[See update at end. This thing is spiraling fast. – J.E.]
When Israel used the Arrow air defense system to shoot down a missile launched from Syria on Friday, observers noted with interest that the reaction of the Israeli government (GOI) was unusual. The GOI not only went public – if only to a limited extent – about the missile intercept; it also spoke briefly about the task of the Israeli war planes that had executed strikes in Syria shortly before Syrian forces launched the missiles.
Not surprisingly, the purpose of the strikes was to interdict an arms shipment for Hezbollah, which may have arrived at an airport near Palmyra.
More surprisingly, however, Israel has followed up the strike and missile intercept with an explicit vow to destroy Syria’s air defense systems if they are used against IAF aircraft again.
“The next time the Syrians use their air defence systems against our planes we will destroy them without the slightest hesitation,” [Defense Minister] Avigdor Lieberman said in remarks broadcast on Israeli public radio.
Israel has not suddenly gotten more aggressive. Rather, the situation in Syria – and Lebanon – has changed. The change is reflected in multiple dimensions, all coinciding to significantly shift the picture of what Iran-backed forces are preparing for.
Israel must prepare for what may come out of both Syria and Lebanon. The task of Israeli planners is not to simply accept superficial political narratives about who is in charge in those countries. It’s to discern what the capabilities and intentions are of the parties controlling the threat weapon systems; that is, the systems that can be used to make war on Israel. And it’s in those dimensions of the defense problem that we’ve seen portents of change in just the last few weeks.
The short summary is as follows. First, the Iran-sponsored Shia fighters in Syria, who 10 days ago announced the formation of a “Golan Liberation Brigade,” have done more than merely talk. Additional Iraqi Shia fighters have reportedly been deployed to Damascus (never a haunt of the Iran-sponsored force; they’ve been in Aleppo and Idlib Province) and have made public shows of military power there.
As with most such developments, what the general public sees is probably just the tip of the iceberg. But the IDF would know considerably more.
On the other side of the border, in Lebanon, Hezbollah has reportedly made a separate threat to begin raining “long-range missiles” down on Israel, from the Qalamoun Mountains north of Damascus. In fact, this threat was made before the “Golan Liberation Brigade” announcement in Syria, something analyst David Daoud noted in his write-up. (The Hezbollah missile threat was reported on 7 March. The “Golan Liberation” announcement was first reported on 9 March. The deployed Iraqi Shia unit’s march in Damascus was reportedly on 6 March.)
Remarkably, the Hezbollah threat was also made in the days just prior to the long-awaited approval of a new commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, on 8 March. Hassan Nasrallah and his top aides had to know this military appointment was coming. And the new commander, General Joseph Aoun, comes a few weeks after the president of Lebanon, Michael Aoun (not a close relation), made big headlines for implying that Hezbollah’s armed terror guerrillas are basically accepted as a “complementary” element of the Lebanese Armed Forces.
General Aoun met almost immediately after his appointment (on 14 March) with the Iranian diplomatic delegation to Lebanon.
In the previous two weeks, U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) and General James Votel, CENTCOM commander, had made separate visits to Lebanon to see President Michael Aoun and General Aoun’s predecessor, General Jean Kahwagi. They sought to get President Aoun to walk back his February statement about the Hezbollah terrorists and their arms stash being a “complementary” element of Lebanese defenses.
Aoun didn’t walk it back. Note what that means: Corker and Votel wanted assurances from Aoun because U.S. support to the LAF depends (according to policy) on the force keeping its distance from Hezbollah. Michael Aoun – long known to be an ally of Hezbollah and friendly toward Iran – was apparently willing to accept the consequences of his actions.
He also stood his ground on the “complementary Hezbollah” statement a week or so later, in early March, when it caused the Saudis to cancel a state visit. On Thursday, 16 March, Lebanon’s Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk reportedly got in the game by asserting outright that Hezbollah should be integrated with the LAF.
The change in partisan momentum in Lebanon looks real.
On top of that, contemporaneous reporting indicates that Hezbollah now has operational use of “rocket factories” built by Iran in Lebanon. More on that in a moment.
The week that was
The key developments here registered in the space of one week. Lebanon appointed the new military commander, meaning the country’s armed forces have a head approved by all parties, someone who gives the unified use of military power a future – on the premise that Hezbollah is part of that future.
That doesn’t mean Lebanon is about to make war on Israel. It does mean Beirut can’t be counted on to rein Hezbollah in, or even thwart Hezbollah behind the scenes. The LAF may well resist Israeli attacks on Hezbollah (and would no doubt have Iran’s covert backing to do so). In Michael Aoun’s words from February:
“As long as the Lebanese army is not strong enough to battle Israel … we feel the need for [Hezbollah’s] existence,” Aoun said in an interview with the Egyptian TV network CBC, adding that Hezbollah “has a complementary role to the Lebanese army.”
Israeli officials are thus concerned that the LAF will, in fact, “fight alongside Hezbollah” in the next war.
Hezbollah itself was reported the same week to be preparing for a level of missile attack on Israel never attempted before – using an arsenal plused up significantly in the last few years, and assembled and stored in underground facilities.
In Syria, Iran-sponsored Shia fighters announced their intention to “liberate” the Golan (just before 9 March), and staged military demonstrations in Damascus three days before. The latter is especially troubling. Iran has been careful up to now to avoid ostentatious military displays at Assad’s expense. Parading a newly deployed Shia brigade around Damascus argues a shift to a different footing.
