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MABAM: The "War Between the Wars"

A fire burning at the Latakia Port in Syria following an IAF airstrike (SANA)

For those who regularly follow the news, it is not uncommon to wake up to a headline along the lines of ‘Israel Strikes Targets In Syria Overnight.’ But what is really going on? This blog post explores the broader campaign behind these frequent operations.

These operations in Syria are part of the IDF’s innovative and ongoing operation known as the “War Between the Wars” campaign, or “MABAM” in Hebrew. The operation—which began ten years ago—has several objectives, the main one being to counter the growing Iranian influence and presence in Syria and to disrupt attempts to smuggle advanced weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. To achieve this, the operation involves a range of covert and overt actions, such as airstrikes, cyberattacks, assassinations, and intelligence gathering.

MABAM relies on various units from the IDF, with intelligence being the key factor for each mission’s success. The intelligence directorate, AMAN, gathers and processes the information needed to plan and execute the strikes. AMAN has three main units: 9900, which deals with visual intelligence; 8200, which handles signals intelligence; and 504, which is responsible for human intelligence. Unit 8200 is the largest and most famous of the three.

The missions are executed predominantly by the Israeli Air Force (IAF), who are provided targets by the intelligence forces that are then approved by both the government and the IDF General Staff. The IAF employs its pilots and aircraft to then destroy these targets. Using fighter jets and ground-to-ground munitions—among them the 5th generation F-35i “Adir” fighter jet—the IAF launches the attacks on targets across Syria, from the Latakia Port to Aleppo, Musyaf to Damascus. Popular targets include the Damascus International Airport, which is often used by Iranian cargo airlines to smuggle weapons.

The IAF must contend with the Syrian Air Defense Force (SyADF), which operates a wide range of anti-air systems that target incoming missiles and aircraft. The IAF lost an F-16 fighter jet in 2018 to Syrian anti-aircraft missiles; however, both aviators managed to eject over Israeli territory and survived the ordeal.

Satellite imagery and analysis by ImageSat Intl. shows the aftermath of an airstrike on Aleppo International Airport

The strikes are generally reported by citizens across Syria, who document active air defenses (a hallmark sign of an incoming strike), publishing videos and photos of explosions and, occasionally, the aftermath of the strikes to the web. Additionally, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) often confirms the strikes. Private researchers (whose work is often cited by journalists at prominent media organizations) use various means to investigate and determine the target and damage. Images shared online by locals and publicly available satellite imagery are generally the primary way of analyzing the aftermath.

The Israeli government has a policy of not taking credit for individual strikes in Syria. Instead, they claim to have struck thousands of targets throughout the operation’s existence. This is not to say they have never taken responsibility for the strikes, but they usually only do that after an incident occurs that is not their pre-planned strike. For instance, after the previously mentioned F-16 was downed, they admitted to widespread attacks on the Syrian AD system.

One of the trademarks of MABAM is its stellar safety and accuracy record. Airwars, a non-profit watchdog specializing in documenting civilian casualties, says that the strikes in Syria have resulted in some 17-43 civilian casualties. This starkly contrasts other foreign actors’ military actions in Syria, which have been far more destructive.

Overall, due to the sensitive nature of the targets and the overall geopolitical effects across the region, it is difficult to say whether or not MABAM can be classified as an overall success. After all, it hasn’t been perfect at halting the weapons shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and there are other errors. However, many aspects of the “War Between the Wars” campaign are unparalleled compared to any other campaign.

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