April 14, 2010

Scuds for Hizballah - a game changer

According to senior Israeli officials, including President Shimon Peres, Syria has provided Scud missiles to Hizballah in Lebanon. If true, this represents a major change in the military situation in the region and provides Hizballah with the capability to strike targets virtually anywhere in Israel. During the 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah, the militia was only able to fire rockets south of Haifa but not as far as Tel Aviv.

I am surprised that Syria would consider the transfer of the Scud missile system to Hizballah. Maintaining and operating the Scud, be it the original Soviet/Russian version or the reverse-engineered North Korean version (Syria has both types), is not something done by amateurs - it requires a certain amount of training and a fair amount of logistics support. The Scud is a liquid-fueled missile - handling of liquid fuel is hazardous for even trained personnel. Transfer of this system to Hizballah would have required extensive training in either Syria or Iran.

If in fact Hizballah is now in possession of the Scud, the Israelis should be able to detect it. Israeli reconnaissance flights - manned and unmanned - operate over Lebanon daily. Movement of Scud system components will be spotted. Perhaps the Israelis already have intelligence imagery showing the presence of the Scuds in Lebanon. I for one would like to see that before I truly believe this reporting.

Provision of the Scuds to Hizballah would signal a major shift in Syrian - and likely Iranian - policy toward Lebanon and its proxy force there. It is one thing to provide Katyusha and Fajr rockets to Hizballah - these give the group the ability to hit targets in northern Israel. That's bad enough, but providing the group with the ability to strike Tel Aviv or even Jerusalem significantly ups the ante. An attack on either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem would undoubtedly trigger an overwhelming Israeli response against Hizballah targets in Lebanon and possibly even military targets in Syria itself.

Why would Syrian President Bashar al-Asad take this step? The timing is interesting. The Obama Administration has just named an ambassador to Damascus to fill the post that has been vacant since Syria was accused of complicity in (or actually conducting) the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut. Despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bellicose rhetoric, there were some indications that Syria and Israel might be able to resume talks on the peace process. President Obama has made the Syria-Israel track an issue his administration would like to resolve.

Sending Scuds to Hizballah is probably not a wise decision for the Syrians. It changes the equation too radically. Years ago when the Syrians introduced the SA-8 air defense missile system into Lebanon, the Israels conducted preemptive strikes forcing the Syrians to remove the systems.

Introduction of the Scud surface-to-surface missile represents a serious threat to Israel. It goes beyond a deterrent - it will actually trigger the action it is supposed to prevent. If they are present in Lebanon, expect Israeli military strikes against them.