The airstrikes targeted locations at the Damascus International Airport and the airport in Dimas as well as Syrian army positions near the cities of Quneitra, Damascus and Dimas. At the Damascus airport, the alleged target was a warehouse used for import and export holdings — a logical place to store weaponry such as Fateh-110 guided missiles intended for Hezbollah. According to Stratfor sources, an Iranian cargo aircraft was also damaged in the strike, though this report has not been confirmed. In Dimas, the Israeli air force supposedly targeted four Iranian-supplied Karrar drones known to have been operated by Hezbollah personnel.
The other strikes targeted Syrian military units, including the 90th Brigade in Quneitra and units of the 4th Armored Division in the Dimas area. The locations of these targets indicate that the strikes likely were not intended to disrupt Syrian military movements or diminish its capabilities in fighting rebel forces. More likely, Syrian air defense elements within these units were engaged in order to guarantee the safe passage of the Israeli aircraft that struck the targets at the airports.
Examining the Targets
Iranian Fateh-110 missiles gained international attention recently because of renewed claims that Tehran delivered such weaponry to Hezbollah. Indeed, Israel has long claimed that Hezbollah's arsenal included this type of missile. In 2010, for example, Israeli officials said Syrian M-600 missiles (a clone of the Fateh-110, produced in Syria with Iranian assistance) had been moved to Lebanon. Israel also reportedly targeted Fateh-110 missiles with strikes on the Damascus International Airport in May 2013. Destroying such missiles inside Lebanon and in Hezbollah's possession would be a daunting task, especially considering the militant group's hardened positions in the country. Such a strike could also risk escalating into another direct military confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah, on par with the 2006 Lebanon war. By comparison, disrupting Hezbollah supply lines running through Syria is much less dangerous to Israel.
The other system allegedly engaged on Dec. 7, a type of Iranian-made drone known as the Karrar, has been a source of considerable frustration for Israel Defense Forces. Hezbollah has flown these drones over Israeli territory in the past, and their potential deployment in attacks deep inside Israel poses a considerable risk. Hezbollah considers these drones a potentially useful deterrent to Israeli attempts to exploit natural gas claims in disputed maritime territory. Concerns over the latter issue may be growing in Israel in light of Lebanese parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri's recent condemnation of Israeli activities off Lebanon's southern coast. Berri urged the Lebanese government to move ahead with long-delayed attempts to license exploration blocks.
The Likelihood of Russian Missiles
It was initially reported that advanced Russian air defense weaponry was the target of the attack, but this is unlikely. Moscow strongly condemned the Israeli action, but Russia has been a vocal critic of past Israeli airstrikes inside Syria and will likely maintain this position because of its continuing support for the al Assad government. Though Russia provides military support to Syria, and though the risk of such equipment falling into Hezbollah's hands is very real, claims that advanced air defense systems such as the Russian-made S-300 have been prepared for delivery to Hezbollah are probably inaccurate. It is not certain that the equipment struck at the Damascus International Airport included Fateh-110 missiles. The airstrikes may have been intended to destroy a different type of system, including guided air defense weaponry. But Russia's diplomatic response to the strikes would likely have been the same either way.
Considering the relatively limited amount of munitions dropped over Syria, along with the locations of these strikes, the operation was most probably targeting equipment intended for Hezbollah. If Israel's intent was to disrupt Syrian military operations, these airstrikes would fail to produce notable shifts on the battlefield. Instead, Israel is seeking to mitigate direct threats to Israeli security posed by Hezbollah, while continuing to avoid direct intervention in the Syrian civil war.