Blog - February 21, 2018

Tensions flared February 10 after an Iranian drone violated Israeli airspace and one of the IAF’s F-16 jets that destroyed the command trailer from which it was launched was shot down by Syrian air defenses. For Israelis, whose air force has specialized in flawless and daring missions as far away as Iraq and Tunisia and whose last aerial combat loss was in 1982, the downing of the F-16 came as a shock. However, while a public relations boon to Hezbollah, this incident is actually relatively minor and does not augur a new phase in the war between the Jewish state and Iran.

Hezbollah is already trying to exploit the events of last weekend for propaganda purposes, claiming the end of Israel’s unrivaled aerial superiorityand deterrence. Psychological warfare has long been used by the  group to negatively affect Israeli morale  and thus bridge the power divide between itself and the far stronger Israel Defense Forces (IDF). But, in reality, at no time was Israel’s military superiority actually threatened.

During the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, the group taunted Israeli families by broadcasting the deaths of IDF soldiers into Israel before the Israeli army’s military censor cleared the information for publication, aired videos of seemingly victorious raids on Israeli military outposts in south Lebanon, and boasted of killing Brigadier General Erez Gerstein, the commander of Israel’s troops in that area. In 2006, the tactic was the “humbling” of Israel’s new Merkava MK IV tanksdowning an IAF helicopter, and targeting the INS Hanit. Like this weekend’s downing of the F-16, the goal of the propaganda was to suggest that Hezbollah and its allies had attained parity with the IDF.

Yet, in reality, the fated F-16 went down more due to pilot error than Syrian prowess. After striking the Iranian command trailer, the pilot continued flying at a high altitude to confirm target destruction. Syrian air defenses took advantage of this miscalculation (the pilot should have descended to avoid being tracked by Syrian radar) and fired a barrage of 20 AA missiles – both Russian-made SA-5s and SA-17s – to successfully hit their target. Even then, it was not a direct hit, and the pilots ejected safely.

The significance of successfully downing an Israeli jet should not be overplayed. Syria first demonstrated its willingness to strike at Israeli jets back in September 2016, and then again on March 17 and October 16, 2017. Using the same type of anti-aircraft missiles – the SA-5/S-200 – Syrian air defenses unsuccessfully attempted to put an end to Israel’s unchallenged airstrikes against Hezbollah targets in Syria. Before March of 2017,  Damascus and the Resistance Axis were busy fighting for the Assad regime’s survival. Especially after the December 2016 victory in Aleppo , they were emboldened to respond.

Then, as now, Israeli precision air strikes were carried out against the Syrian batteries which targeted their planes. Except this time, Israel scored an even larger victory by apparently destroying nearly half of Syria’s air defenses. And, on previous occasions, despite Syrian threats of furious retaliation against Israel, the IAF resumed strikes against Hezbollah targets largely without challenge, a pattern that will reoccur after this latest incident as well.

That the drone which sparked this latest incident was Iranian is also unlikely to be a game-changer. Hezbollah – as Israel’s current leadership will readily admit – is a direct extension of Iran and a forward regiment of its Islamic Revolution Guard Corps. The group has been at war with Israel since 1982, and began sending drones into Israel since 2004, when it deployed an Iranian-made Mirsad-1 into Israeli airspace for 20 minutes, returning it to Lebanon before the IAF could intercept it. Effectively, therefore, Iran has been directly at war with Israel for almost 36 years, and the 2004 incursion of the drone must be viewed as an Iranian military action.

Iran’s reasons for sending the recent drone into Israel remain unclear, however, it is likely the incident was either a mistake on their part, or – as Amir Toumaj points out in Long War Journal – a publicity stunt ahead of the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution (It also came two days before the 10-year anniversary of the assassination of Hezbollah’s former military commander, Imad Mughniyeh). The least likely reason, however, is that Tehran is looking for a direct confrontation with Jerusalem, something neither the Islamic Republic nor one it and its proxies can afford at the moment.

The reality is that Israel’s military superiority remains intact, and neither Hezbollah nor its allies have yet found a method to truly threaten its aerial dominance of the Levant.

David Daoud is a Research Analyst on Hezbollah and Lebanon at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).