Illusions about Iran’s prospective role as a responsible player in Western Asia aside, the Islamic Republic is setting in motion what may be the worst humanitarian disaster in the region’s history since Tamerlane. If Iran’s proxy Hezbollah draws Israel into a war on its northern or northeastern border with Syria in the midst of the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, the consequences will be terrible.
Hezbollah may soon have the capacity to swamp Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket system, which 90%effective in limiting damage from rocket attacks in last summer’s Gaza war. Defense experts have warned for some time that guided missiles–which adjusted their course during flight–are much harder to track and destroy than ordinary ballistic missiles, whose course can be calculated with accuracy after launch. Now a senior Israeli official claims that Hezbollah is upgrading its missile inventory with guidance systems from Iran, according to the Jerusalem Post:
Iran is placing guided warheads on its rockets and smuggling them to Hezbollah in Lebanon, a senior Defense Ministry official involved in preparing Israeli air defenses said Tuesday. Speaking at the Israel Air and Missile Defense Conference in Herzliya, organized by the iHLS defense website and the Israel Missile Defense Association, Col. Aviram Hasson said Iran is converting Zilzal unguided rockets into accurate, guided M-600 projectiles by upgrading their warheads. Hasson, who is in charge of upper tier missile defenses in the Defense Ministry’s HOMA, which is a part of the Defense Ministry’s Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure, described Iran as a “train engine that is not stopping for a moment. It is manufacturing new and advanced ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles. It is turning unguided rockets that had an accuracy range of kilometers into weapons that are accurate to within meters.”
Hezbollah, he continued, “is getting a lot of accurate weapons from Iran. It is in a very different place compared to the Second Lebanon War in 2006.”
Col. Hasson’s report isn’t news. In January 2014, Dr. Uzi Rubin, an architect of Israel’s air defense program, gave an almost identical warning at a Tel Aviv conference reported by the Jerusalem Post. I discussed the implications of guidance systems in a July 21, 2014 comment at PJ Media. Senior Pentagon officials believe that the implications of the new guidance systems may be grave enough to put Israel at substantial risk: if Iron Dome fails to shoot down missiles that squirrel about rather than follow an easy-to-calculate ballistic trajectory, and Hezbollah rockets kill Israeli civilians or destroy important Israeli infrastructure (such as Ben Gurion Airport), Israel will hit Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon with more force than during the 2006 War. Hezbollah missile launchers are emplaced in civilian buildings, and the collateral damage would be extensive.
The prospect of Shi’ite refugees in southern Lebanon dying in Israeli counterattacks may be the least cause of carnage. It is worth recalling what occurred in southern Lebanon in August 2006, in a relatively limited conflict: “At least 200,000, and perhaps twice that number of refugees, have descended on Syria, joining half a million displaced Iraqis and perhaps 300,000 Palestinian refugees,” I reported at the time. “Refugee streams clog the few undamaged routes between Syria and Lebanon.” This produced consternation from Syria and the threat of military intervention in 2006. Today, a Shi’ite refugee stream approaching Syria out of southern Lebanon would run directly into positions held by the al-Nusra front and other Sunni Jihadist groups, and likely would be butchered. In 2006, Lebanese refugees sought shelter in Syria; today, at least 2 million Syrian refugees (including 1.3 million registered with the UN) have sought shelter in Lebanon, many in deplorable conditions.
It is only 60 kilometers, an easy hour’s drive, from Mt. Hermon on Israel’s Golan border to Damascus, but the surrounding real estate is some of the most bitterly contested in the world.
There are many prospective triggers for regional war, and Israel’s northern border is one of them. Iran already has Revolutionary Guard regulars fighting in Syria, and would likely reinforce them in the case of humanitarian disaster. Turkey and Saudi Arabia would redouble their support for the Sunnis.
The likely consequences of a war on Israel’s northern border are so grave that Hezbollah is unlikely to use the new capability it is obtaining from Iran in the near future; the Shi’ite militia already has its hands full in Syria. I suspect that the broader purpose of Saudi Arabia’s new Sunni alliance focused on Yemen has only incidentally to do with Yemen. Saudi Arabia and its allies envision a long war of attrition against Iran, which already is overstretched in terms of money and manpower. But the risks of escalation are substantial, and managing this sort of balance of power less resembles diplomacy than the fellow who juggles chain saws in the circus.
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