northern Syria.

For the Syrian regime this is a problem because there are Syrian troops in eastern Syria in Qamishli and Hasakeh. The Syrian regime has amicable relations with the YPG but the regime must rely on Russia and Iran to help negotiate with Turkey in eastern Syria. As Damascus focuses on that, it also wanted a quiet Christmas to highlight stability after seven years of civil war. The airstrikes burst that quiet and will make Damascus wonder if worse is to come. 

Israel has said it struck 200 targets in the last two years throughout Syria. Many of these were near Damascus according to local reports. But Syria thinks that the S-300 and Russia’s support will reduce the airstrikes.

Instead it appears Syria has not been successful at preventing an airstrike around Damascus. Even though its state media claims it intercepted all the missiles fired at targets near Damascus on December 25, that assertion is unlikely.

The Syrian government must now ask itself if Russia is serious about training it to use the S-300 and if the S-300 is effective. 

These two issues relate to how Damascus will concentrate the challenges it still faces. Israel has said that as the US withdraws, Jerusalem will continue to challenge Iran in Syria. In addition there are reports that Russia could offer to help reduce Iranian influence or presence in Syria in return for something. 

Syria’s regime looks at the region and realizes that decisions about what happens in Syria always seem to be outsourced to Moscow, Tehran or Ankara. For instance the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Geneva on December 18 to discuss a constitutional committee for Syria. 

Russian defense officials visited Tehran on December 25 and Iran discussed expanding cooperation with Russia. Russia also speaks directly with Israel and reports indicate that this includes discussions about Syria.

Syria is trying to rebuild its reputation in the region. The Sudanese leader Omar Bashir went to Damascus on December 16 and Syria’s powerful intelligence chief Ali Mamluk went to Cairo on December 23. Normally that would look like Syria is coming in from the cold in the region, welcoming foreign leaders and working with Arab regimes after years of being treated like a pariah by much of the Arab League. 

But Syria’s regime also wants to secure Damascus and wants to negotiate what happens in Idlib and in eastern Syria. Yet it has to rely on Russia for much of these details. It also has to rely on Russia for improving its air defenses around Damascus. The explosions and wild-firing of missiles on Tuesday illustrates that Damascus has a long way to go to confront airstrikes around its capital. 

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