By Adam Entous, Charles Levinson and Julian E. Barnes
Jan. 2, 2014
U.S. officials believe members of Hezbollah, the militant group backed by Iran, are smuggling advanced guided-missile systems into Lebanon from Syria piece by piece to evade a secretive Israeli air campaign designed to stop them.
The moves illustrate how both Hezbollah and Israel are using Syria’s civil war as cover for what increasingly is seen as a complex and high-stakes race to prepare for another potential conflict—their own—in ways that could alter the region’s military balance.
Some components of a powerful antiship missile system have already been moved to Lebanon, according to previously undisclosed intelligence, while other systems that could target Israeli aircraft, ships and bases are being stored in expanded weapons depots under Hezbollah control in Syria, say current and former U.S. officials.
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, officials say.
The movements appear to serve two purposes.
WSJ exclusive: Some components of a powerful antiship missile system have already been moved to Lebanon, according to previously undisclosed intelligence, say current and former U.S. officials. Julian Barnes reports. Photo: AP.
Iran wants to upgrade Hezbollah’s arsenal to deter future Israeli strikes—either on Lebanon or on Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. and Israeli officials say. In addition, these officials said they believe the transfers were meant to induce Hezbollah to commit to protect Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as supply lines used by both his regime and Hezbollah.
Israel struck inside Syria at least five times in 2013, seeking to take out systems bound for Hezbollah without provoking a direct confrontation.
U.S. and Israeli officials say the airstrikes have stopped shipments of ground-to-air SA-17 antiaircraft weapons and ground-to-ground Fateh-110 rockets to Hezbollah locations in Lebanon. Some originated from Iran, others from Syria itself.
Nonetheless, as many as 12 antiship guided-missile systems may now be in Hezbollah’s possession inside Syria, according to U.S. officials briefed on the intelligence. Israel targeted those Russian-made systems in July and again in October with mixed results, according to U.S. damage assessments.
The U.S. believes Hezbollah has smuggled at least some components from those systems into Lebanon within the past year, including supersonic Yakhont rockets, but that it doesn’t yet have all the parts needed there. “To make it lethal, a system needs to be complete,” said a senior defense official.
Hezbollah already has around 100,000 rockets, according to Israeli intelligence estimates, but those are primarily unguided weapons that are less accurate. Its longer-range rockets are spread across Lebanon, meaning Israel’s next air campaign—should one come—would have to be broad, Israeli officials have told their U.S. counterparts, according to American officials in the meetings.
Hezbollah’s possession of guided-missile systems would make such an air campaign far riskier.
Current and former U.S. officials say Iran’s elite Quds Force has been directly overseeing the shipments to Hezbollah warehouses in Syria. These officials say some of the guided missiles would allow Hezbollah to defend its strongholds in Lebanon, including Beirut, and attack Israeli planes and ground targets from regime-controlled territory in Syria.
Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system can intercept and destroy short-range rockets. Its Arrow missile-defense system can intercept the sort of long-range ballistic missiles Iran possesses. A third system the Israelis are developing to deal with midrange guided missiles, called David’s Sling, won’t be operational until 2015 at the earliest.
Israeli officials say they are content for now to watch enemies No. 1 and No. 2—Hezbollah and Iran on one side, al Qaeda on the other—kill each other next door. U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Mr. Assad can hold on to a rump state bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean for the foreseeable future, but won’t be able to retake the entire country, U.S. officials say.
“It is arguably in Israel’s interest to exploit the chaos without becoming embroiled in it,” said Steven Simon, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington and a former senior Obama administration official.