Analysis & Opinions - -- Middle East Roundtable

Missiles, Missiles Everywhere

| May 6, 2010

Recent reports indicate that Syria has transferred Scud missiles to Hizballah. While still not fully confirmed, there is little doubt that the reports are accurate, even if some of the details, such as the specific Scud model and the quantities supplied, remain unknown.

Not for the first time, Syria is playing with fire. On the one hand, the Scuds present neither a fundamentally new capability nor a basic change in the overall Hizballah threat. Hizballah already has some 45,000 rockets, with significantly more long-range ones than in the past and virtually all of Israel is in range. The range of the Scud D model, the one Syria probably supplied, is indeed longer than that of the rockets Hizballah already has, but the added range is of questionable benefit, the warheads are lighter and the missiles are inaccurate.

Far more worrying than the missiles themselves is the expression of Syrian intent, whether calculated or not. Provision of the missiles, the above notwithstanding, is clearly a provocative act, one that Syria knows will be of deep concern to Israel, especially coming on top of both its and Iran's already massive supply of weapons. Lebanon is a tinderbox as is and Syria is stoking the fire.

The 2006 war ended inconclusively, in itself a failure for Israel, but with both sides able to claim achievements. Hizballah rightly claimed that it was the first Arab force to fight Israel to a standoff; the 4,000 rockets it fired severely disrupted Israel's north. Israel, for its part, gained four years of quiet on the Lebanese border, the longest such period since the early 1970s.

For Hizballah another round is a question of when, not if. Its domestic role in Lebanon notwithstanding, Hizballah remains a jihadi organization whose raison d'etre is Israel's destruction. So while the Lebanese public's reluctance to pay the price of a further round may have deterred Hizballah so far, there is little doubt that it is just biding its time. The question is whether Hizballah will choose to act in the near term or wait for some propitious timing, even until Iran goes nuclear.

The next round, in any event, is just a matter of time. Syria may have been overly impressed by Hizballah's achievements and may be spoiling for an opportunity to "give it to Israel" again. While its newfound enthusiasm presumably does not include a direct confrontation with Israel—Syria appears to prefer continued indirect conflict through Hizballah—its very willingness to provide the missiles and risk escalation is worrisome.

Syria's actions also have an indirect effect on the internal debate raging in Israel since 2006: should Israel have attacked Syria at the time rather than Hizballah, and more importantly, should it do so in the next round? As a state actor, Syria presents precisely the kinds of targets that the IDF is structured to attack, in contrast with the difficulty of destroying Hizballah's tens of thousands of short-range rockets. By attacking Syria, it is argued, Israel could force it to restrain Hizballah or end the fighting earlier and on terms favorable to Israel.

Others argue that Israel's military focus should be on Lebanon's government—in order to force it to exert influence on Hizballah to prevent another round, end it rapidly should one break out and promote the long-term objective of pushing Hizballah to disarm and go the political route. This approach, which was the initial basis for the IDF's strategy in 2006, was fatally flawed then and remains so today.

Israel always claimed, rightly, that there is in fact no Lebanese government worth speaking of. This has not changed and the international community, including the US, will not tolerate an attack on Lebanon's civil infrastructure in order to pressure its people to pressure the government. Arguably, the IDF's most egregious error in 2006 was its failure to inform the cabinet that acceptance of the American demand to refrain from attacking Lebanon's civil infrastructure, justified as the cabinet's decision may have been, left the IDF without a viable military strategy and should thus have led to a fundamental reevaluation of Israel's war plans.

The US continues to support the strengthening of Lebanon's government as the primary means of promoting stability there. In effect, this leaves Israel with two options: either develop an effective capability to deal with Hizballah directly, which is even harder to do today, or the indirect approach of attacking Syria.

In 2006, Hizballah fired 4,200 rockets at Israel out of a total arsenal of approximately 13,000. If that ratio is maintained today, with an arsenal of 45,000 rockets we can expect 15,000 rockets to be fired at Israel and possibly far more. This poses new and heretofore unknown threats to Israel's home front and makes it truly essential that Israel get it right this time.

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is now a senior fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School and an adjunct professor at NYU. He recently completed a study on the threat of nuclear terrorism to Israel.

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For Academic Citation: Freilich, Chuck.“Missiles, Missiles Everywhere.” -- Middle East Roundtable, May 6, 2010.