July 3, 2010

Iranian radars to Syria - some context

According to press reports, confirmed by an unnamed U.S. Defense Department official, Iran has provided "sophisticated" radar systems to Syria. The press has taken this report and extrapolated it into a huge technological advance in Syrian military capabilities, even speculating that it might also be beneficial to Iranian-Syrian proxy Hizballah in Lebanon.

While any increase in Syrian military capabilities is of concern - the United States is committed to ensuring that Israel maintains its qualitative superiority over its Arab neighbors - this transfer should be viewed with some context. The claims that this radar alters the situation is much overstated.

It should come as no surprise that Iran is either selling or providing military equipment, including weapons, to Syria. Persian Iran and Arab Syria have been close allies since the early years of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Iran is the key sponsor of Hizballah - Syria is the conduit for that support. The two countries also have a mutual defense pact and an intelligence sharing agreement. Syrian air defense officers would no doubt warn Iran if the Syrians detected the movement of Israeli aircraft toward Iran.

Although the transfer reportedly took place last fall, the appearance of the information in the media prompted the U.S. State Department to demarche the Syrians over its concerns. I was a bit surprised that the State Department is reacting to media reports to determine whether to voice concerns to a foreign government rather than conducting foreign policy based on U.S. interests, but that's for another article.

Syria has a large inventory of Russian and former Warsaw Pact radars - most of its air defense system is of that origin as well. That inventory includes long range radars that cover the northern Israeli air bases. However, as Israel has repeatedly demonstrated, these radars are subject to electronic combat techniques - jamming, spoofing, etc. Perhaps the Iranians have supplied the Syrians with a radar that is less susceptible to these tactics, but it is hard to imagine that the Israelis will be unable to elude detection if they fly to Iran via the expected southern route over Saudi Arabia or Iraq.

As far as speculation that these radars might help Hizballah more effectively employ its rockets and missiles, I don't find that to be credible for several reasons. If the Syrians were to transfer a sophisticated air defense radar system to Hizballah, the Israelis would attack and destroy it. There are certain capabilities that Israel will not allow - that includes anything that challenges their air dominance over Lebanon. These radars also are not useful in targeting of the relatively inaccurate rockets and missiles in the Hizballah inventory.

All in all, it might make a nice news story and give the Obama Administration the opportunity to act like they are standing up to Iran and Syria, but the reality is that this is a minor change, if any, to the situation in the region.