War seems to be looming on the eve of next week’s 62nd Independence Day celebrations.
This is not a war that will erupt immediately – Military Intelligence officers’ assessment, presented to the cabinet, is that there is a slim chance of war this year. But based on regional trends, particularly along the northern border, war could be closer than some would like to think.
One example of how this war could break out was provided this week by a Kuwaiti newspaper, which revealed what many in Israel had known – that Syria had recently transferred advanced Scud missiles to Hizbullah.
Bringing back memories of the 39 Scuds that Saddam Hussein launched into Israel during the Gulf War, the transfer of the missile, capable of carrying massive conventional warheads, without a doubt met the definition of what Israel has called “equilibrium-breaking” weaponry.
This type of weaponry has other names as well – “game changer” and “balance-altering” are two. Whatever it is called, the idea behind the term is that the military platform will alter the strategic balance.
Since the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and more recently following Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip last year, the IDF has repeatedly warned of Hizbullah’s and Hamas’s military buildup and of the consequences of the transfer of balance-altering weaponry by Iran and Syria to these two terrorist organizations.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak has warned more than once about a potential response to the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hizbullah, saying again this week that “the introduction of systems that disturb the balance endanger stability and calm.”
Despite the threats, Syrian President Bashar Assad apparently felt confident enough to go through with the transfer of the Scud missiles to Hizbullah. The Syrians have a number of different types of Scuds, the most advanced being the Scud D, which can reach any target in Israel and can also carry a nonconventional warhead.
In September 2007, dozens of Syrian military officers and Iranian engineers were reportedly killed in an explosion at a secret Syrian military facility in Aleppo as the officers were trying to mount a chemical warhead on a Scud-C.
THE PROCESS that culminated with the transfer of the Scud missiles began, according to the Kuwaiti paper, in 2000, following the death of Syrian president Hafez Assad. Bashar, Assad’s 35-year-old son, took over as president and was fairly quickly taken in by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic Hizbullah leader. If during the elder Assad’s term Nasrallah could find himself waiting for hours in the lobby for a meeting, today he has an open invitation to the presidential palace in Damascus.
With the strengthening ties came the transfer of advanced weaponry. Hizbullah until 2000 had relied mostly on short-range Katyusha rockets, but after the IDF withdrawal from south Lebanon, it began to stockpile longer-range rockets, such as the Iranian Zelzal and Fajr. Today, it is believed to have Scuds and other assorted Syrian-made longer-range rockets.
Military Intelligence’s assessment is that Syria is willing to transfer every military platform it has to Hizbullah. If there is something that Hizbullah does not yet have, it is because it has not asked for it.
In addition to Scuds, Israel is reportedly concerned by the possible transfer of advanced surface-to-air missile systems, particularly the SA-8, which would impair the air force’s ability to fly over Lebanon. While the systems may not yet have been transferred, there have been reports of Hizbullah fighters training on them in Syria.
Starting a war due to an enemy’s military buildup is against Israel’s long-standing policy of not being the side to start wars in the Middle East. Nevertheless, following the Second Lebanon War, a debate erupted in the General Staff over the need to stop Hizbullah from rebuilding its infrastructure and obtaining advanced weaponry. Most generals were against attacking the convoy of trucks crossing almost daily from Syria to Lebanon. A few were in favor and believed that a military buildup is a casus belli.
That is why it came as no surprise when Israel decided to bomb a specific convoy of weapons crossing Syria into Lebanon, but at the last minute changed its mind. What exactly changed is not known, although considering the current crisis with the Obama administration, it is possible that an American veto prevented an IDF strike. In any event, it would be difficult for Israel to explain such an action considering that Hizbullah has not attacked since the end of the 2006 war.
The larger question is if Scuds are really a balance-altering weaponry. Even before obtaining them, Hizbullah was known to have sophisticated rockets that could reach any point within Israel.
While Scuds are large and can carry big warheads, due to their size they need to be launched from massive truck-mounted launchers. This makes them difficult to hide and creates an easier target for an air force.
Hizbullah’s interest in Scuds is not surprising. Considering the
psychological effect a Scud attack would have, the Scud is something
that likely appealed to Nasrallah and his Iranian and Syrian sponsors.
It also fits in to the more general trends among terrorist
organizations and Western militaries these days. While modern
militaries, like the IDF, are constantly developing and pursuing
sophisticated and accurate smart bombs, terrorist organizations are
going exactly in the opposite direction, looking for larger missiles
and rockets that can cause more devastation. The reason is that they
want to create a balance of deterrence with Israel.
To say that Israel has never attacked a country over a military buildup
would not be completely accurate. In 1981, it bombed a nuclear reactor
in Iraq, and in 2007 it bombed a nuclear reactor in Syria.
The difference, officials pointed out this week, was between nuclear
and conventional capabilities. Risking war over the transfer of a few
Scuds might not have been worth it.