Identifying Enemy Target: What Was the IAF Really After in Syria?

By Egle Murauskaite – On January 30, 2013 at approximately 4:30 GMT (early dawn) four Israeli jets conducted a strike in Jamraya, Syria – that’s about the only thing that is known with certainty. As the story unfolds, a myriad of questions is raised about the attack; throughout this article I will point out the indicators to watch for, in an attempt to understand the intended target and purpose of this attack, as well as the reasons behind the rhetoric coming from all concerned parties.

Questions about the attack started with the first press reports on this incident. The narrative of Western officials has emphasized the target was a convoy transporting SA-17 missile. On the other hand the Syrians have consistently drawn attention to the “military research center” that has been attacked, initially denying that a convoy was hit. Meanwhile, a few suggested both were the targets. The operation seemingly involved extensive Israeli preparations: the week prior to the attack an Iron Dome battery has been shifted to the north. Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said the transfer of weapons to violent groups, particularly Hezbollah, would be a game changer demanding a different approach, “including preventive operations.” Israeli officials flew to Washington D.C. to discuss their plans and get U.S. approval. According to Haaretz, Israel had also informed Moscow and was not reprimanded either, which could explain why Russian response to the attack was limited to rhetoric. The way this operation was planned suggests that either Israel must have believed the missiles the convoy was carrying would provide an enormous enhancement to Hezbollah, or that the convoy was not the main target.

What was the convoy carrying?

According to U.S. and Israeli officials quoted in the media, the target of the attack was a convoy carrying missiles from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. SA-17, the main system discussed in the media as the subject of this transfer, is a road-mobile system of medium-range surface-to-air missiles. It has reportedly been given to Syria by Russia, following the 2007 Israeli strike on al-Khibar, a suspected site of Syria’s nuclear reactor.

Seeing how frequently Hezbollah has been moving missiles within and out of Syria, it is somewhat surprising that this particular convoy would set off the alarms. Several scenarios, however, can be considered that could have made the missile transfer a special case meriting an attack. Indeed, reports that Israeli jets had approached the area a few hours earlier, hovered in wait, and were then replaced by another set of jets that finally carried out the strike could suggest that the jets were waiting for their target to appear, rather than circling around a fixed facility.

It has been suggested that the transfer of SA-17 missiles to Hezbollah would be a “game changer,” allowing Hezbollah to challenge Israel’s air superiority from Lebanese territory. However, it is unclear what type of missiles the convoy was carrying. Notwithstanding Shalom’s statement three days before the attack, none of the reports so far have suggested the missiles were tipped with non-conventional warheads. In fact, reports that came out last year actually raising concerns about chemical weapons movement have not prompted a military response from Israel.

Other plausible versions of what the convoy was carrying include Yakhont anti-ship missiles or short range Scuds, which are said to pose challenge to Israel’s naval superiority or threaten residential areas respectively, once they are moved to Lebanese territory. The pictures and videos released by Syrian state TV after the attack show only an SA-8 missile launcher destroyed in the attack – no imagery of the alleged SA-17 has been made public. The IDF apparently believed that Hezbollah had already obtained truck-mounted SA-8 surface-to-air missiles in January 2012. Moreover, estimates of Hezbollah’s arsenal indicate that the organization may be able to present a comparable challenge with the weapons systems it already has, so an SA-8 transfer would hardly be a sufficient cause for an Israeli attack. In addition, the 2010 Syrian transfer of Scud-D missiles to Hezbollah was also called a “game changer” by Israeli officials, but one that did not prompt a military response at the time. So if Israel has successfully kept up to this constantly changing game so far, why the sudden strike?

Syria has reportedly allocated a number sophisticated missiles (such as Scud-D or SA-17) and weapons systems to Hezbollah and trained its member in their use, but presumably none of this arsenal has left Syria – Israel repeatedly threatened to attack if such a transfer was attempted. Another possibility is that Hezbollah only had a limited stockpile of surface-to-air missiles in Lebanon and the cargo in question would have been a significant boost. It is also possible that Hezbollah had limited capacity to operate the systems in its possession, and the convoy that came under attack carried not only missiles, but also personnel to operate them and/or provide training. Ascertaining what happened to the cargo following the attack – if, indeed there was a cargo, and not just SA-8 missile launchers regularly stationed to protect the facility – would help shed more light on the competing explanations.

If the SA-17 indeed was the target and the transfer was not approved by Russia, it is possible the Syrian government tried to deflect attention and denied the existence of a convoy and its transfer plans by focusing on the damaged facility. Alternatively, the full U.S. support to the story that the convoy was the target could suggest an attempt to deflect attention from what was an opportunistic operation to take out a key Syrian conventional and unconventional weapons research facility – something the U.S. or its Gulf allies would likely not do themselves, but would not be unhappy to see done by someone else.

