BEIRUT (Reuters) - Long-range Scud missiles, which Israel has accused Syria of sending to Hezbollah in Lebanon, seem unlikely weapons of choice for a nimble guerrilla outfit, although they might pack a psychological punch.
“Hezbollah need to float like butterflies, sting like bees. They don’t need something that lumbers along like an ox,” British defense analyst Charles Heyman said.
For now, U.S. officials say they believe Syria intended to transfer the missiles -- which Damascus denies -- but that they have no indications that any Scuds have been moved to Lebanon.
President Barack Obama’s administration said after the Israeli accusations emerged that it was “increasingly concerned” about the transfer of more sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah.
The Scud scare fits into the wider context of a decades-old conflict pitting Israel against Syria, which seeks the return of the Golan Heights occupied in the 1967 war, argued Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma.
“This new development could not have been better timed to throw a monkey wrench into Washington’s engagement process with Syria,” he wrote in his Syria Comment blog, noting that Robert Ford, named ambassador to Damascus after a five-year gap, has yet to win confirmation by the full Senate.
“There are many who would like to stop it, not least because Obama seems ready to push forward efforts to resolve the long-festering Arab-Israeli conflict,” Landis added.
Scuds make Israelis nervous because Iraq, under its former leader Saddam Hussein, fired 39 of them at Israel in the 1990-91 Gulf conflict, albeit with conventional warheads, not chemical ones likely to have prompted devastating Israeli retaliation.
“From a military perspective, you question why Hezbollah would have a Scud ... but it is amazingly evocative as a name, so in political, psychological terms, it’s an important escalation -- if true,” said British defense expert Paul Beaver.
About 11 meters (36 feet) long, a Scud usually is fired from a huge wheeled transporter-erector-launcher, backed by support vehicles. A launch needs 45 minutes to prepare, Beaver said.
One Israeli official said Hezbollah had received only the missiles to place in “improvised silos,” not the launcher and tow truck. It was not immediately clear how the guerrillas could launch the missile without its companion equipment.
Hezbollah, allied to Iran and Syria, has neither confirmed nor denied adding Scuds to its arsenal, as Israeli President Shimon Peres stated last week, but some experts are skeptical.
Uzi Rubin, a founder of Israel’s Arrow anti-missile programme and now a private consultant to the Defense Ministry, voiced surprise at reports of Scuds reaching Hezbollah.
“This is a nonsense move. What do they need Scuds for?” he asked.
“They already have the (Iranian-made) Fateh-110, which has a similar range and, being a solid-fuel rocket, is far less cumbersome. Okay, so Scuds weigh a tone while the Fateh-110 is half a metric tone. Nothing to stop them firing two Fateh-110s.”
The guerrillas rained mostly short-range Katyusha rockets on northern Israel during a 2006 war in which nearly 1,200 people, mainly civilians, were killed in Lebanon. Hezbollah killed 158 Israelis, 43 of them civilians hit by rocket attacks.
Israel failed to stop the Katyusha strikes, but analysts say it swiftly knocked out Hezbollah’s larger missiles.
“Early in the Lebanon campaign, the Israelis were able to target and destroy Hezbollah’s intermediate and medium-range missiles,” Beaver said. “It’s hard to hide a Scud. It requires an erector launcher, refueling trucks, a panoply of equipment.”
Heyman said Scuds would be easy meat for Israel’s military. “Within three or four minutes of a launch, the whole area would be an inferno of high explosives from counter-battery fire.”
Israeli warplanes fly daily into Lebanese airspace, although the border has been mostly quiet since the 2006 war, with U.N. and Lebanese army troops patrolling an enclave where Hezbollah has no visible armed presence. Israel complains the peacekeepers do too little to prevent the Shi‘ite guerrillas from rearming.
Syria has said Israel’s “fabrications” about Scud deliveries were intended to “raise tension further in the region and to create an atmosphere for probably Israeli aggression.”
Even if Scud deliveries were verified, Israel might make no pre-emptive move, unless Syria took the risky step of also supplying Hezbollah with chemical or even biological warheads.
A former Israeli general, who asked not to be named, said only hard, public evidence would warrant an Israeli attack. “It would take, for example, a declaration by Hezbollah that this (a non-conventional Scud warhead) is part of its arsenal,” he said.
Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Michael Roddy