Israel Continues to Target Iranian Presence at T4

During the morning hours of April 9, a number of explosions at the T4 military air base in Syria caused significant concern. The situation in Syria has been on edge since an alleged chemical weapons attack in the city of Douma by Syrian loyalists, though the events that took place earlier today appear to be related to an entirely separate dynamic. Israeli aircraft are believed to have targeted the Iranian presence at the T4 air base, in a continuation of strikes against Iranian drone capabilities based in Syria that was initiated in February.

On February 10, an Iranian Saegheh drone, based on the design of the American RQ-170 Sentinel, was intercepted by Israeli aircraft inside Israeli airspace. Back then, Israel had already launched an air operation directly targeting the Iranian positions at the T4 air base, from where the drone had allegedly taken off. Eight Israeli aircraft took part in this operation that also targeted various locations around Damascus in addition to the T4 air base on February 10, but one of the aircraft – an F-16 – was shot down by Syrian air defense missiles.

The most recent airstrike this morning fits the profile and target set of Israeli operations against Hezbollah and Iran inside Syria. Even though Israel doesn’t openly communicate on its airstrikes in the country, the Israeli Air Force has conducted numerous operations targeting arms transferred to Hezbollah, as well as Iranian facilities that are considered a threat to Israel’s security. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, most of the 14 fatalities suffered in the airstrike were Iranians or fighters from Iranian backed militia. This further corroborates the Israeli intent behind the airstrike.

The details of how the airstrike was conducted, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense, also shed some light on how Israel continues to deal with risk after having suffered their first combat loss of a fighter aircraft in decades. The airstrike today was reportedly conducted by two Israeli F-15I aircraft, which launched a total of 8 Delilah cruise missiles from Lebanese air space. The range of the Delilah cruise missile, approximately 250 kilometers, is more than sufficient to reach targets deep inside Syria. Launching these missiles from Lebanese airspace minimizes the exposure of Israeli fighter aircraft to Russian and Syrian air defenses within Syria.

Today’s airstrike was not the first occurrence of this particular method of conducting strikes in Syria. Just over a year ago for example, in March 2017, Israel also conducted an airstrike against the T4 air base using cruise missiles – possibly the Delilah – targeting alleged Scud missiles destined for Hezbollah. On that particular occasion, however, Israeli aircraft were reported to have entered Syrian airspace from northern Lebanon before firing the cruise missiles. Incidences of Israel launching standoff weapons into Syria from Lebanese airspace date back all the way to 2013, during the early stages of Israel’s air campaign against Hezbollah and Iranian targets within Syria.

While this method of airstrikes increases the survivability of involved Israeli air assets significantly, there are several drawbacks that were also observed in today’s airstrike. The cost of a Delilah cruise missile is significantly higher than typical air to ground munitions used in airstrikes, but of course this cost is easily accepted in comparison to the potential cost of losing an entire aircraft and possibly its crew. The more noticeable drawback of the Delilah cruise missiles is that due to the long route they travel towards their targets, there is a much greater opportunity for them to be intercepted than there would be if aircraft dropped munitions over the target itself. According to Russian statements, five out of eight Delilah missiles were intercepted and only three struck their targets. Just like the cost of the missiles, of course, the success ratio these missiles present may well be acceptable in relation to the risk an aircraft would be exposed to if it were to fly deep into Syria.

The airstrike itself was not that notable as part of sustained air operations by the Israeli Air Force in Syria. The reason for the higher degree of attention and speculation, however, has been a completely separate dynamic relation to expectations of a US retaliatory strike against Syrian forces responsible for a chemical weapons attack in the city of Douma. Over the weekend, even Russian air forces and air defense forces were on edge, and multiple flights appearing to be scanning the airspace over the Mediterranean were reported. So far, no action by the United States or any other western powers, such as France which has vowed to do so, has occurred.