In the wake of threats by Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, the Israel Air Force (IAF) carried out two strikes against Assad regime and Hezbollah targets in Syria on Sunday and early Monday morning. These latest airstrikes come only two days after an IAF raid on Hezbollah weapons shipments in Palmyra, and seemingly as a response to an attempt by the Syrian Air Defense Forces (SADF) to shoot down the attacking Israeli jets.
At approximately 3 PM local time, pro-regime news sources reported that the SADF’s Golan Regiment was engaging an Israeli UAV over the town of Khan Arnabeh, in the Syrian Golan’s Quneitra Governorate. Shortly after, Syrian army reports emerged claiming the Israelis targeted a vehicle traveling from the town on the road to Damascus, destroying the car and killing its driver, Yasser Hussein al-Sayyed, a SADF Golan Regiment commander. According to Israeli news site Walla!, the second air strike reportedly occurred past midnight on Monday morning, with local sources claiming the Israelis targeted Hezbollah and SADF targets in the Qalamoun mountains, near the Syrian-Lebanese border. However, pro-regime sources were quick to deny that the strikes had occurred.
The strikes came mere hours after Liberman threatened to destroy Syria’s air defenses “without any hesitation” the next time they fired on Israeli planes. He stressed that Israel was “neither for nor against [Syrian president Bashar] al-Assad,” and had no desire for friction with the Russians in Syria. Israel’s “main problem” he said, “is the transfer of game-changing weapons from Syria to Lebanon,” which would reach Hezbollah. “Therefore, every time we identify a such a transfer, we will act to destroy these equilibrium-breaking weapons. There will be no compromise.” According to Israeli media, Liberman’s comments were echoed by IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, with similar threats against the government of Lebanon.
Liberman’s threats, reinforced by the two strikes, were a response to the outcomes of the IAF’s Friday attack on Palmyra. The SADF’s attempt to down Israeli jets was an unprecedented escalation by the Assad regime. For Israel, this was an unacceptable interference with its now-routine attempts to deny the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah, threatening to change the rules of the game between Jerusalem and Damascus. The Russian Foreign Ministry demanding an explanation of the strike from Israel’s ambassador also indicated a possible shift in Moscow’s policies on Israeli offensives in Syria.
These developments likely left Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons confident that their weapons transfers would now be safe from Israeli strikes, as indicated by Hassan Nasrallah’s subsequent belligerent speech and Tehran’s threats against continued IAF assaults in Syria reported in Hezbollah’s Al-Mayadeen.
Israel’s red lines in Syria were blurred by these changes, and Jerusalem felt they needed to be forcefully redrawn.