Much might be explained by who was actually behind the launch of anti-air missiles at the Israeli strike-fighters on Friday, 17 March. The missiles, assuming they were the S-200 (SA-5) SAMs implied by the IDF’s public disclosures, were undoubtedly Syria’s. But who is calling the shots on the launching of those missiles today?
If it was Iran, that would explain the apparent Syrian escalation, counter to the understanding Netanyahu is believed to have with Assad’s patron in Moscow. It would also explain – in the context of everything else going on – why Israel is reacting in an unusually strong and overt manner. And it would explain why Lieberman issued his open threat via the media: because it’s not directed at Damascus. It’s directed at Tehran.*
When the first foreign delegation the new Lebanese military commander meets with is Iran’s, that just reinforces the overall trend. Keep in mind, we in the public see only what we learn from the media. Israeli intelligence has more on these events.
Missiles from the north
Regarding the missile intercept on Friday, which garnered headlines in its own right, there are basically two schools of thought. The reason there’s more than one is that the missile reportedly intercepted, a longer-range, older-model SAM, is not the kind of missile the tiered Arrow defense system is intended to intercept. It’s big news if an Arrow variant (first reported as an Arrow-3, later corrected in some reporting to Arrow-2) intercepted a SAM.
A SAM is not a surface-to-surface ballistic missile (SSM), and would not present itself in flight with a predictable ground-target trajectory and impact area. It would be of tremendous technical interest if the Israelis indeed managed to intercept a SAM with an Arrow interceptor. A fire-and-forget SAM like the S-200 is designed to go up predictably – not to follow a trajectory through to a ground target.
I’m not making a call either way, and for the moment I accept that the Arrow intercept was of a SAM, presumably a Syrian S-200 (SA-5). Lieberman’s public threat certainly zeroed in on Syrian air defense weapons. Veteran journalist Yossi Melman says an IDF source verified categorically that the target was a SAM:
A senior military source confirmed 2 me that the Arrow ncommand knew the missile flying in direction of Israel was Syrian Sam and not SSM
— Yossi Melman (@yossi_melman) March 18, 2017
But some observers are skeptical, arguing that it’s more likely the Arrow system intercepted an SSM – which the system is designed to react to via automated protocols.
That argument highlights the recent reporting about rocket manufacturing in underground facilities built in Lebanon by Iran. As I mentioned in an earlier post on this, the reporting is credible. I didn’t go into it at the time, but history reinforces the tie-in of the recent Hezbollah threat to launch missiles from the Qalamoun Mountains, and David Daoud’s summary of Hezbollah’s reported preparations in the mountains – including a mountain tunnel through the Zabadani region, some 20 miles north-northeast of Damascus. The tunnel, by implication, crosses the border between Syria and Lebanon. Back in the 2014-2015 timeframe, we saw earlier reporting of Iranian tunneling and building just to the north of the same area, near Qusayr on the Syrian border.
In January 2015, reporting from Der Spiegel (see link) cited Western intelligence sources’ concern about Iranian activity at Qusayr, which seemed to be related to a secretive and high-value weapons project. It was considered likely, in fact, that remnant materials from Assad’s stillborn plutonium reactor had been moved there from a base southeast of Damascus, sometime in 2013 or 2014. The materials involved would have given no one a nuclear weapons capability, but the possibility that they were relocated to the Qusayr facility was an indicator of the facility’s importance, and dovetailed with the direct Iranian interest in it.
There are thus collateral pieces of evidence, going back for several years, to validate the reporting that the rocket factories Hezbollah will make use of go beyond mere stashes of elderly rocket systems in the basements of hapless Lebanese villagers. Given the Iranian development project in the same area, and the general series of events in both Lebanon and Syria, it is no unreasonable proposition that Hezbollah could have launched a longer-range, more modern SSM toward Israel on Friday.
The question is not if Hezbollah is capable of making good on the missile threat, but when Hezbollah will – and how that will figure in an Iranian-fomented conflict with Israel.
*UPDATE*: Avigdor Lieberman came out earlier with his promise to destroy the Syrian air defense system. Israel’s army chief of staff made a similar promise to Lebanon in a speech at a military event on Sunday, citing the Lebanese government’s embrace of Hezbollah in recent weeks:
Israel’s army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen Gadi Eisenkot said on Sunday that in the event of a future military confrontation with Hezbollah, the Israel Defense Forces will not hesitate to strike institutions affiliated with the Lebanese state itself and not only with Hezbollah.
“The recent declarations from Beirut make it clear that in a future war, the targets will be clear: Lebanon and the organizations operating under its authority and its approval,” said Eisenkot. He was speaking on Sunday at the change of command ceremony for the GOC Northern Command of the IDF.
It’s noteworthy that this passage was in an official speech; i.e., not an off-the-cuff remark. What’s going on right now in both Lebanon and Syria, with Iran’s machinations behind it, is very serious.
* Although the reporting here has never had explicit confirmation from a U.S. government source, the size of Iran’s footprint in Syria is its own argument for extensive Iranian control of the local defense forces. With thousands of fighters and a tremendous investment in the country, Iran would not want to leave such control solely in the hands of the Assad regime. Given the number of outside nations conducting bombing strikes in Syria – Russia, the U.S. (and a coalition including Jordan and Qatar), Israel, Turkey – it would be unthinkable for Iran to not exert some level of control over the national air defense system.