Israeli accusations persist, but to what end?

6 05 2010

The Scud missile scandal of two weeks ago has turned into the M600 scandal of today. Does Israel really believe these accusations? Is Syria really smuggling these weapons to Hizballah? And if so, what does it mean for the future of the Levant?

While the prospect of Hizballah actually obtaining Scuds is discussed here, these three questions in particular deserve further examination. Taking the first question first, the government friendly Jerusalem Post certainly seems to believe the claims:

“While the Scud missiles that were recently transferred from Syria to Lebanon have a greater range, the M600 – due to the number of missiles Hizbullah has, and their accuracy – is perceived to be a more severe threat for the IDF.”

It seems to be an accepted fact that Hizballah now has Scuds, despite that it is highly unlikely and that no evidence has been presented in a case that should be easy to prove.

So if it’s not true, then why say it? One possible reason is that the topic of renewed sanctions against Syria was coming up in the United States (President Obama just re-upped the sanctions for another year). For US lawmakers, Scuds strike an emotional cord in a way that missiles like “Fajr-5” and “Katyusha” do not. Invoking the Scuds may have been just a dramatic yet simple way for Israel to ensure that the United States keeps the heat on Syria for another year.

Aside from guaranteeing renewed sanctions on Syria, the Scuds story didn’t amount to much. Syria denied it, Lebanon denied it, Hizballah had no comment, the United States said that it had no proof of the allegations, and over the last two weeks, evidence has yet to emerge from Israel. Today we are back in the same place, but with Israel claiming the M600’s this time around. If Israeli officials released the Scud story when they knew it was false, apparently they have no fear of “crying wolf”. But in any case, the transfer of M600 missiles from Syria to Hizballah in Lebanon is actually quite plausible.

The Scud is big, awkward, inaccurate, and hard to transport, all of which make it essentially useless to Hizballah. Even the smallest Scud is over a meter longer 1000 kg heavier than the M600. From the looks of it, the M600 could be transported using (and probably even launched from) a modified tractor trailer truck, which fits better with Hizballah’s m.o. of mobility and concealment. The M600 is said to carry a 500 kg warhead with a range that would easily encompass Haifa and even Tel Aviv.

M600

After the 2006 War, Hizballah claimed, if there was ever another war, that they would have another surprise for the IDF (the first “surprise” being their possession and dramatic use of anti-ship missiles). Many analysts have surmised that this must mean that Hizballah now has anti-aircraft weapons, as it seemed like the next logical step in the progression. Surface to surface, surface to ship, surface to air.

But what if Hassan Nasrallah was talking about the use of powerful and accurate missiles that could hit anywhere in Israel? In the past year, Nasrallah did claim that Hizballah had the capability of inflicting as much pain on Israel as the IDF could on Lebanon (“if you hit Hariri Airport, we will hit Ben Gurion”). This is more in line with surface-to-air missiles clobbering various strategic sites (ie airports, cities, nuclear reactors) than shooting down an IAF bomber.

The result is that Israel will have to consider whether it takes Nasrallah’s claims seriously, and decide whether or not Israel can live with the consequences of a future war with Hizballah. If Hizballah tries to inflict on Israel what was inflicted on Lebanon in 2006, the situation would be catastrophic for everyone involved. The good news is that this mutually assured destruction may actually help enforce some level of stability between the two.

For Syria however, things could turn out drastically different. All of these reports of weapons transfers involve Syria, and even if the Scud story isn’t true, it is still likely that Israel is reaching it’s saturation point with Damascus. Hizballah may be a threat to Israel, but this would not be the case without significant assistance from Syria over the years.Maybe it’s about time that Israel cut out the middle man.

If Israel did attack Syria, it is unclear if either Hizballah or Iran would come to Bashar Assad’s aid unless they were directly threatened as well. If Israel decides that it has had enough and launches a quick-but-massive bombing run on Syria, does Hizballah start showering Israel with missiles and rockets before any IDF bombs drop on Lebanon? Does Iran launch an attack with its own military, or does it sit idly by, as it did with Hizballah in 2006? In the Middle East, as anywhere else, only the guns you have are the ones that you can depend on.

In the big picture, Israel’s main concern is Iran. But every day that goes by the situation gets harder on Israel because Hizballah continues to grow stronger with the help of Syria. And if Israel is ever going to strike Iran, it must also consider dealing with Hizballah. If the situation continues to escalate, it would not be shocking to see Israel strike Syria in the same way it did in 2007: with no warning or fanfare.

With all the big talk however, not much has changed over the course of the year. Iran continues to progress in its enrichment capabilities, Hizballah continues to grow in its military capabilities, Syria continues to be a friend to both, and Israel continues to helplessly fume as the days go by. On one hand, the circumstances point towards an indefinite stalemate, but on the other, with Syria continuing to aid Hizballah and Iran continuing to develop its nuclear program, something has to give at some point.

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