Military Threats To Israel:
Syria is one of Israel’s principal immediate military threats. Syria's primary military objective has been the destruction of Israel, but the IDF has defeated the Syrian army in every major military engagement since 1948. Rather than direct confrontations, Syria has used terrorist organizations (Hamas and Hezbollah) as proxies to attack Israel. Meanwhile, he continued to develop ballistic missile systems and weapons of mass destruction for any future war with Israel.
Since 2008, Syria has spent more than $3 billion on weapons procurement and development, up from less than $100 million in 2002. Syria also reportedly received $1 billion from Iran in 2007/8 to buy surface-to-surface missiles, rockets, anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft systems. “Iran and Syria share the same viewpoint regarding regional issues and efforts will be made to strengthen our shared interests and bilateral relations," said Hassan Turkmani, Syrian Defense Minister, who was dispatched to Tehran after Iranian officials condemned the resumption of negotiations with Israel in 2008.
The situation today is muddled as a result of the ongoing civil war. The fighting has created new instability on Israel's northern border, eliminated any hope of any near term peace agreement relating to the Golan Heights and increased the prospect of an even more dangerous radical Islamist regime coming to power.
The prospects for Syrian-Israeli peace are undermined by the likelihood that Bashar Assad will be replaced by someone even more extreme and less interested in a compromise with Israel on the Golan Heights, and by increased Israeli concerns that an agreement would not be long-lasting because of the possibility of another change in regime.
Israel is also concerned about being drawn into the Syrian civil war if fighting spills over the border. In November 2012, a number of mortars were fired into Israel, likely by accident, but they triggered an Israeli response to demonstrate to both the Syrian government and the rebels that cross-border attacks would not be permitted. The response, artillery targeting the the source of the fire in Syria, marked the first time the IDF fired into Syrian territory since the end of 1973 Yom Kippur War. In February 2013, after a few months of relative calm, a Syrian army tank shell - believed to have been an errant shot during a battle between government forces and rebels - landed near the norther Israeli town of Alonei Habashan. It was defused without any Israeli injuries.
On a more positive note, Israel has allowed some refugees to cross the border, primarily for medical treatment, and has set up a hospital near the border to offer care to injured Syrian civilians. An estimated 700 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting. Israel offered to allow Palestinians living in Syria to go to the West Bank; however, Palestinian Authority Pressident Mahmoud Abbas rejected the offer.
The potential upside of the civil war for Israel is that Bashar Assad will be driven from power and the new leadership -- likely to be Sunni Muslims -- will end Syria's alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, weakening both. That potential outcome explains why Iranian and Hezbollah fighters have joined the fight to try to save Assad.
Though it is party to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, Syria was engaged in a covert nuclear program for more than a decade. On September 6, 2007, Israel bombed a site in northern Syria that was later revealed by the CIA as a plutonium reactor being built with the help of North Korea. The possibility that the site was related to a nuclear program was supported by the U.S. intelligence community which released reports that said the covert Pakistani supplier group headed by A.Q. Khan “offered nuclear technology and hardware to Syria.” In February 2009, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that samples taken from the site revealed traces of processed uranium.
Syria denied the site was for a nuclear facility but IAEA investigators were given very restricted access to the area and the Syrian government quickly destroyed any evidence that remained. Nevertheless, a report was issued on November 19, 2008, which said the IAEA found a “significant number” of uranium particles and concluded, “While it cannot be excluded that the building in question was intended for non-nuclear use, the features of the building...are similar to what may be found in connection with a reactor site.”
In February 2011, commercial satellite photos published by Washington's Institute for Science and International Security identified another suspect nuclear installation in Syria. The photos provided evidence that Damascus may have been pursing atomic weapons prior to the 2007 Israeli strike and increased pressure for demands for a new round of expansive inspections of suspect Syrian facilities. Another IAEA report issued in May 2011, which cited both physical and photograhic evidence, confirmed that the Syrian project destroyed in the the Israeli air raid was a nuclear reactor intended for making material for nuclear bombs.
Syria was already known to conduct nuclear research at three facilities located at Dayr, Al Hajar and Dubaya. “In 2004, Syria continued to develop civilian nuclear capabilities, including uranium extraction technology and hot cell facilities, which may also be potentially applicable to a weapons program,” the report said. As a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Syria is required to submit to IAEA safeguards and inspections. In January 2007, the United States froze the assets of three Syrian entities involved in the development of nonconventional weapons.
