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Is Syria arming Hezbollah with Scuds?

Israel again stokes fear of armed conflict in the region, but is it warranted?

“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.