A missile launched by Syria on the 22nd of April 2021 hit the southern part of the Israeli territory. It landed in the Abu Qrenat Bedouin, a village near the town of Dimona, where the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center is located. The missile is a Russian-made, long-range SA-5 missile, that exploded in the air. A spokesman of the Israeli military stated that it had been fired at an Israeli aircraft and that it had missed its initial target and overflew there, the distance between the two being of more than 300 kilometers.
The attack set off air raid sirens, in the middle of the night. Luckily, no one was hurt and the explosion did not cause significant damage, even though it is reportedly said to have been hard from as far as Jerusalem. The pieces that resulted from the blast are said to have landed in an area of 30 kilometers. Israel failed at intercepting the missile, despite having one of the highest protected airspaces worldwide, being able to eliminate an important part of this kind of danger in the past decades.
The attack is actually a response to the airstrikes launched by Israel on the 16th of March 2021, near Damascus, which resulted in material damage. The event is only one in a chain of attacks between the two. This exchange of missiles is said, by the Syrian press, to have started with an airstrike initiated by the Israeli military forces targeting Dumeir, a suburb of the capital. But what is unusual about this attack, the most recent one, is the fact that it reached deep into the Israeli territory, hitting the southern part. Also, the place where the missile exploded is thought to be the center where undeclared nuclear weapons programs are conducted by Israel.
Regarding the series of attacks between the two states, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a monitoring group based in the United Kingdom and dealing with the Civil War in Syria, made a timeline indicating the attacks orchestrated by Israel and that hit the Syrian territory. SOHR listed 8 attacks that have occurred so far, since the beginning of 2021. The attacks killed 76 people, as follows: 4 civilians, 21 Syrian soldiers, 22 Iraqi militiamen, 14 Afghani militiamen, 5 Pakistani militiamen, and 10 pro-Iran but non-Syrian militiamen. The incidents also resulted in massive material damage, to buildings, headquarters, warehouses, and vehicles.
Everything happens in the context of the Syrian Civil War, in which the Syrian government, supported by Iran, is fighting against rebel groups, which try to seize the power in the country. Israel is made responsible for previously attacking Iranian forces, that are present in Syria for sustaining the government in the conflict. The numerous attacks between the two countries, Syria and Israel, in the past months have escalated the already existed tensions.
The Israeli military forces quickly announced that they had responded to the attack by hitting the battery that launched the bomb that landed near the nuclear base in the Negev desert. This was confirmed by both sides. SANA, the Syrian state news agency, reported attacks by Israeli planes in the area of the capital, Damascus, around 1:30 A.M. So far, the Syrian press did not make any statement about the missile that landed near the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center but announced that Syrian air defense batteries intercepted most of the missiles launched by Israel. Also, they stated that the Israeli attack resulted in some material losses.
Regarding the Israeli side, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officially confirmed the attack on Syria: “A short while ago, surface-to-air missile fire was identified from Syria, which landed in the Negev area. In response, a few minutes ago, the IDF struck the battery from which the missile was launched and additional Syrian surface-to-air batteries in the area.” Moreover, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated that Israel attacked the air defense base in Dumeir, which resulted in one Syrian officer being killed.
An Israeli newspaper linked the Syrian attack at the Abu Qrenat Bedouin village with the two Iranian cargo planes that landed on the 20th of April at the Damascus International Airport. They are thought to have been carrying advanced weapons, as an IDF intelligence officer stated. Tal Beeri, the director of the research department of the Alma research center, declared: “Those who follow Iranian cargo planes movements from Iran to Damascus are not surprised by airstrikes that follow them,”. He went on to say: “We don’t know what the specific target of the Israeli strike was, but I am certainly linking it to the arrival of the cargo planes”. Moreover, some say that the blast near the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center is linked to the attack that occurred on the 11th of April on the Iranian nuclear plant in Natanz after an Iranian newspaper wrote that an equal response to the Israeli attack on Natanz would be to target Dimona: “The appropriate response to the Natanz incident – based on an eye for an eye and based on the policy of creating a security deterrence – should be action against the nuclear facility in Dimona”.
Still, different versions regarding the scope of the attack were published by Israeli newspapers. Some of them stated that it should have hit an Israeli jet that was launching bombs near Damascus. Others claimed that it had no precise target and that it did not represent a deliberate attack on Israel, being, in fact, an “errant” missile.
Furthermore, Benny Gantz, the Defense Minister declared: “The IDF acted [in Syria] against assets vital in launching a potential attack on the State of Israel. An SA-5 anti-aircraft missile was fired and crossed the border. There was an attempt to intercept it, but it was unsuccessful. […] In most cases we see other outcomes; it’s a slightly more complex story. As I said, we will investigate and move forward.” By this statement, the Minister of Defense recognized the failure of IDF to intercept and shoot down the Syrian missile and, on a larger scale, the weakness of the Israeli forces to defend the territory and the people from attacks coming from external actors. He concluded by announcing that an investigation will take place, in order to see what caused the failure and to prevent further such events from happening. The fragments of the bomb were found in a garden in Ashalim and they were collected for the investigation that started shortly after the incident.
The commander of the US Central Command, Gen. Frank McKenzie, made a statement, in which he blamed the Syrian attack near the Israeli nuclear reactor, going on to calling it incompetence: “I think it reflects, actually, incompetence in Syrian air defense, where they were responding to Israeli strikes on targets in Syria. They fired their missiles, the missiles went ballistic, literally, and followed a parabolic trajectory to Israel. […] I do not believe it was an intentional attack, but just rather a lack of capability on the part of the Syrian air defenders.”
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About the author:
Delia-Maria MOTAN is Intern research at MEPEI, and her research interest lies in international relations and political science in the Middle East. Currently, she is studying at the Faculty of the Political Science / University of Bucharest.