According to Gregory Schulte, former U.S. envoy to the IAEA, Syria may be operating more nuclear sites. In November 2011, an AP report seemingly confirmed those suspicions that Syria's nuclear weapons program was not confined only to the plutonium reactor destroyed by Israel in 2007. Rather, it seems that a suspect building in the northeastern town of Hasaka (about 100 miles from the destroyed reactor) was once a centrifuge plant where Syria intended to manufacture nuclear weapons. Though the building today houses a textile factory, its layout and blueprints match almost exactly with a centrifuge plant built by the Gaddafi regime in Libya. A working centrifuge plant could have produced highly enriched uranium which would have given the Syrian's an entirely separate route to an atomic bomb other than the destoryed plutonium reactor.
Israel's attack raised tensions along the Golan Heights where Syrian actions had already provoked concern about the possibility of conflict. In March 2007, it was reported that Syria has positioned along the border with Israel thousands of medium and long-range rockets capable of striking major towns across northern Israel, including Haifa. A division was added to the Syrian army’s forward deployment on the Heights and the production of Scud missiles has been accelerated. Many of the rockets are hidden in underground chambers and in camouflaged silos.
Syria expanded its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction during the last decade. The Syrians can now manufacture several hundred tons of chemical warfare agents per year at four separate production facilities. In late 2005, Jane's Defence Weekly reported that Iran is providing technical assistance to help Syria develop the means to produce VX and Sarin nerve agents and mustard blister agent. According to a February 2009 report by Jane's, Syria was constructing a new chemical weapons facility in Al-Safir, the home of an existing chemical weapons production facility and a missile base with long-range Scud D ballistic missiles.
The Syrian civil war has reduced the immediate threat of a Syrian attack on the Golan Heights, but also created new concerns about the security of Syria's weapons of mass destruction. Israel and Western nations are especially concerned that chemical weapons might fall into the hands of either rebel forces or, worse, be transferred across the border to Hezbollah. Israel reportedly attacked a convoy thought to be bringing Syrian weapons across the Lebanese border and the Israelis have made clear they will take measures to prevent efforts to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah.
Under a mutual defense pact signed between Syria and Iran in 2005, Syria agreed to allow the deployment of Iranian weapons on its territory. On June 15, 2006, Syria’s defense minister, Hassan Turkmani, signed an agreement with his Iranian counterpart for military cooperation against what they called the “common threats” presented by Israel and the United States. “Our cooperation is based on a strategic pact and unity against common threats,” said Turkmani. “We can have a common front against Israel’s threats.” In December 2009, Syria and Iran signed an additional defense agreement aimed to face “common enemies and challenges.” In praising the agreement, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi said, “it is natural for a country like Syria - which has an inhumane and menacing predator like Israel in its neighborhood - to be always prepared [against possible foreign aggression].”
UN officials said in June 2007 the Iranians were preparing to transfer medium-range Shahab-3, Russian-made Scud-C missiles and Scud-B missiles in preparation for military action if it is attacked over its nuclear program. Many of these missiles can be fired from mobile launchers and are capable of hitting targets throughout Israel. Syria has already received, via Iran, hundreds of extended-range North Korean Scud-C missiles, and is reportedly building its own ballistic missiles from imported technology. North Korea has supplied complete Scuds and production equipment to Syria. In 2003, Syria was said to have a new Scud-D missile, developed with Korean assistance, which has a range of 300 miles (sufficient to cover all of Israel). The missile is also capable of carrying chemical weapons. The May 2006 U.S. intelligence report said Syria continues to seek help in building solid-propellant rocket motors, and that North Korea supplied equipment and assistance to the missile program. Syria is building its own liquid-fueled Scud missiles and is developing a 500-mile-range Scud D and other variants with help from North Korea and Iran, the report said.
“Syria test-fired three Scud missiles on May 27, 2005, including one that broke up over Turkey,” the New York Times reported. “These were the first such Syrian missile tests since 2001, and were part of a Syrian missile development project using North Korean technology and designed to deliver air-burst chemical weapons. The missiles included one Scud B with a range of 185 miles, and two Scud Ds with a range of 435 miles.” Months later, Western experts who examined the remains of the missile that fell in Turkey concluded Syria had introduced significant changes in the advanced model of the Scud D missile that gives it greater guidance capability and accuracy.
