Sunday, May 2, 2010

Hezbollah’s Mystery Scuds

It’s the Mid East mystery that won’t die; for the past month accusations have been flying that Hezbollah, the Islamic group that the United States and Israel regard as a terrorist organization, yet which also is a member of Lebanon’s national parliament, has received Scud ballistic missiles from Syria. Israel first made the claim in early April as part of a stark (though off-the-record) warning to Syrian officials that if Hezbollah were to launch Scuds against Israel, then Israel would retaliate against Syria as well as the government of Lebanon, based on the assumption that since Hezbollah is represented in the Lebanese parliament the attack was sanctioned by the Lebanese government. Subsequent reports suggest that the Scuds may have originated in Iran, with Syria acting as a middleman between them and Hezbollah. The United States has even weighed in on the issue warning Syrian diplomats in Washington DC not to rearm Hezbollah (UN Security Council resolution 1701 forbids any weapons shipments to Lebanon not approved by the United Nations), and especially not to provide them with Scuds. The US called Syrian policy towards Hezbollah “ill-conceived.”

Israel has a long history of conflict with Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group based in Lebanon and funded in part by Iran. Most recently, Israel engaged in a 34-day conflict with Hezbollah in 2006 over persistent rocket attacks fired into northern Israel from Hezbollah bases in Lebanon. That conflict resulted in more than 1,200 casualties in Lebanon - many of them civilians, 160 dead in Israel, caused widespread damage across southern Lebanon, but ultimately did not bring about the end of Hezbollah as a force in Lebanese politics and culture, so in that respect the conflict was a tactical defeat for Israel. The rockets used by Hezbollah during the 2006 conflict were mostly Katyushas – a kind of artillery rocket that can trace its history back to the Soviet Union and World War II. Katyushas are about the size of a lamppost, can be carried by a few men, and fired from a simple metal tripod, though a series of tubes mounted on the back of a truck is a more common firing arrangement for Katyushas (during WWII the Germans called these trucks Stalin’s Pipe Organs). The Katyusha has a fairly short range, and fairly small warhead (only about 50 lbs). The Scud can also trace its lineage back to WWII, this time to the German V-2 rocket. A Scud, by comparison, is about 40 feet long, weighs several tons, has a range of several hundred miles and needs its own launch vehicle (about the size of a school bus) to operate.

And that’s what makes the Scud claims sound dubious – considering that US and Israeli satellites monitor the Iranian and Syrian borders, it’s hard to imagine either country being able to slip something the size of a bus past them unnoticed. Egypt’s foreign minister has already expressed his doubts over the Scud claims and on Saturday Syria fired back, (diplomatically, that is) cautioning Washington not to accept Israel’s allegations, before making their own claim that what really destabilizes the security situation in the region is instead the United States’ military support for Israel. So far neither the United States nor Israeli governments have offered concrete proof to back up the Scud allegations.

So why make the claim, especially one that has the region in such an uproar? One possible answer could be found in this article from the March 26th New York Times. It is a report on a war game simulation conducted by the Brookings Institution over what could follow an Israeli air strike against suspected nuclear sites in Iran. The simulation found that rather than strike back at Israel directly, Iran would likely use proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas to launch hit-and-run rocket attacks into Israel in an attempt to destabilize the country. Israel’s Scud accusation – linking Hezbollah, the Lebanese government, Syria and Iran together in the process – could be a warning then that such a retaliation could spark a region-wide war.
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