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Tensions were high in the Mediterranean after a joint US-Israeli missile launch that spooked Syria's Russian backers.
JERUSALEM — On the matter of Syria, Tuesday began with confusion and ended in a conundrum.
In the early morning, the Russian defense ministry revealed that its radar had detected "two ballistic objects" launched over the Eastern Mediterranean.
The announcement was initially greeted with bewilderment. Syria reported that no missiles had landed on their soil, and then, according to Russian news agencies, added that objects had "fallen harmlessly into the sea."
In fact, Israel, in cooperation with the United States Missile Defense Agency, had carried out a test of what is known as a "target missile" — whose sole purpose is to take the place of an actual incoming missile in practice sessions for anti-missile defense systems.
The “sparrow" missile, as it is called, was successfully intercepted, but by the time that fact became clear, it seemed almost irrelevant.
Apart from its timing, the missile test over the sea was a routine, commonplace event. But Israeli leaders, speaking after the uncertainty had been cleared up, were eager to emphasize its bearing in today's uncertain Middle Eastern arena.
Speaking on Israel Army Radio, Israel's defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon, said his country's military preparedness "over the past week was based on numerous technological capabilities which need to be tested," adding, "these need practice and we will continue to develop and investigate and provide the army with the best military systems in the world." At the same time, Ya'alon said Israel was stepping down its conflict readiness, sending anti-missile Iron Dome batteries back to their bases and releasing reserve soldiers.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck an even more challenging tone.
“Our lives depend on an iron wall. We are building an iron wall, an Iron Dome, and we have an iron will. These are the things that give us the strength to defend ourselves and also to tell those who would attack us: it is not worth your while."
Once the facts were in place, new questions arose.
"The test itself was completely routine and planned long ago. A test like this can't wait until there's a tension-free period in the region,” said Uzi Rubin, one of the world’s leading experts on missile defense systems. “These tests are undertaken when they are ready. It’s the Russian announcement that is not routine. That is an indication of how explosive reality is right now."
He continued: "The Russians have early detection devices like everyone else, but they wouldn’t normally say anything. What is astonishing is that they didn't immediately identify the missile. These things are visible in micro-seconds. So I'm astonished that they misidentified it, and made a decision to announce it. I don't know what happened."
He emphasized that the Ankor missile, as the sparrow is called in Hebrew, cannot be confused with an offensive weapon. "They should have seen it would fall into the middle of the Mediterranean," he said.
By the end of the day, other calculations seemed to have taken over, and their principal audience was neither in Syria nor in Israel, but in Iran.
Speaking to members of Congress, US President Barack Obama said that his intended message, with "a limited, proportional strike" punishing Syria for the alleged use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21, was directed "also to other countries that may be interested in testing some of these international norms."
In case the message remained ambiguous, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel restated the point when testifying later in the day before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the authorization of the use of military force in Syria.
"A refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America's other security commitments, including the president's commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," he said. "The word of the United States must mean something."
Of that there seems little doubt.
But what form that may take remained unclear at the end of a tense day filled with uncertainty and hair-trigger statements, as senators continued debating and as the principal recipient of the American message was revealed to be not only Syria, but the country standing in all ways behind it: Iran.