Israel has conducted more than a few airstrikes in Syria since the civil war began there in 2011, but the one that took place in the pre-dawn hours on Friday morning was unusual. First, the IDF broke with precedent by taking responsibility for the attack, although it did not release any details. Second, Israeli aircraft struck much deeper into Syria than they have previously done, hitting regime positions near Palmyra. Third, they were met by enemy anti-aircraft missiles, which were then countered by Israeli anti-missile missiles. David Daoud explains:
One possibility is that the target of the Israeli strike was a weapons shipment to Hizballah at the Syrian army’s T-4 airport in western Palmyra. The Syrian military, assisted by Hizballah and the Russians, recently retook the airport from Islamic State, and the Shiite group continues to maintain a large presence there. It is likely that, since the Israelis continue to interdict weapons shipments to Hizballah at the Damascus airport, the group has begun receiving shipments at T-4 thinking it was out of the IAF’s reach. . . .
In another first, Israel’s ambassador to Moscow was summoned into the Russian foreign ministry to clarify his country’s actions. This comes shortly after Benjamin Netanyahu returned from a visit to Moscow, where he discussed Israel’s concerns over Hizballah and Iran’s growing power in Syria with the Russian president Vladimir Putin. Israel’s intelligence minister commented that Jerusalem had acted without informing the Russians because the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, was changing the rules of the game vis-à-vis Israel and allowing Syria to “become a dangerous hub of Hizballah activity,”
Indeed, the Syrian air defenses’ response constitutes a serious development. During past Israeli strikes on Hizballah, the Syrian army has largely stayed out of the fray. The contrast this time is a possible indication that the Assad regime perceives a positive change in its domestic fortunes, particularly after its success against rebel factions in the battle of Aleppo in December 2016.
It is doubtful that Assad was seeking a full-blown confrontation with the Israelis. More likely, he was simply trying to convey this regained confidence to his domestic foes, and also to signal to Israel that the IAF could no longer operate freely against Hizballah in Syrian territory.