Israel Says Syria, Not Just Iran, Supplied Missiles to Hezbollah
New postwar intelligence indicates that the militant group Hezbollah had broader access to sophisticated weaponry than was publicly known -- including large numbers of medium-range rockets made in Syria, said U.S. and Israeli government officials and military analysts.
The size of the Hezbollah arsenal and the direct role of Syria in supplying it will complicate the daunting task of keeping Hezbollah from rearming, the officials said.
Before the war, Hezbollah’s access to weapons supplied by Iran and shipped through other countries was well documented. So was Syria’s political support for Hezbollah and its role in allowing shipments of arms into Lebanon from Iran. But Washington thought Syria for the most part was not supplying munitions directly.
The new weapons data indicating a broader Syrian role were gathered by Israel largely by examining debris left by shells that hit the country during the conflict. The examination uncovered the serial numbers and other defining characteristics of the weapons. Israel’s postwar forensics have shown some of the rockets were manufactured by the Syrian munitions industry, military sources said.
Hezbollah fired between 3,700 and 3,800 rockets at Israel during the 34 days of fighting. The rockets, which landed across northern Israel and killed 43 civilians, were the most sustained attack on Israeli towns and cities since the war that greeted the country’s founding in 1948, and highlighted a significant vulnerability for the Jewish state.
The disclosures about Syria’s role in supplying Hezbollah dovetail with postwar diplomatic strategies.
Israel, backed by the Bush administration, would like to see international peacekeepers deployed along the Syria-Lebanon border -- a step it says is needed to prevent arms shipments to Hezbollah. Lebanon, backed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, has resisted that idea, as have the Syrians.
Syrian officials would not confirm or deny the reports.
“These are just accusations,” said a spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in Washington, who requested anonymity because only the ambassador was allowed to discuss official Syrian policy. “If they have evidence, they should make it clear.”
U.S. and European plans for stabilizing Lebanon rest heavily on preventing Hezbollah from rearming. Although a U.N. peacekeeping force still being formed will not be asked to disarm the militia, it will try to prevent flows of new arms to militants.
Israel asserts that in the weeks since the cease-fire, Iran and Syria have tried to resupply Hezbollah, primarily via Syria’s long border with Lebanon. Iran is seeking to send in long-range rockets but has been hampered by Israel’s sea and air embargo, Israeli officials said. Syria’s attempts to send in shorter-range rockets via land routes may prove more successful because of the porousness of the frontier, the officials said.
“There’s a limit to what we can do in response to this,” said Miri Eisen, a senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The forensic evidence from shell debris bolstered what Israeli officials said they had long known about Syria’s role in helping to arm Hezbollah.
“Syria has been a direct supplier of rockets, as well as a safe haven and weapons conduit,” Eisen said.
“The short- to medium-range rockets that hit Tiberias and Haifa turned out to have been directly supplied by Syria -- just as we said all along,” Eisen said, referring to the northern Israeli cities targeted by Hezbollah.
Analysts said Syria’s role in directly arming Hezbollah marked a shift in Damascus’ strategy toward Lebanon. Syria was forced to withdraw its military from Lebanon last year after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
“I don’t believe these kinds of technologies passed to Hezbollah under the regime of Hafez al Assad,” Syria’s longtime leader who died in 2000, said David Schenker, a former Pentagon official now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Referring to Assad’s son and successor, Bashar Assad, Schenker said, “The father saw Hezbollah as a tool; Bashar sees them differently.”
In addition to evidence of Syrian-made weapons, Israel also said it found evidence that Hezbollah used advanced, Russian-made Kornet antitank weapons. Israeli intelligence contends that serial numbers found on spent Kornets show they were originally supplied by Russia to Syria, although others may have come from Iran.
Russia has disputed the claims, saying it keeps tight restrictions on reshipments.
The U.S. and Israel in recent weeks have pressured nations that sell weapons to Iran and Syria to tighten restrictions on their transfer to third parties, an effort aimed at curtailing Hezbollah’s arsenal. China, which has substantial economic interests in the region, is considered unlikely to stop its shipments, experts said, though the lobbying may have more effect on Russia.
“The Russians are probably not pleased their Kornets got into the hands of Hezbollah,” said one former administration official familiar with Russian thinking.
Even without stepped-up involvement by Syria and Iran, military experts said, the ability of United Nations and Lebanese troops to track and halt arms shipments was likely to be limited.
The U.S. has identified nine Syrian border crossings that it thinks are large enough to ship medium- and long-range rockets.
Knowing likely shipment routes may not be enough to block them, analysts said, pointing to U.S. failure to prevent arms shipments to Iraqi insurgents from Iran and Syria -- or, in an earlier conflict, to the Viet Cong along the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail from Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
“The bar is set very low, but it’s still a very difficult bar to reach,” said a U.S. defense official, referring to U.N. interdiction goals. “That border is still very porous.”
Experts said Hezbollah retained significant weaponry even after the monthlong Israeli bombardment. Israeli intelligence officials think they destroyed a large number of Hezbollah’s longer-range missiles, but do not know how many remain. The number of medium-range rockets in Hezbollah’s possession also is unclear.
In addition to the 3,700 to 3,800 rockets fired by Hezbollah, the Israeli military said it destroyed about 1,600. Together, that would account for fewer than half of the rockets that Israeli and U.S. intelligence officials think Hezbollah had at the start of the conflict.
Israel said it had underestimated the number of Hezbollah fighters. The military said it killed about 500 Hezbollah guerrillas, a figure that the militia has not confirmed. Some of the fighters who were killed or captured were using sophisticated equipment, including sniper rifles and night-vision goggles.
“At most, if you take the most dramatic claim we heard, they probably got about 15% of Hezbollah strength, and that includes wounded as well as killed in the forward area, which is not a decisive type of battle,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. military analyst who recently returned from meetings with Israeli military and intelligence officials.
“If anything, you now have very large numbers of very experienced combat people who have spent more than six weeks in active engagement with the [Israeli military] and have, if not won, learned enough so they will be a far more serious problem in the future.”
Spiegel reported from Washington and King from Jerusalem.