At 2:30 in the morning on April 13, 2019, around a dozen missiles tore over the night sky of Hama province, Syria, launched by Israeli F-16 jets flying over Lebanon.
In response, short-range Syrian air missiles arced into the night sky trailing plumes of fire from their rocket motors. One or two can be seen exploding mid-air, possibly having have hit their target.
However, as has happened in over 200 other Israeli air strikes on targets in Syria, the defensive fire proved inadequate. The weapons struck three Syrian targets.
The first was a training base called the “Academy.” A second site was reportedly a storage facility for surface-to-surface missile launchers located near the Masyaf National Hospital. Afterward, the pro-Assad Al-Masdar news agency published a picture of an annihilated M-600 Tishereen ballistic missile launcher.
The M-600 is a Syrian license-manufactured version of the Iranian Fateh-110 short-range ballistic missile, a type Tehran has used for missile strikes on targets in Syria, Iraq and Israel since 2017.
The third and hardest hit site was a missile manufacturing facility belonging to the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center near Masyaf, Syria. The SSSRC is dedicated to procuring sanctioned chemical weapons and ballistic missile technology from abroad for Damascus. The gated facility, for which you can see a satellite photo here, adjoined two compounds believed to house Syrian and Iranian troops.
Before-and-after satellite photos show that around three-quarters of the facility was reduced to flattened rubble by the bombs. The Syrian government claimed six personnel were injured in the attack, while independent observers reported seventeen to twenty-one injured, and possibly some deaths amongst Iranian forces.
The North Korean Connection?
Hawkish Israeli website Debkafile alleged that “Western intelligence sources” claimed that technical experts from Iran, North Korea and Belarus were killed or wounded in the strike. According to Debka, the North Koreans were specifically assisting with the production of fuel for solid-fuel rockets, which are less volatile and can be launched on much shorter notice than liquid-fuel rockets which require hours to pump full of gas prior to launch.
The Belarussians were allegedly in the employ of Belvneshpromservice, a state-owned arms exporter under sanction by the United States for illegal arms transfers. Belarus is a strong supporter of the Assad government, though it has officially denied that any Belarussian specialists are present in Syria.
Other sources have not corroborated Debka’s claims. However, Syria has historically exchanged scientists and technology with North Korea and Iran to circumvent international sanctions and arms-control laws. In July 2007, a missile being loaded with chemical weapons exploded in a secret facility in Al Safir, Syria—killing over forty people, including technicians from North Korea and Iran. The explosion was possibly caused by Israeli sabotage. Two months later, Israeli warplanes killed Syrian and North Korean technicians at a nuclear reactor site under construction at Deir-es-Zor.
Israel has employed everything from air strikes to motorcycle-riding assassins to target Syrian and Iranian experts involved in missile and chemical weapons program. The personnel at the Masyaf facility have been no exception. Israel warplanes bombed the facility for the first time in 2017. Then in August 2018, a car-bomb most likely planted by Mossad killed Aziz Anbar, a senior scientist at the facility. He had been working on a project called “Sector 4” intended to install improved guidance systems onto Syria’s M-600 ballistic missiles.
However, Syrian military commentator Mohammed Saleh Alftayeh expressed skepticism of the Debka claim in an internet exchange. According to him, the facility was building Iranian-designed Zelzal-2 (“Earthquake”) unguided artillery rockets with a range of 124 miles, whereas North Korean technology is used for longer-range systems.
“The Israelis are concerned more with [Iranian] Fateh-110 which we know North Koreans helped with its development (the development is still ongoing, so they might still be involved). Such development is more likely to be taking place at a different location in Masyaf (in Wadi Jahannam) which is actually dug inside a hillside and is an old base.
The base that was attacked this time is a relatively new one which was built [in 2014] next to some training facilities and separated from them by just a wall. This does not really speak of a sensitive project with foreign participation that needs secrecy and protection.”
The Mystery of the Silent S-300 Battery
Another aspect of the operation that has raised eyebrows concerns the advanced S-300PMU-2 surface-to-air missile battery (NATO codename SA-20B Gargoyle) deployed near Masyaf.
In 2018, Russia sold the S-300 to Syria over long-standing Israeli objections after a Russian Il-20 surveillance plane was mistakenly shot down by Syrian air defenses attempting to engage Israeli fighters. In theory, the S-300s, which can employ 48N6 missiles with a theoretical maximum range of 120 miles, could pose a greater risk to the IDF’s frequent strikes over Syria.
In February 2019, satellite photos revealed at least three S-300 systems in Masyaf apparently in operational condition. However, the S-300 battery did not attempt to shoot down the incoming missiles on April 13. The defensive fire on April 13 instead likely came from short-range Pantsir-S1 or Tor-M1 air defense systems. Syrian state news sources claimed the S-300 crews had not yet completed their training.
However, the S-300’s silence may reflect a new understanding reached between Putin and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who won reelection just a week prior to the strike. Apparently, the latter agreed to provide fifteen minutes of advance notice of strikes to Russian forces.
Conflict analysis website T-Intelligence argued “The fact that the Syrian-operated SA-20B remained idle during last night’s IAF operation confirms that the use of the SAM system requires Russian approval. As expected, the Kremlin seems unwilling to authorize SAM attacks on IAF aircraft to protect Iranian assets.”
Debka later reported that a “Syrian military source” angrily criticized Russia for permitting the strike. “Russia may disapprove of the Israeli air strikes in Syria, but they will not intervene to stop them as they currently have an agreement with the Netanyahu administration.”
Russia and Iran are reportedly competing for influence over the Syrian government. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad favors Moscow, but his influential brother Maher has close ties with Iran. Early in 2019, Bashar began purging his brother’s supporters in the military, sparking several armed clashes.
Defense commentator Babak Taghvaee claimed IDF fighters used for the first time an indigenously-designed 1,256-pound air-launched supersonic missile called the Rampage, which would have been even harder than usual intercept. The long-range weapon, derived from the EXTRA artillery rocket, uses INS and GPS guidance and can be programmed to approach its targets from a specific angle at specific speed after launch and even calibrate the warhead to produce different levels of shrapnel to control collateral damage.
As the Rampage supposedly has a range measured in “hundreds” of kilometers, it could have launched well beyond the engagement range of the S-300PM2 system.
Alftayeh observes that a number of military and political factors might have weighed against employing the S-300 battery’s expensive 48N6 missiles.
“Due to the special nature of the system, and that the Russians are likely to have supplied only a few missiles to equip the launchers, I don’t think SAA will ever use it soon. The IAF has been using the tactic of saturating the attacked area with various kinds of missiles and bombs. It is not economical to use the S-300 against such an attack.”
He also noted that the aircraft launching the missiles were likely out of the S-300’s effective engagement range, particularly if the IDF employed Rampage missiles.
The mysteries surrounding the Israeli strike on Masyaf highlight how competing domestic factions and international actors continue to complicate Syria’s long and multi-faceted civil war.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.