Four apparently unrelated events suddenly came together last week in a manner typical of the volatile Middle East. They generated a sudden spasm of war tension involving Hizballah, Syria and Iran with two possible targets, government in Beirut and Israel.
The first event was a brief conference between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus on Saturday, September 18.
The second event was the delivery of Russian anti-warship P-800 Yakhont cruise missiles (known as P-800 Oniks in Russia) at the Russian naval base in Tartus in northern Syria. These missiles skim close to the water under the radar as far as 300 kilometers before releasing a 200-kilogram warhead.
The third event was Hizballah Special Forces' seizure of Beirut international airport for several hours on Saturday, September 18, to shield Maj. Gen. Jamil Sayyed, former security chief for Beirut, from arrest.
In so doing, the Lebanese Shiite terrorist organization demonstrated its capacity to occupy and control strategic points in Beirut without encountering resistance.
It also openly defied Lebanese law and order and court authorities.
The Lebanese state prosecutor had summoned Sayyed for questioning after he called for state prosecutors to be put to death for allegedly collaborating with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon-STL which is investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
An arrest warrant awaited Sayyed on arrival at the airport. By escorting the wanted general safely home and placing armed guards around his house, Hizballah demonstrated it was above the law of the land and free to act as a sovereign power in Beirut.
The fourth event: The day after this display of strength, on Sunday, September 19, Hizballah deployed some 4,000 of its special forces personnel across Beirut, raising its total strength in the capital to 15,000 – twice the size of any force the Lebanese army can muster.
Disband the Hariri tribunal or face a coup
The Ahmadinejad-Assad conference in Damascus dealt primarily, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and Iranian sources report, with how far they would go to support a possible Hizballah coup in Beirut. They also weighed the possibility of an Israeli intervention to save the Lebanese government and what this contingency required of them.
Our sources confirm that the Iranian and Syrian presidents were of one mind that the Hariri tribunal must not be permitted to issue indictments against the nine Hizballah security officials who are suspected of personal involvement in the planning and commission of the murder. They knew from Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah about the French UN Ambassador Gerard Aroud telling his associates that prosecutor Daniel Bellemare's decision to prosecute the nine suspects by the end of the year was final.
The evidence against them rested on recorded phone calls between the perpetrators of the crime and top Hizballah officials.
The tribunal's pursuit of this path, Ahmadinejad and Assad agreed, would jeopardize Hizballah as well as harming Iranian and Syrian interests in Lebanon. Even worse, there was reason to believe that Iranian Revolutionary Guards officials who acted as Hizballah's controllers at the time would be dragged in as active accomplices.
The only way out of this impasse was to strongly back a Hizballah demand for the Lebanese government to withdraw its funding from the tribunal – set up jointly by the UN and the Lebanese government, following which parliament would vote to terminate its mandate.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri would be required to publish a statement that the UN Special Lebanese Tribunal had invalidated itself by bowing to political influence and he no longer trusted in its impartiality.
If Hariri persisted in supporting the tribunal – a course intimated by his associates Monday, September 20 – Syria and Iran would back an armed Hizballah offensive to topple his coalition regime in Beirut.
Israel not expected to step in to save the Hariri government
The two leaders then turned to a possible Israeli operation to rescue the Lebanese government. They ended up discounting it after concluding that neither Washington nor Jerusalem would care to risk igniting a war – albeit limited – with Iran and Syria.
Ahmadinejad and Assad were also confident that the Lebanese National Army would stay in its barracks rather than rush to the government's defense.
Still, as a precautionary measure, they would order the Iranian, Syrian and Hizballah officers posted at their armies' combined operational headquarters in Damascus to update plans for intervention in Beirut should a conflict flare between Hizballah and Israel.
(DEBKA-Net-Weekly 460 first revealed the existence of this combined command on Sept. 23, under a new secret military cooperation pact dedicated to the premise that a Syrian-Hizballah war on Israel is inevitable in the near future.)
Our sources add that going to war with Israel would be another way of derailing the tribunal and getting it off Hizballah's back while also aiming a destabilizing blow at central government in Beirut.
Border tensions are high enough for any match to send the flames of war shooting up suddenly, whether it is a local cross-border clash, an Israeli miscalculation or a Hizballah terrorist attack against an Israeli or Jewish target at home or overseas, provoking an Israeli offensive.
The arrival in Syria of the Russian P-800 Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles, confirmed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources, is not directly related to events in Lebanon but indirectly bears on them.
The P-800 anti-ship missile fills a gap in Russia's Mediterranean-Black Sea system
Those sources are not clear about whether the missiles were handed to the Syrian crews training in their operation for some months, or still waiting at the naval base the Russians are building in Tartus. Whichever is the case, the new weapons are a game-changer for the US Navy's Sixth Fleet in the eastern Mediterranean and the Israeli Navy. Both their leaders tried their utmost to prevent the P-800 system reaching Syria – and failed.
On Monday, September 20, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates took it up once again with Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. Later, Gates told his Israeli colleague Ehud Barak in a private conversation in Washington that the deal may "further destabilize" the region.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly says that neither Washington nor Jerusalem should have been surprised by the Russian missile's transfer to Syria.
Deploying the P-800 Yakhont missiles in that country has less to do with honoring arms sales contract to Middle East countries, as Serdyukov maintained, and much more with the new naval-air force system Moscow is in the middle of establishing in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
Both Washington and Jerusalem paid no attention to the deployment of sophisticated Russian S-300 interceptor missiles in Abkhazia and other air defense systems in South Ossetia in the northern part of the Black Sea (Moscow announced this deployment on August 11). But it was logical for the Russians to want to back up those systems with anti-ship cruise missiles. Their arrival in Tartus was therefore predictable.
Of course, Moscow knows perfectly well that Syria will make use of the P-800 against the Israeli navy in the event of a war in Lebanon. But this consideration was not allowed to stop Russia filling the gaps in its new naval-aerial system, which is due for completion in the first half of 2014.