Assad Is Modernizing Hizballah as His Defensive Shield for Damascus
Syrian president Bashar Assad is beset by the quandary facing many other dictators: How to safeguard his regime without strengthening his armed forces lest they stage a coup d'etat against him of the kind which brought his father to power. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources report he has hit on a dual formula: Outfit the Lebanese Hizballah militia across the border as a modern army mobile enough to defend Damascus against a potential Israeli invasion – he doesn't rely on Iran for protection – and acquire a superpower umbrella in the person of an American ambassador in the Syrian capital, after a five-year absence.
This was the message US Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, picked up when he interviewed Assad on April 1 and voiced Washington's concerns over reports in mid-March that Syria was on the point of smuggling Scud A or SS-1B ground missiles to Hizballah.
The senator challenged Assad to halt his arms shipments to Hizballah. When the Syrian president shrugged of any knowledge of the shipments, he left empty-handed and the senate hearings to confirm Robert Ford as US ambassador were suspended
Israel had earlier informed the US that if those missiles crossed the border, its armed forces would strike Lebanese and Syrian bases and destroy the game-changing missiles.
Fearful of a second eruption of armed Israeli-Arab hostilities in four years, the US administration asked Syrian ambassador Imad Moustapha to flash the Israeli warning to Damascus. A few days later, Syria replied that the missiles had not crossed the border.
Though ageing, the Scuds can reach Israel's Negev bases
In the wake of this exchange, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report Israel sent the US government a file detailing its concerns:
1. A battery of Scud A, or SS-1B, missiles painted in Hezbollah's colors is parked at a Syrian base up against the Lebanese border.
2. Two Hizballah battalions, trained in Syria in the Scuds' operation, are standing by opposite that base on the Lebanese side of the border. At two hours' notice, the missiles could be spirited into Lebanon and connect with the Hizballah troops.
If that happens, Israel will have no option but to destroy them before they become operational.
3. While ageing (of 1960s vintage), these missiles have a range of 700 km and are precise, meaning they could cause devastation in Israel's most heavily-populated areas in and around Tel Aviv and beyond, reaching Israel's air bases in the Negev for the first time.
4. These missiles are self-propelling and highly mobile, requiring small teams and a small number of vehicles to get them fired – making them less vulnerable to Israel air strikes.
5. Israel's main worry is the pattern emerging from Syrian weapons consignments to Hizballah. While already armed with 40,000 rockets pointed at northern Israel, the Lebanese Shiite terrorist group is being rapidly converted into a modern and mobile army designed to stand up to the Israeli Defense Forces.
They can be fired from their Syrian bases too
Just a year ago, in March 2009, Syria gave Hizballah its first advanced mobile weapons system, SA-8 antiaircraft missiles which can intercept fighter planes, helicopters, and also missiles and cruise missiles.
Syria first trained a Hizballah unit in their use, then, after Israel warned Damascus it transferred the weapon to the Lebanese Shiite group at its peril, stored the batteries in bases close to the Lebanese border ready for quick transfer.
By every military calculation, Israel cannot afford to allow the modernization of Hizballah, which is dedicated to destroying the Jewish state, to go any further.
6. In the event of a military clash, the Scuds could be employed with devastating effect without being without being transferred into Lebanon. The trained Hizballah units would effect rapid in-and-out crossings and fire the missiles from their Syrian pads.
The same trick was performed in the first Gulf War in 1991 by Saddam Hussein's troops, who hid out in Jordan and crossed into Iraq by night, returning with the Scuds which they fired at Israel from Jordan. This maneuver saved Saddam's missiles from British, American and Israeli air attack while continuing to be launched against Israel.
On Monday, April 12, the Scud affair took a new turn when Syrian agents planted a story in the Kuwait newspaper Al-Rai portending an Israel-Hizballah war over the delivery of Scuds to the Lebanese armed group. But the paper was not entirely clear about whether or not they missiles had been delivered. Damascus's purpose in planting the story was to tantalize Israel and make it look like a paper tiger.
The story drew two comments: On Tuesday, April 13, Senator Kerry's spokesman said: These weapons transfers must stop in order to promote regional stability and security.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, aware of Assad's machinations, warned that the Scuds, if they were indeed handed over in violation of Security Council resolutions, would shift the balance of power in the region and undermine its stability.
Now the ball in the Scud crisis is back in President Assad's court.