Over the objections of Israel and the United States, Russia announced plans in early 2005 to sell Syria advanced SA-18 anti-aircraft missiles. Russian President Vladimir Putin told Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that the weapons were not shoulder-missiles favored by the terror organizations, but rather they would be mounted on vehicles, and therefore they would not endanger Israel. Putin also said Syria's placement of the missiles would be designed to avoid a change in the balance of power in the area, but would prevent Israeli war planes from being able to fly over Syrian President Bashar Assad's presidential palace in Damascus. Israeli defense officials still expressed concern that the mounted version could be modified into a shoulder-held version in a relatively simple process. From that point, the officials said, the missiles could easily reach insurgents in Iran or Hezbollah operatives in Lebanon.
By the end of 2012, Syria maintains a larger standing army than Israel and has nearly as many reserve troops, tanks, aircraft and naval warships as Israel. The Assad regime fields armed forces totaling more than 420,000 men. Syria's arsenal also includes approximately 10,000 tanks and armored personnel carriers, 35 warships and submarines and some 715 combat aircraft including helicopters.
Though the quality of Syrian forces is regarded as inferior to that of Israel, the deployment of these forces facing the Golan indicated Assad was keeping his military options open. The outbreak of the civil war in Syria, however, has forced Assad to direct all his military assets against his own people in an effort to cling to power.
In May 2013, while fighting raged across Syria between government forces and rebels, Iran reportedly tried using Syria as a route to ship advanced surface-to-surface missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel interdicted the shipment and destroyed the missiles at the Damascus International Airport. President Obama said, "The Israelis, justifiably, have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hizbullah."
Syria harbors in Damascus representatives of ten Palestinian terrorist organizations including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine all of which are opposed to advances in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. These groups have launched terrible attacks against innocent Israeli citizens, which have resulted in hundreds of deaths. Syria also supports the Iranian-funded Hezbollah.
For more than 30 years, Lebanon was essentially controlled by Syria. With Syrian acquiescence, Lebanon became the home to a number of the most radical and violent Islamic organizations. Hezbollah (Party of God), in particular, has been used by the Syrians as a proxy to fight Israel.
On October 19, 2004, the UN Security Council released a demand that Syria should abide by a resolution calling on Damascus to withdraw its 14,000 troops from Lebanon, dismantle the Hezbollah organization and respect Lebanon’s independence. Buoyed by the UN intervention, the opposition in Lebanon grew more vocal demanding an end to Syrian hegemony. After former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated on February 14, 2005, the pressure on Syria intensified and its troops were finally withdrawn in April.
Nevertheless, Syria continues to exercise great influence in Lebanon. Syria and its allies are believed responsible for a series of assassinations to undermine Lebanese democracy that have eliminated anti-Syrian members of the Lebanese parliament, the most recent attack coming in September 2007. Syria supplied Hezbollah with weapons used in the war fought with Israel in July 2006 and has been resupplying the organization in defiance of the UN since the war ended. Those rockets used in 2006 had ranges of 20 to 60 miles. In April 2010, the U.S. and Israel accused Syria of delivering shipments of long-range Scud missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Scuds have a range of more than 435 miles - placing Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Israel's nuclear installations at risk.
Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC);
AP, (June 19, 2007);
Daily Telegraph, (June 25, 2007);
Defensenews.com, (June 15, 2006);
Haaretz (February 16, 2005; October 26, 2005; December 5, 2005; March 21, 2008);
Jerusalem Post (April 20, 2005; May 21, 2008; February 17, 2009; February 19, 2009; September 10, 2009; December 12, 2009);
Jerusalem Report, (May 28, 2007);
JTA, (May 25, 2011);
Los Angeles Times (November 20, 2008);
New York Times (June 3, 2005; May 4, 2013);
Times of Israel (February 27, 2013; November 12, 2012);
Wall Street Journal (April 14, 2010; February 24, 2011);
Washington Post, (September 21, 2007; May 29, 2008);
Washington Times(May 13, 2006);
Ynet News, (October 25, 2005; May 27, 2008);
Map: The Jewish Connection, Washington Institute (November 1, 2011), Council on Foreign Relations (November 1, 2011)