Israel Intercepts Syrian Anti-Aircraft Missile Amid Heightened Tensions

Israel’s message to Iran and Hezbollah: We will not permit change of status quo.

On Monday, Arab media reported that Israeli Air Force jets struck another Hezbollah weapons convoy snaking its way to Lebanon from Syria. Israel refused to comment on the report but if accurate, it would represent the third Israeli strike against targets in Syria in as many days.

Less than 24 hours earlier, an Israeli drone liquidated Yasser al-Sayed, while he was driving along the Damascus- Quneitra road near the town of Khan Arnaba. Lebanese media reported that he was a Syrian air defense commander. Other Arab media reported that he was a pro-Assad militia commander who was coordinating planned attacks against Israel with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Hezbollah of course, claimed he was a civilian. 

Israel remained silent on the circumstances of al-Sayed’s death but has in the past bluntly informed its enemies, including Assad, Iran and Hezbollah that it would not remain idle in the face of threats emanating from Syria and elsewhere and would act when necessary to preserve its security interests.  

Underscoring this doctrine, On Friday, the Israeli Air Force launched a series of airstrikes targeting a Hezbollah weapons convoy and other military facilities believed to be housing weapons slated to be delivered to the terror group. The airstrikes focused on a Syrian airbase known as T4 near the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.

During the course of Syria’s civil war, Palmyra switched hands several times – ISIS captured the city twice – but it is now firmly under Syrian and Russian control. T4 is a key staging area for Iranian arms shipments destined for Hezbollah. The base is also said to house Russian helicopters and Special Forces troops and the Iranians believed that the Russian presence rendered them immune from Israeli attack. Clearly, they were mistaken.

During the course of the operation, Syrian anti-aircraft crews fired between three to four SA-5 anti-aircraft missiles at the Israeli fighter jets. All missed  though that didn’t stop Assad from boasting that his air defense crews downed one plane – a claim roundly mocked on Twitter by Assad’s opposition.

Though the Israeli aircraft were never in any real danger, one of the missiles, which carries a 478lb warhead, appeared to be veering toward Israeli territory thus posing a direct threat to the safety and security of Israel’s citizens. Israeli aerial defense commanders decided in that split-second moment to deploy the Arrow ballistic missile interceptor. The air force is not disclosing whether it launched the Arrow 2 or the later-model Arrow 3.

The Arrow 3 was envisioned as Israel’s answer to Iran’s formidable ballistic missile arsenal and is designed to shoot down ICBMs while still in the earth’s stratosphere. Its use against anti-aircraft missiles was never contemplated. 

Nevertheless, the Arrow successfully intercepted the SA-5 transforming it into an expensive heap of scrap metal and sending its debris spiraling into the vicinity of Irbid in northern Jordan, startling frightened and mystified Jordanian onlookers and security personnel. It was the first time that the Arrow – part of Israel’s multi-tiered missile defense shield that also includes the David’s Sling platform and the combat proven Iron Dome – was used in live combat. It is also the first time in the history of warfare where an anti-ballistic missile intercepted an anti-aircraft missile, demonstrating the Arrow’s combat effectiveness, reliability and versatility.

The development of the Arrow met initial resistance due largely to budgetary concerns and the fact that Israel’s military planners generally think in terms of offense rather than defense. But the 1991 First Gulf War that witnessed 39 Scud missiles landing in Israel, changed the mindset. The U.S. made Patriot missiles, which were deployed to intercept incoming Scuds, provided entertaining fireworks displays but proved to be virtually useless against incoming Scuds. According to Moshe Arens, Israel’s then minister of defense and Dan Shamron, who was the army’s chief of staff, the Patriot may have intercepted one Scud, at best. 

Clearly, there was a need for something better and Israel’s experts rolled up their sleeves and got to work, rolling out the first version of the Arrow in the mid-1990s. The platform became operational in 2000 and has undergone continuous upgrades and modifications since then.

When it comes to warfare, military doctrine and technology, Israel has always been at the cutting edge. In 1967 it provided the world with the modern-day equivalent of Shock and Awe. In 1973, its armored corps provided NATO with the operational know-how to defeat the threat of Soviet Sagger anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM). In 1982, it shocked the Soviets by deploying new weapons and tactics that rendered Soviet air-defenses and aircraft near obsolete and in 2012 and then again in 2014, it dazzled the world with its marvelous Iron Dome anti-rocket system. 

Israel’s flurry of military activity against Hezbollah and Iranian interests in Syria conveys a clear message that it will not tolerate the transfer of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah. It will also not permit Hezbollah or Iran to establish military bases near the Golan Heights that threaten Israel. The liquidation of Yasser al-Sayed, Samir Kuntar, Jihad Mughniyeh, Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi and a laundry list of others at the hand of Israel, underscores this fact. Moreover, the strike against Iranian targets at T4 near Palmyra demonstrates that the IRGC and their Shia mercenaries are not immune from attack even when hiding behind Russian skirts.   

*This article has been updated to account for conflicting reports on the Arrow model deployed by the Israeli Air Force.