Finally, a possibility that has not received a lot of attention so far is that the convoy had originated in Iran, and was just transiting through Syria on its way into Lebanon. This would imply that the missiles it was transporting were not of Russian origin, but were perceived to give a significant enough boost to Hezbollah to merit a strike – further emphasizing the importance of understanding what it was the convoy was carrying. At this point it is not even known if the strike succeeded in destroying the convoy. If it did, the absence of any imagery of the debris could suggest that the cargo was such a sensitive or advanced system, that if it were revealed that Hezbollah nearly obtained it, it would raise the threat level in the region. Seeing how carefully the U.S. has been treading, extremely limited availability of information surrounding the fate of the convoy’s cargo of weapons could be an attempt to manage the regional threat perceptions. The more concerning question is what if the attempt to destroy this sensitive cargo had failed, and whatever was on it is now in Hezbollah’s hands? If the U.S. and Russia were originally concerned enough to look the other way while Israel conducted this strike, what can we expect next, if these fears had materialized?

Why did Damascus insist the facility was the target?

Turning to the facility in question, the building that was reportedly damaged during the attack was likely the Syrian agency responsible for national missiles and chemical weapons programs, Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Scientifiques (CERS). The aforementioned convoy was supposedly parked there on its way to Lebanon. CERS is a large research complex, and it is not known with certainty whether its principle value stems from the materials and weapons it stores, the R&D activities conducted inside, and materials it produces, or whether its most significant role is as a coordinating hub and network center for other facilities in the country – or all of the above. Satellite images released thus far show the complex undamaged. Video footage released by the Syrian TV shows what seems like an office space, and a large room with steel beams, but it is unclear if the video conveys the extent of the damage to the complex as a whole. It seems reasonable to presume not all of the center has been flattened”, given the sheer size of the facility, but at least two additional strikes were reported the same night, without indication of their targets. Still, seemingly there was no attempt to “carpet bomb” the entire complex, and the planes did not appear to have engaged in gratuitous destruction once they were in the area, all of which points to a high precision strike – and no imagery so far suggests a direct hit on the facility.

If Israel’s concern was an impending Syrian attack, or its advanced weapons stockpile, another facility near Hama, where DPRK and Iranian experts reportedly continue to collaborate with Syria on developing Scud-D capabilities, would have potentially been a higher priority target. What can be inferred from Israel’s choice of the site in Jamraya instead? How come Israel issued warnings and prepared ahead of the attack for potential Syrian retaliation? And why has this attack prompted Assad to say Syria is ready to respond militarily?

The damaged facility, shown by state-run Syrian TV is not what one would expect from a shattered chemical (or biological) weapons research lab. First, if Israel believed it was bombing such a site (or even if it were targeting a convoy close to a building housing sensitive materials), it would likely have used high incendiary explosives – to destroy any potentially released harmful substances in a fire – but the damage shown does not indicate the use of such explosives. While the video shows no damaged analytical equipment, tanks or fermenters, commonly used in such labs, the sheer size of CERS complex would likely allow putting together a sequence of shots without revealing anything sensitive, as Syria continued to deny having chemical or biological weapon programs. Still, reports of a higher rate of illnesses or unusual diseases over the next few weeks in the areas downwind from the site could point to a release of hazardous materials in an accidental hit.

Perhaps the significance of the struck building primarily relates to missile research, storage or production? In 1999 the DPRK had reportedly delivered 10 tons of powdered aluminum (used in missile propellants) to CERS. Gaging the relative size of the explosion would be helpful, as a facility housing missile-related materials could be expected to go out in a bigger blast than a regular office or residential building.

Amidst conflicting narratives, the important question to ask is why Syrians are speaking so openly about the destruction of a facility at the center of their chemical weapons and missiles programs. Assad’s initial rhetoric that chemical weapons would be used only against invading forces have certainly made the international community  uneasy about a possible intervention – so maintaining the impression of a continuous capability would seem in his interest. On the other hand, the prospect of chemical weapons’ use against the Syrian people has lent more urgency to rebel pleas for foreign pressure on Assad’s government. Could this be Assad’s attempt to show that there is no more need for international concern as the weapons labs have been destroyed, and wait for the already limited interest in the conflict to die down? This could be a convenient front for driving the program underground, similarly to the Iraqi nuclear program after an Israeli strike on Osirak. Or perhaps attempt to deflect attention from the transfer plans?

Finally, it is worth considering reverberations of this strike in the context of concerns about Iran. Israel itself has emphasized the incident as a message that ‘we take action, like we promised, when red lines we have identified are crossed.’ But the bigger picture seems to be that Israel will not shy away from using force, in a manner similar to the 2007 attack on Al-Kibar, and – as indicated by Israel’s evidently productive consultations with the U.S. and Russia – it can get away without serious international repercussions, despite expressions of allegiances or concerns by the global powers. Aside from communicating that ‘your proxy is of limited use’ and ‘your allies won’t protect you’, Israel has also demonstrated intelligence and technical capabilities in identifying the time and place of this transfer with sufficient precision, as well as evading the Russian anti-aircraft guns in the vicinity of the target. If these actions were indeed geared towards Iran, the timing is particularly curious, given the reports earlier that week on Israel feeling reassured about the U.S. contingency plans for an Iranian strike, alleviating the need for Israel’s own unilateral action.

Egle Murauskaite is a Research Associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS).