Analysis: Are Syrian and Iranian threats just bluster?

US military expert says Syria is capable of attacking Israel, as it has hundreds of scud missiles and others from Iran, such as the Fateh-110 surface-to-surface missile that has at least a 200-km range.

A Syrian regime gathering point is seen through a sniper  (photo credit: Reuters)
A Syrian regime gathering point is seen through a sniper
(photo credit: Reuters)
Syrian and Iranian discourse over the past week has been threatening non-stop against Western intervention in Syria.
Leaks to the Arab and Iranian press by Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah officials include warnings that death awaits Western countries if they choose to attack. This talk is reminiscent of previous rhetoric on the Arab street issued by figures such as former Iraqi information minister Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, also known as “Baghdad Bob” for his flagrantly exaggerated propaganda leading up to the 2003 Iraq war.
“The infidels are committing suicide by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad,” he had claimed at the time to CNN reporters.
What are Syria’s real capabilities? The Jerusalem Post spoke with Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who served in the US Defense Intelligence Agency for 34 years and closely follows Middle Eastern military affairs.
White says that Syria has the capability to attack most of Israel, as it has hundreds of scud missiles and others from Iran, such as the Fateh-110 surface- to-surface missile with at least a 200-km. range. Syrian units have experience using these missiles, he added.
However, he believes that Syria is not interested in retaliation at this time as it “does not want to add more enemies to its existing problems.” He thinks that Syrian president Bashar Assad is likely to dig in and take the punch and hope the attack blows over.
A more likely form of retaliation, he says, would be covert terrorist actions.
Asked if a Syrian commander could take the initiative and order an attack against Israel without authorization from his superiors, White responded that it’s possible but unlikely.
Israeli and US intelligence assessments believe that Syrian soldiers tend to follow the chain of command, he said.
In addition, the Syrian military is capable of responding to a Western attack, White said, adding that if Syria has the Russian P-800 supersonic antiship cruise missile (Yakhont) and is trained in its use, its army could pose a threat to ships off shore. He is not sure if Syria has such weapons, especially since the mysterious attack on Syria in July, which reportedly targeted these missiles.
In any case, US forces “would not be in working range of that system and it would have no effect against aircraft,” White said.
Regarding anti-aircraft SAM weapon systems, he believes that much of Syria’s capability has been reduced by the civil war. Rebels have overrun and taken a number of SAM positions and support facilities, and many others have been involved in the ground fighting, which raises questions about their operational readiness, he pointed out.
The SA-3 anti-aircraft missile system has been modernized, he said, adding that the US understands the situation well.
The SA-17, he continued, is different in that it is a much more modern system, but it was one of the systems mysteriously struck, though it could pose a threat if ready.
Asked if previous alleged Israeli attacks against Syria show that the US may have an easy time operating in Syrian airspace, White responded that it provides some indication, however, previous attacks were special operations and brief, whereas the American attack planned against Syria would be less of a surprise and would carry on for a longer period of time.
“The airforce is going to want to have these systems neutralized,” he added.
Edward Hunt, an aerospace and defense consultant for HIS Janes in London, told the Post that Syria possesses more than 500 scud missiles and similar surface-to-surface weapons which could be fired at targets in Turkey or Jordan or at anyone on the ground in Syria itself.
Hunt believes that Syria has at least 20 of the P-800 Yakhont anti-ship missiles.
They also have “naval fast attack craft and Anti-Submarine Warfare helicopters plus the remaining air force combat aircraft,” he added. “But obviously they would be more vulnerable if they tried to attack a US or other naval vessel.”
Syria possesses a mixed range of surface to air anti-aircraft weapons, “some old and some quite new, like the SA-10, SA- 11, SA-19 and SA-22.”
“It is not clear how effective they would be when facing well-trained and equipped US, British [and] French pilots using stand-off weapons,” said Hunt. “In the absence of the S- 300 long-range SAMs that Russia seems not to have delivered, that’s probably the best they have outside of unconventional methods.”
Prof. Efraim Karsh, a scholar of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College, who recently joined the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) at Bar-Ilan University, told the Post that he sees a low probability that Syria would attack Israel.
According to Karsh, Assad knows that the strikes will probably be limited, “so he speaks in a large voice, but he probably is already in a bunker, waiting for it to be done and over with.”
He says there may be a silver lining in a Western attack in that it could foreshadow one with Iran. Syria’s military may be better than Iran’s, and if the West is successful, it may show that attacking Iran might not be as difficult as previously assumed, he said.
On the other hand, should the attack go horribly wrong, it will drive the final nail in the West's willingness to confront Iran, an eventuality too dreadful to contemplate.Crisis in Syria - full coverage