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Is Syria giving Scuds to Hezbollah?

FILE - In this April 1996 file photo, two Hezbollah fighters stand near Katyusha rockets in the southern village of Ein Qana, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari, file)

BEIRUT: Is Hezbollah set to acquire Scud ballistic missiles as a consequence of the worsening security situation in Syria?

According to recent Israeli media reports, Israel’s military officials are fretting that the turmoil in Syria and the slowly improving capabilities of the armed opposition could compel the Syrian authorities to place some of its ballistic missile arsenal under Hezbollah’s protection.

The speculation has swirled with a video clip uploaded to YouTube on June 14 showing a convoy of military vehicles, including four Scud transporters carrying missiles, driving along a road purportedly in the area of Damascus.

The allegations that Hezbollah may have acquired control of Scud missiles first surfaced in April 2010, although there were conflicting reports as to whether any missiles had actually entered Lebanon.

But the escalating violence in Syria has renewed interest in the fate of Syria’s stockpile of ballistic missiles, as well as its suspected arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.

A unit of Free Syrian Army rebels earlier this month briefly seized a military base near Al-Ghantou in the Homs province. Video footage taken by the fighters showed several SA-2 anti-aircraft missiles on their launchers out in the open.

A subsequent counterattack by regular Syrian troops forced the rebels to withdraw, but the inference was clear: Syrian military bases – and the weapons contained within – are no longer necessarily secure from the reach of the armed opposition.

The FSA may have little need for advanced long-range air defense systems or ballistic missiles, but the potential vulnerability of some military bases appears to have compelled the Syrian authorities to begin making contingency plans.

According to diplomatic sources, increased activity has been detected at Syrian military facilities where Scud missiles are stored, including the movement of rockets, the construction of new underground bunkers and the expansion of existing facilities.

The diplomatic sources assess that the activity is a sign that the Assad regime is attempting to safeguard its ballistic missiles to prevent them falling into the hands of the armed opposition.

The hills either side of the highway linking Damascus to Homs contain numerous underground military bases. Some of them, such as those near Adra, Dumayr, and between Al-Qastal and An-Nasriyah, are suspected missile storage and launch sites. The protected entrances to the underground tunnels are clearly visible on satellite images carried by the Google Earth portal. Another underground facility appears to be under construction 10 kilometers southwest of Al-Qastal with at least six new tunnel entrances.

Israel says it regards Hezbollah’s acquisition of Scuds – along with advanced air defense systems – as a “red line” which would require a military response.

Nonetheless, it is uncertain whether Israel would risk triggering a new war with Hezbollah for the sake of attempting to knock out a handful of Scud missiles, assuming the Israelis can locate the storage sites in the first place or catch the Scud convoys on the move.

In some respects, Israel has been facing this quandary since 2000 when Hezbollah first began acquiring rockets larger than the extended range 122mm Katyushas it used in the 1990s during the Israeli occupation of the south. First, it was the Iranian Fajr family of rockets which increased Hezbollah’s reach from about 30 to 70 kilometers. Around 2002, Hezbollah received Zelzal-1 and Zelzal-2 610mm rockets, the latter having a range of 189 kilometers.

With the arrival in Lebanon of each new and larger rocket system, the Israelis had to assess whether to do something about it. Attacking suspected storage sites containing the missiles may have dented Hezbollah’s offensive options, but it also could have triggered a war that neither side wanted. That was the “balance of terror” that helped maintain a tense calm along the Lebanon-Israel border between 2000 and 2006.

The “balance of terror” is fundamentally the same today as before 2006, although the stakes are considerably higher. Today, Hezbollah has M600 guided ballistic missiles which, although of shorter range than Scuds, could still take down targets in Tel Aviv.

If Hezbollah is spotted attempting to smuggle Scud missiles into Lebanon, would the Israelis act on their “red line” principle and launch airstrikes to destroy them?

Such a step could be the catalyst for the long-awaited “next round” between

these enemies, one that assuredly would be devastating for Lebanon but would also wreak the greatest level of destruction on the Israeli home front since 1948.

Hezbollah’s leadership regularly boasts that nowhere in Israel is beyond the reach of its rocket arsenal, which certainly would be true if it has acquired Scud-D missiles. The Scud-D has a range of 700 kilometers which means Hezbollah could launch one from Lebanon’s northern border and hit a target in southern Israel.

Still, it is not entirely clear whether Hezbollah would seek to add Scuds to its inventory. Smuggling 12.5-meter-long Scud-Ds and their even larger dedicated Transporter-Erector-Launcher vehicles into Lebanon is a formidable logistical undertaking, even for Hezbollah which has had three decades to perfect its skills in clandestine cross-border arms transfers.

Furthermore, unlike Hezbollah’s arsenal of solid-fueled artillery rockets which can be quickly set up and fired, Scuds are liquid-fueled which entails a complicated and lengthy launch preparation procedure leaving the batteries vulnerable to being spotted and attacked by Israeli aircraft in a time of war.

Even the advantage of the Scud’s range may be a case of overkill for Hezbollah when one considers that there are few strategic targets south of Tel Aviv that might justify the tiresome logistics of employing the missiles in the first place.

Israel appears to have assessed that although Hezbollah has acquired control over some Scuds, it does not intend to deploy them in Lebanon until the outbreak of a war so as to avoid a pre-emptive strike.

However, wartime is exactly when the cross-border convoys would be at their most vulnerable with Lebanese skies awash with Israeli jets and pilotless drones hunting for targets. Perhaps, in fact, Hezbollah never intended to bring the Scuds (assuming for a moment they want them in the first place) into Lebanon anyway.

One way of overcoming the risks of a cross-border arms transfer and the logistical difficulties in building secret camouflaged underground bunkers in Lebanon large enough to house the missiles and their TELS is to launch them from inside Syria. There are several areas just inside Syria’s border with Lebanon which provide secure and easy access for Hezbollah (at least before the uprising against Assad’s rule) where small discrete launch sites could be constructed for possible use under Hezbollah’s command and control during a war with Israel.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 26, 2012, on page 1.

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