U.S. officials: Hezbollah upgrades missile threat

Hezbollah operatives are smuggling components of advanced guided missiles from Syria to Lebanon, U.S. officials said.

Operatives from the Shi’ite terrorist group have been moving the components in parts to avoid detection and airstrikes by Israel, unnamed officials told The Wall Street Journal.

As many as 12 guided-missile systems may now be in Hezbollah’s possession inside Syria, according to U.S. officials briefed on the intelligence, the newspaper said.

In addition to aircraft, Hezbollah will be able to target ships and bases with the new systems, which include supersonic Yakhont rockets, the Journal reported Friday.

Such guided weapons would be a major step up from the “dumb” rockets and missiles Hezbollah now has stockpiled, and could sharply increase the group’s ability to deter Israel in any potential new battle, the officials said.

U.S. and Israeli officials also said several strikes last year attributed to Israel stopped shipments of surface-to-air SA-17 anti-aircraft weapons and ground-to-ground Fateh-110 rockets to Hezbollah locations in Lebanon. Some originated from Iran, others from Syria itself.

On Tuesday, Israel conducted its second successful experiment on the Arrow-3 interceptor missile, the Israel Ministry of Defense said in a statement Friday. Arrow-3 is designed to intercept large, longer range missiles as part of Israel’s multilayer interception defense array.

The intercepting missile hit its target over the Mediterranean during a test conducted by the Israel Missile Defense Organization and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

“The successful test is a major milestone in the development of the Arrow-3 Weapon System and provides confidence in future Israeli capabilities to defeat the developing ballistic missile threat,” the ministry said in a statement.

Iran blames Israel for Syrian airstrike

Iran is blaming Israel for an attack in Syria, and Iran’s foreign minister threatened revenge saying the attack was “clearly coordinated with the West.”  

“The attack reveals the cooperation between the rebels (trying to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad) and the 'Zionist regime,' Ali Akhbar Salehi said.

Syria has said the attack fell on a military research center, but diplomats have identified the target as a weapons convoy reportedly carrying SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel has not commented publicly on the strike, although U.S. officials told The New York Times that Israel has informed Washington of its intentions to attack. Syria said the strike hit a Syrian research facility and killed two people.

Salehi’s deputy warned that “the Israeli bombing in Syria will have grave consequences in Tel Aviv,” reported Iranian television.

The Addiyar daily newspaper, published in Lebanon, reported that the militaries of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have gone on heightened alert. The newspaper, which is seen as pro-Syrian, also said that large numbers of Syrian forces have deployed on the border with Israel.

Hezbollah condemned the Israeli attack, which it said targeted a Syrian research center.

“Hezbollah expresses its full solidarity with Syria’s leadership, army and people,” it said in a statement.

Tensions are running high between Israel and Hezbollah in south Lebanon. Analysts say that it is certainly likely that Israel is behind the attack.

“Is it surprising that Israel has been keeping a very, very close eye on what’s been going on in Syria? I’m not surprised at all,” Francis Tusa, the editor of Defense Analysis, told The Media Line. “Hezbollah has thousands and thousands of artillery rockets and were they in a position to launch all of them it could cause significant damage to Israel. Hezbollah potentially has enough weapons to swamp the Iron Dome system.”

The Iron Dome missile and rocket interception system proved successful during the recent confrontation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza in November, shooting down almost all of the rockets aimed at Israeli population centers. But Hezbollah is believed to have much longer-range rockets that can cover much of Israel.

Other analysts say that acquiring the SA-17 would give Hezbollah a distinct edge.

“These anti-aircraft missiles are far more sophisticated than the earlier SA missiles,” Yiftah Shapir, an expert on weapons systems at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) think tank in Tel Aviv told The Media Line. “It would really compromise Israel’s ability to operate in Lebanese airspace.”

Shapir also believes that the transfer of weapons was coordinated between Syria and Hezbollah, which has consistently supported Assad’s regime. Israel is especially concerned about the fate of Syria’s large stocks of chemical weapons if the Assad regime falls.

That would also be troubling for Hezbollah.

“The Syrian regime been clinging on for a good number of months and its obituary has been written a number of times,” Tusa said. “But if you were going to see a significant change in the Syrian regime it would mean seeing Hezbollah’s paymaster and armorer disappear. That would be a massive concern for them.”

The Syrian rebels are believed to be in control of about 75 percent of the country but Assad maintains in control of Damascus.

In Israel, there is little sense of an impending conflict with Hezbollah. Hotels near the borders with Syria and Lebanon are full as Israelis are flocking to see the snow there. But intelligence officials are clearly concerned and have not forgotten the 34-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 that ended with a United Nations cease-fire.

“The question of another war with Hezbollah is not if, but when,” a senior Israeli intelligence official told The Media Line. “It is only a matter of time.”

Israel reportedly notified U.S. about attack on Syria

Israel gave Washington advanced notice about its attack Wednesday on a Syrian target, U.S. officials told The New York Times.

The newspaper on Thursday cited unnamed U.S. officials as saying they believed the target of the airstrike was a convoy carrying sophisticated Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon. Syria said late Wednesday in a statement carried on the official Sana news agency that the target was a military research center near Damascus. The report said the attack killed two workers.

“The Syrian government points out to the international community that this Israeli arrogance and aggression is dangerous for Syrian sovereignty and stresses that such criminal acts will not weaken Syria’s role nor will discourage Syrians from continuing to support resistance movements and just Arab causes, particularly the Palestinian issue,” the statement said.

A U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal that reports of an attack on a convoy and a research facility were not mutually exclusive.

Israel has a policy of neither confirming nor denying such strikes, and it has maintained that silence in the wake of reports about the strike.

Iran has threatened to retaliate against Israel. The Iranian Fars news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian on Thursday as saying the raid on Syria will have significant implications for Tel Aviv.

Syria also threatened revenge. “Israel, the Americans and the Arab regimes that have conspired together know that Syria will defend its sovereignty and its land. The Zionist aggression exposes Israel's part in the war against Syria,” said Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdul-Karim Ali. Syria has “the option and the surprise to retaliate,” he said.

News of the attack came days after Israel's vice prime minister, Silvan Shalom, confirmed that Israel could launch a military strike on Syria if it appeared that Hezbollah fighters or Syrian rebels had taken possession of Syrian chemical weapons. Shalom confirmed to Israeli Army Radio that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met last week on Election Day with the country's security chiefs to discuss the situation in Syria.

Meanwhile, Israelis have flocked to gas-mask distribution centers in recent days following escalations on the Syria-Israel border.

The Lebanese army earlier this week accused Israel's Air Force of violating Lebanon's airspace several times on Jan. 26.