Friday, April 16, 2010

A Gift From Damascus

While the U.S. has criticized Israel for hampering the Mid-East peace process, other, more serious impediments have apparently transpired across the border in Lebanon.

Senior Israeli officials claim that Syria has transferred Scud ballistic missiles to Hizballah terrorists in Lebanon, a move that puts all of Israel's major population centers at risk. While Tel Aviv has not confirmed the number and type of missiles involved in the transfer, one Israeli official identified them as the Scud D, the variant with the greatest accuracy and longest range.

As The New York Times reports:

The officials added that the delivery of the missiles — strongly denied by Syria and yet to be confirmed by sources outside of Israel — would change the strategic balance in the area and increase the risk of war.

The issue was raised by President
Shimon Peres, who during a visit to Paris told journalists earlier this week, “Syria claims that it wants peace, while simultaneously delivering Scud missiles to Hezbollah, which is constantly threatening the security of the State of Israel.” He added, after meeting with the French prime minister, Fran├žois Fillon, that Syria was playing “a double game.” Mr. Fillon, who was recently in the Syrian capital, Damascus, had told Mr. Peres that the government of President Bashar al-Assad wanted peace with Israel.


“This creates a new situation,” another Israeli official said, insisting on anonymity because there were continuing diplomatic efforts to deal with the concern. “These are more accurate and far more dangerous.”

With a circular error probability of only 50 meters, the Scud D is much more accurate than other Scud variants, which have an accuracy of 400-3000 meters. First offered for export in the late 1980s, the Scud D carries a conventional, biological or nuclear payload that actually separates from the missile airframe. Some Scud D models are also fitted with a nose cone camera that allows the missile to compare the target area with imagery stored in its on-board memory, improving accuracy.

Fired from Hizballah operating locations in central and northern Lebanon, Scud Ds could easily reach Tel Aviv, less than 130 miles away. Jerusalem is also within striking distance, although that city lies close the maximum range of a Scud D, fired from potential launch sites in Lebanon.

Both U.S. and French officials said they are aware of Israeli concerns, but could not confirm if the missiles have actually been delivered to Hizballah. "Clearly, this puts Lebanon at risk," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told the Times. Apparently, no one bothered to ask Mr. Crowley about all those Israelis living between Jerusalem and the northern border.

Still, western officials deserve some credit for hinting at the logistics and basing issues associated with such a transfer. Syria's expansion of its own ballistic missile force over the past decade has been accompanied by the large-scale construction of storage bunkers, bases and other facilities needed to support such weapons. Reading between the lines of those comments from Washington and Paris, it would appear that western intelligence has not detected the types of upgrades needed to support a Hizballah Scud force.

The same holds true for the volume and type(s) of personnel training required to train Hizballah fighters to operate and maintain those missiles--and the warheads they carry. However, Damascus and their terrorist allies could easily overcome those issues by using Syrian technicians to handle the task until Hizballah personnel get up to speed. But that would only increase prospects for an Israeli preemptive strike, since Tel Aviv would view the presence of Syrian missiles (and crews) on Lebanese soil as an act of war.

On the other hand, the terror group has been clearly rearming at a rapid pace since its month-long war with Israel in 2006. Israeli intelligence officers believe Hizballah has acquired as many as 40,000 new rockets--a claim that U.S. intel agencies generally support. But most of those weapons are the same types used against Israeli targets almost four years ago--older, unguided models that are effective as a barrage weapons, but have no pin-point targeting capabilities.

Despite the lack of western confirmation, the possibility of a Scud transfer to Hizballah cannot be dismissed. Syria has an effective satellite warning program, and could easily time missile movements during gaps in our overhead coverage. The employment of other denial and deception techniques (including advanced camouflage) would make it more difficult to detect the missile transfer, particularly when such techniques are also used to cover the construction of underground facilities.

In other words, it is possible to miss the excavation of underground facilities and the movement of missiles into those complexes. It would be illuminating to know what proof the Israelis have offered in their private discussions with American intelligence officials.
ADDENDUM: Some military writers in Israel believe the missile transfer is a deterrent move, aimed at preventing future IAF strikes on Syrian territory, similar to the 2007 attack on a suspected nuclear complex near the Iraqi border. But we're not quite on-board with that assessment. Hizballah's acquisition of Scuds serves several purposes for Damascus. First, it further disperses SSM assets in the region (complicating targeting for the IDF). Secondly, the transfer puts some missiles closer to Israeli territory, reducing reaction times and forcing the Israelis to deal with a missile threat along yet another axis of attack.


tfhr said...

It would be interesting to learn what percentage of Israel's nuclear deterrent is / will be threatened by a transfer of SCUDs into Lebanon.

As you mentioned, Israel will almost certainly judge this development as a provocation but I would suggest that in the hands of Hezbollah, the threat is meant on behalf of Iran as it continues down the road to it's own nuclear capability.

After Israel was shocked by the unexpected ASCM attack on one of its ships by Hezbollah, I doubt many within the defense establishment will take this development lightly.

If SCUD-Ds are being moved into Lebanon, I would rate the transfer only slightly less provocative than the feared arrival of S-300s in Iran. Israel's hand is being played for them and at this rate, I would not be surprised to see a reaction within a matter of months.

Schwerepunkt said...

Hezbollah is less a terrorist organization than it is a sectarian-based political movement with a multi-faceted organization that happens to include military, intelligence and special operations and special weapons capabilities. But they also have members of parliament and cabinet ministers in the Government of Lebanon, community centers, health clinics, schools, and industrial entities.

The appellation "terrorist"is clearly a highly contrived legalistic one driven by POLITICAL considerations in the US and Israel. This designation has more to do with their alliance with Iran and Syria, their opposition to Israel and their work to undermine US influence in the region, than the nature of the organization or their methods and actions.

Have they carried out unconventional attacks against foreign forces in Lebanon? Certainly. And they, or individuals affiliated with them, may have also been involved in the attack in Buenos Aires against overly broadly defined "Israeli" targets.

It was a despicable attack against a civilian target, no doubt, but still one that could loosely fall within the bounds of open conflict with the State of Israel. It is interesting they have not engaged in similar attacks since. I believe they have decided it was counter-productive.

In any case, I don't see much difference between that and Israeli air and artillery strikes in populated areas of Lebanon -- even protected UN compounds -- that have killed thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians, or Israeli assassination squads that operate, apparently, across the globe with impunity.

As for the SCUD-Ds, surely you don't take such weapons to be a serious military threat to Israel, do you? Short of WMD warheads, they are a mere nuisance whose value is largely in the realm of propaganda and deterrence. Yes, now Israel cannot bomb Lebanon on a whim without taking into account the possibility that Hezbollah will retaliate against Israeli cities. Not necessarily a bad thing if they do, in fact, deter the Israelis from doing stupid things. But they are practically useless from a military perspective because they are notoriously inaccurate.