A rogue Syrian surface-to-air missile detonated over southern Israel earlier today, the Israel Defense Forces confirmed. The incident triggered warning sirens in Israel amid initial fears that the country’s secretive Dimona nuclear reactor could be under attack.
In fact, the missile — identified by an Israeli military spokesman as coming from a Cold War-era Soviet-made SA-5 Gammon long-range surface-to-air missile system — was one of several fired by Syrian government forces in response to Israeli strikes in that country, likely directed against an Iranian proxy target.
Clearly, this particular missile missed its intended target and continued toward Israel before detonating in the air. The Israeli military stated that their air defense systems had attempted to carry out an interception of the Syrian missile, but it was unsuccessful. In the past, Israel has even called upon the high-end Arrow 3 anti-ballistic missile to intercept similar surface-to-air missiles fired at Israeli jets that had struck targets in southern Syria.
A spokesman from the Israel Defense Forces said that what was left of the SA-5 missile landed around 19 miles from the Dimona nuclear facility, which is located approximately 125 miles south of the Syrian border.
Debris apparently from this missile came down in the village of Ashalim, located in the Negev desert in southern Israel, around 21 miles south of the city of Be’er Sheva. There were no reports of injuries or damage.
Syria’s SANA state news agency confirmed that there had been an Israeli strike in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, and that Syrian air defenses had responded — the SA-5 was almost certainly launched as part of these salvos, although the precise nature of the Israeli attack is unclear. In the past, Israeli Air Force fighter jets have carried out raids over Syrian territory, or have otherwise launched standoff weapons from outside Syrian airspace, often times over Lebanon.
“Air defenses intercepted the rockets and downed most of them,” the news agency said. While it was not made clear what kind of attack was prosecuted by the Israeli side, SANA added that four soldiers were injured in the attack, which caused some material damage.
According to Reuters, a Syrian military defector said the Israeli reprisal strikes targeted objectives near the town of Dumayr, around 25 miles northeast of Damascus. Among others, this is home to an airbase that has hosted both Iranian-backed militias and Russian government forces in the past. It has been subject to previous Israeli attacks and has been repeatedly alleged to house weapons depots belonging to the Iran-backed militias in the country.
A Syrian military source told the state news agency SANA: “The Israeli enemy launched an aerial aggression with waves of missiles from the direction of the occupied Syrian Golan [Heights] targeting some of the sites in the surroundings of Damascus. The army air defenses intercepted the hostile missiles and downed most of them.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, reported that an air defense base was hit in Dumayr, killing a Syrian Army officer.
Israel responded to the errant missile by conducting further airstrikes in Syria. Targets comprised several air defense sites, including the one responsible for launching the SA-5.
The incident, in fact, bears many of the hallmarks of a previous one, in July 2019, when another Syrian SA-5 missile landed in Cyprus, near the capital, Nicosia. On that occasion, which you can read more about here, the missile was launched in response to large-scale Israel airstrikes on various targets in Syria. The SA-5 missile in question apparently passed over Lebanon and across a stretch of the Mediterranean before coming down in Cyprus.
It’s notable that the distance from Damascus to Cyprus, approximately 200 miles, is broadly similar to that between Damascus and Ashalim in Israel, which is around 185 miles. The SA-5 missile system — also known by its Russian S-200 designation — has an effective range of around 190 miles.
Israel targeting the particular air defense site responsible for engaging, or attempting to engage, its strike packages is an established tactic as well. Back in October 2017, for example, Israeli fighter jets destroyed another Syrian SA-5 site after it launched a missile, unsuccessfully, against an Israeli aircraft on a “routine reconnaissance mission” over Lebanon. You can read about that incident here.
In both this latest incident, and the previous one over Cyprus, the SA-5 missile was at the very edge of its envelope when it detonated; self-destruction can be triggered for various reasons, including once the missile reaches a certain altitude. The likelihood of these missiles going rogue is also increased by the tactics of Syrian air defense operators. In the past, Syrian SAMs have been launched ballistically, without even acquiring a target, as part of a largely futile tactic to sow confusion among the attacking force and put them on the defensive. A ballistic launch also has the effect of appearing like Syrian air defenses are actually doing something to fend off Israeli attacks and fits Damascus’s propaganda that it usually does so with a near-perfect success rate, which is far from reality.
The track record of the SA-5 in Syrian service has been patchy, to say the least. It was this missile system that accidentally downed a Russian Il-20 Coot electronic intelligence-gathering plane off the Syrian coast in September 2018. On the other hand, some Soviet-era systems have had success in Syrian hands, notably the surface-to-air missile system that shot down an Israeli F-16I fighter jet during an intense period of aerial activity over Syria in February 2018. Israel claims this was due to an error by the aircrew of some kind, not Syria’s air defense prowess.
The latest incident comes amid heightened tensions between Israel and Iran, including concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and a mysterious attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear site earlier this month. Officials in Tehran described this as an act of “nuclear terrorism” and blamed Israel. It’s still unclear what exactly happened at Natanz, some reports suggesting a cyberattack that cut the power to the facility, others suggesting the use of an explosive charge.
In the wake of that attack, Iran has stepped up its pledged to boost its uranium enrichment levels from 20% to 60%, almost at the purity required to produce nuclear weapons. At the same time, Iranian authorities continue to assert that the country’s present nuclear program is entirely civilian in nature.
Aside from the attack on Natanz, it’s becoming increasingly clear that a major proxy war is being fought between Israel and Iran across the region. In recent months, this has included clandestine Israeli attacks on Iranian ships carrying oil, as well as weaponry, to Syria. Israel has also been blamed for the attack earlier this month on the Iranian cargo ship M/V Saviz, which is widely understood to be a covert mothership operated by that country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC.
For its part, Iran may have also been involved in a series of attacks on shipping, including against more than one Israeli-owned cargo vessel. Most recently, the Israeli-owned Hyperion Ray, was reportedly the victim of an attack in the Gulf of Oman.
Meanwhile, with the Israeli government making it clear on numerous occasions that it sees Tehran’s growing influence in the Middle East as an existential threat, the Israeli military has been carrying out a campaign directed against Iranian-backed groups in Syria itself (as well as in Lebanon and Iraq).
There have been reports in recent weeks that Israeli air defenses around both the Dimona reactor and the Red Sea port of Eilat were being bolstered amid fears of potential long-range missile or drone strikes launched by Iranian-backed forces, perhaps even by those operating in Yemen or Syria. Indeed, some early reports about the incident outside Dimona suggested it was the reactor itself that was under attack, but there is no evidence that was the case.
Such cause for alarm is not unwarranted, either, with Syria in the past has threatened to respond to Israel Air Force strikes into Syrian territory with their own attacks against Israeli territory, including using Scud ballistic missiles. Since Israel has been squarely blamed for the attack on Natanz, a tit-for-tat Iranian strike aimed against Israeli nuclear infrastructure is also by no means unthinkable.
Overall, the latest errant SAM event over Israel, although alarming, is perhaps best understood as evidence of the continued chasm in capabilities between the Syrian government forces and those of Israel. What is more, the rapid response by Israel in attacking the responsible SA-5 site once again underscores that country’s hardline approach to Syrian foibles, as well as the commitment to doing whatever is necessary to protect its aircrews and citizens.
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