As Israel destroys Syria's air defences, Assad 'benefits from war in Gaza'

Israeli missiles hit Damascus airport and other targets this week for the third time since the conflict started

Israel's security fence with Syria next to the the village of Majdal Shams, in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, December 10, 2021. EPA
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On a June's day in 2006, when Hamas's leadership was still based in Damascus, Israeli fighter jets swooped over the summer palace of President Bashar Al Assad on the Mediterranean coast.

The manoeuvre was a warning to the president about the costs of harbouring leaders of the militant group, which has since become increasingly influenced by Iran.

They were driving a hard bargain in prisoner-exchange talks with Israel after its abduction of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit.

While the Israeli air force does not seem to have flown over Mr Assad’s palace since, over the past decade it has repeatedly struck at pro-Iranian militias that have proliferated in Syria since the 2011 uprising. The raids have increasingly targeted the President's elite military units as well as the country's main airports.

The raids have accelerated in recent weeks as some of these militias fired rockets sporadically at Israeli targets in support of Hamas in the Gaza war.

Damascus airport has been struck at least three times since Israel launched a full-scale air and land campaign on Gaza in response to Hamas's attack on southern Israel on October 7.

The airport, which lies on the south-eastern edge of the capital, took the latest hit from missiles on Sunday, among other targets around the city, forcing it again to halt operations, according to official media.

The other targets comprised air defence positions, similar to the strikes over the past month in Damascus and Aleppo, as well as in Deraa governorate, south of the capital, said a Syrian opposition figure, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The Israelis want to continue to fly unopposed and curb the build-up of an Iranian command-and-control system integrating Syrian army units,” he said.

His account was corroborated by a western security official.

Israel has, in particular, been striking at old Russian Pantsir and Buk mobile air defences.

The Syrian army has modernised some of its defences with Iranian help in recent years as Mr Al Assad moved closer to Tehran, amid continuing close co-ordination with Moscow, the two sources explained.

Supplanting Hamas

President Al Assad's father, Hafez Al Assad, was one of the chief sponsors of Hamas following its expulsion from Jordan in 1999.

However, relations soured after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

Regime forces attacked several Palestinian camps in Syria in 2011, after many in the camps joined the popular revolt against Bashar Al Assad.

Hamas, as a faction seeking to represent the Palestinian resistance, found itself in a political bind, not wanting to leave the relative safety of Damascus but risking becoming alienated from its constituency in the camps.

The leadership left to Qatar and Egypt in 2012.

However, last year Hamas resumed ties with Damascus, a move supported by Iran.

In the interim, an array of militias supported or set up directly by Iran had appeared in Syria to support the regime in the civil war.

As the war quietened in recent years, their role shifted to consolidating Iran’s grip on large parts of Syria, as the country fragmented into zones controlled by proxies supported by Tehran, the US, Turkey and Russia.

Israel has said its aerial campaign was designed largely to curb Iran’s use of Syria as a weapons storage centre and disrupt Iran's main supply route to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Tehran's most powerful non-state ally.

In 2018, Syrian authorities ordered a more advanced S-300 missile system, with deliveries starting that year, Russian official media said.

But the system is mostly not operational due to lack of training and spare parts, the two sources said.

In 2022, The New York Times reported that Russia had removed its own S-300 system from Syria to bolster its campaign in Ukraine, potentially reducing the capacity in Syria to deter Israeli strikes.

Hundreds of militiamen and Syrian army personnel have been killed by Israel's campaign, as well as dozens of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel, Arab security officials have said. Syria's military has been unable to respond directly to Israel.

Iran has occasionally retaliated through militia rocket strikes from Syria on Israeli positions in the Golan Heights, a pattern that continued over the past month.

“Iran is using small militias who have basically no address, and relatively little military capability, to temper any Israeli response,” the Syrian source said.

He gave the example of Liwa Al Quds, an Iranian-financed group whose members are mostly Palestinian refugees in Aleppo.

Diversion of attention

When the Israeli planes flew over the Syrian coast in 2006, Mr Al Assad was reportedly in his palace, near the city of Latakia.

His seat of power is a Soviet-style hilltop palace in Damascus, with a commanding view of the city and its environs, including the main airport, and Mazzeh, a military airport to the west, where air defence installations have also been hit in the last several weeks, according to the two sources.

But while some of the most sophisticated hardware in his forces' possession appears to be diminishing, the president's regime is politically intact, commanding a military dependent on Iran and Russia, amid a wrecked economy, said veteran Syrian political commentator Ayman Abdel Nour.

“The regime is politically intact because it is ruling basically two classes,” he said.

Mr Abdel Nour broadly divides the population in regime areas into impoverished masses too preoccupied with securing a living, and the better off, mostly living off a war economy such as smuggling, with little concern for political events as long as their revenue sources are not affected.

“The regime is actually benefiting from the war in Gaza,” Mr Abdel Nour said.

He said the war has diverted attention from unfulfilled reconstruction promises, continuing anti-Assad protests in the southern, mostly Druze governorate of Suweida, and discontent in the President's Alawite heartland, partly driven by economic pressures.

The Syrian pound is trading at 14,000 pounds to the dollar, compared with 50 pounds to the dollar when the Syrian revolt started.

“The Israelis have not embarrassed Assad,” said Mr Abdel Nour. “There is no change to the economic and political balances that are keeping this regime in power.”

Updated: December 01, 2023, 9:40 AM