A daytime airstrike in Syria on Sunday that has been attributed to Israel may have been linked to Hezbollah’s precision-missile program, according to an Israeli defense research group.
The March 12 strike occurred in Syria’s Tartus Governorate near Route 54, west of the city of Masyaf. Tal Beeri, head of Research at the Alma Center, told JNS that Masyaf is a well-known “trouble spot” that has seen a number of alleged Israeli strikes in recent years.
The main suspicious site in the area is a facility belonging to the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, known by its French acronym, CERS, which contains a site known as the “4000 Institute,” said Beeri.
It is at this site that multinational teams of weapons engineers work on Hezbollah’s precision missile project, he continued. These teams comprise experts from Iran, North Korea and Syria, as well as Hezbollah representatives, according to Beeri. There are also several weapons storage sites at the institute and the surrounding area, he added.
Route 54 connects Masyaf to the coast and to the city of Tartus, where Russia also maintains a naval base, and is highly likely to see regular vehicle traffic tied to the institute and its weapons development, said Beeri.
“We are also familiar with a route in the area used to transport weapons to the possession of Hezbollah in Lebanon,” he added.
The early-morning timing of the attack, he said, was telling.
“While this is not the first time that an attack occurs in daylight—including in this area—a strike at this time points to a certain urgency, and a window of operational opportunity that cannot be delayed,” he explained.
In Beeri’s assessment, the target was carrying vital components for the manufacture of precision weapons, that were earmarked for Hezbollah.
Avi Melamed, a former Israeli intelligence official who also served as an Arab affairs adviser to two Jerusalem mayors, said that Israel’s campaign to disrupt Iran-Hezbollah entrenchment in Syria has “significantly disrupted—although not completely—Iran’s attempts to establish a military infrastructure in Syria that would threaten Israel.”
Israel’s efforts in Syria are focused on anti-aircraft infrastructure, missile and rocket production and disrupting the smuggling of advanced weapons systems, whether by air, land or sea, he said.
“In addition, Israel is working … to thwart the establishment of an Iranian military infrastructure in the area of southwestern Syria in the Golan Heights,” he continued.
“Syria is a central link in the vision of Iranian hegemony that Jordanian King Abdullah II called the Shi’ite Crescent. One of the components of this vision is the establishment of a land corridor under Iranian control from Iran through Iraq, Syria and ending in Lebanon,” he said.
With the Iranian regime de facto controlling Lebanon through Hezbollah, the Syrian regime provides logistical support and infrastructure to produce rockets and military reserves for Hezbollah, according to Melamed.
“In addition, a strong Iranian influence in Syria gives Iran a power base in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean, in addition to the one it has established in Lebanon. Syria is therefore a critical link in the Iranian land corridor and in the vision of Iranian hegemony.”
He cautioned that Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria, comprising “missiles and anti-aircraft arrays, is a serious military threat to Israel. Therefore, Israel will work at any cost to thwart the Iranian attempt to build such an infrastructure. As long as Israel continues to successfully disrupt the Iranian plan of action, Syria will remain an arena for limited Israeli Iranian frictions.”
A Syrian air defense officer was killed in Sunday’s attack, according to media reports. Syrian surface to air batteries are located in Masyaf and Tartus, while Russia has also set up air defense systems in the area and deployed Russian officers there.
“It is important to stress that the moment that a Syrian air defense battery identifies the [aerial] attacking force, and certainly, the moment it conducts fire, it immediately becomes a target for attack,” said Beeri.
“In almost all air strikes Syrian air defense batteries themselves become a target due to their activities and responses. In unusual cases, they are struck preemptively. In other words, the equation is clear: A battery that does not act will apparently not be struck,” said Beeri.
He added that the primary targets of the airstrikes are those that make up the Iranian corridor into Syria and Lebanon, which include CERS sites that produce weapons for the Shi’ite axis in general and for Hezbollah in particular, and which stores those weapons.
Melamed argued that “the Israeli attacks in western Syria express Israel’s determination to disrupt Iran’s plan of action at any cost. The Israeli strikes in Syria embarrass Assad, but he cannot and does not want to be dragged into a broad military confrontation with Israel that will lead to the collapse of his regime. The Russians are also aware of Israel’s red lines. The security coordination between Israel and Russia in the Syrian arena has so far almost completely succeeded in preventing a situation of Israeli-Russian friction.”