Is Syria arming Hezbollah with Scuds?

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Just over a month ago, Israeli President Shimon Peres created a new panic in the Middle East by asserting that Syria had sent Scud missiles to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

"Syria claims that it wants peace, while simultaneously delivering Scud missiles to Hezbollah, which is constantly threatening the security of the state of Israel," Peres told Israel Radio. He later said: "Syria is playing a double game. On the one hand it talks peace, yet at the same time it hands over accurate Scud missiles to Hezbollah so that it can threaten Israel."

[Israel on edge: Hezbollah's missile threat]

The Scuds, with a range of 430 miles, would “sharply shift the military balance in the region,” reported the Washington Post on April 14. “Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006, has been able to strike cities and towns in northern Israel only with short-range missiles, but Scuds would allow it to attack Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.”

The allegations came at a particularly sensitive time. U.S.-Israel relations were strained over the continued building of settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The U.S. has moved toward better relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. The appointment of Robert Ford as the first U.S. ambassador to Damascus since 2005, when the last envoy was recalled, was being cleared by the Senate.

The U.S. State Department at first seemed to back up the allegations. It summoned the Syrian deputy chief of mission in Washington, then issued a statement condemning the “transfer of any arms, and especially ballistic missile systems such as the Scud, from Syria to Hezbollah.”

The next day, the State Department’s message was suddenly watered down.

"We are still looking into it,” Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley told reporters on April 20. “We haven't [made] any particular judgment at this point as to whether any transfer has taken place but ... this is something that we have great concern about.”

The same day, April 20, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri compared the claims to the allegations, later proved false, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion.

Hezbollah, in typical fashion, has neither denied nor confirmed that the group possesses Scuds, but the group’s deputy leader, Naim Qassem, said Israel was using the issue to divert attention from other issues, and hinted that it was possibly trying to sabotage America’s warming relations with Syria.

Qassem told London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat in April that the Scud controversy is "an inseparable part of Israel and the United States' attempt to divert attention from the difficult chapter in the ties between the two, and is also an attempt to divert attention from the existence of Israeli nuclear weapons, from the aggressive activity carried out in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and from the internal crisis which projects on Israel's image in the world."

“Raising the issue at this time stems from a political need unrelated to its content,” he added.

Earlier this month, the commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) said he had not seen any evidence of Scuds in his area of operations, which covers the entire south of Lebanon along the border with Israel.

“We have around 12,000 soldiers and three Lebanese army brigades in a small area. We haven’t seen a thing,” UNIFIL commander Maj. Gen. Alberto Asarta Cuevas told the Lebanese daily An Nahar newspaper on May 5. “We have no evidence of any Scud missiles in UNIFIL’s area of operations.”

“Scud missiles are big,” he added. “I’m sure there are no Scuds because it is very difficult to hide them.”

Lebanon watchers were quick to add their skepticism on the cacophony of media reports, congressional statements and regional analysts hawking the Scud “revelations.”

“I can’t help but wonder if all of the hullabaloo in the Western press isn’t stemming from the Soviet mystique of the Scud, one of the most famous missiles in history, and the weapon used by Saddam against Israel in 1991,” wrote Elias Muhanna, Harvard researcher and author of the popular Qifa Nabki blog on Lebanese politics. “To put it in medieval terms, it would be like raising the threat level to DEFCON 1 because the enemy’s army [previously equipped with standard issue longswords] had just recently received a shipment of scimitars. Whoooooo, scimitars! They’re … umm, sharper.”

Nicholas Blanford, a veteran Lebanon reporter who contributes to Jane's Defence Weekly and is writing a book on Hezbollah, wrote in Lebanon’s Executive Magazine that Scuds seemed an unlikely fit with Hezbollah’s usual modus operandi.

“Unlike Hezbollah’s other rockets, which can be fired from jerry-rigged launchers, Scuds are launched from specially-designed vehicles called Transporter-Erector-Launchers. Bringing these into Lebanon undetected would pose no small challenge for Hezbollah,” he wrote in the magazine’s May 2010 edition. “All in all, if I was Hezbollah’s armaments procurement officer and someone offered me Scuds, I think I would be inclined to say ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’”

But as critics dismissed the Israeli Scud claim as unlikely, the allegations were followed by statements from Israel’s top military intelligence officer that Hezbollah could now strike anywhere in Israel.

"Hezbollah currently has an arsenal of thousands of rockets of all kinds and ranges, including solid-fueled rockets, with a longer range and more accurate," said Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz on May 4.

According to the Jerusalem Post, the Israeli military believes that Hezbollah possesses Syrian-made surface-to-surface M600 missiles, a version of Iran’s Fateh 110, which reportedly have a range of 160 miles and carry a 1,000-pound warhead equipped with a GPS-guided navigation system. The smaller, solid fuel missile would seem a more likely fit for Hezbollah’s light infantry capabilities, which rely on guerrilla speed, stealth and ease of concealment to fight the more conventional Israeli military.

The Israelis say the missiles are being transferred from Syria, and constitute a new threat not just to the Israeli military, but also give the group the ability to hit Tel Aviv from deep inside Lebanon, far from Hezbollah’s traditional military zone in southern Lebanon, and out of easy reach from Israeli ground forces.

The problem with all of these statements out of Washington and Tel Aviv is that none of the information, whether the unlikely Scud allegations or the more plausible M600 claims, is new or surprising. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah bragged about the group’s ability to strike targets throughout Israel in February.

"If you strike martyr Rafik Hariri’s international airport in Beirut, we’ll strike your Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv," Nasrallah said in a February speech. "If you hit our ports, we will hit your ports. ... Today, on this occasion, I announce and accept this challenge."

At the time, this particular announcement was largely ignored by the Western press, the Israelis, the U.S. Congress and State Department. To Lebanon watchers it was news, and a “game-changing” new strategy.

“Prior to 2000, Israel and Hezbollah operated according to an unspoken set of 'tit-for-tat' conventions,” Qifa Nabki’s Muhanna wrote at the time. “The July 2006 war and the Gaza war that followed it changed the rulebook, ushering in the new 'Boss Has Gone Mad' strategy, with all of its attendant carnage.”

Whatever the reasons behind the sudden hand-wringing and alarmist reactions, the Syrian weapons transfers and Hezbollah’s capabilities are nothing new. Those facts have been on the ground for a while.

Whether those facts make war more likely, or if both sides’ arsenals are enough to establish a deterrence factor limiting the possibility of war, remains the real question surrounding Hezbollah’s new military capabilities.