Clearing some of the fog surrounding the covert battle against the proliferation of advanced weapons systems in Syria and Lebanon, Israel’s defense minister told reporters on Tuesday that Hezbollah does not have the advanced anti-ship missile Yakhont in its possession.
Asked during a tour of the IDF’s Central Command whether Israel’s “red line” had been crossed and if Yakhont missiles had “reached Hezbollah hands,” Moshe Ya’alon said that, “our red line in terms of what’s going on in Syria is very clear. One of them is to not allow the transfer of sophisticated and advanced weapons from Syria to Lebanon. When that happens, we know what to do and will act accordingly.”
Pressed by a reporter to relate to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, in which US officials asserted that Hezbollah may hold 12 Yakhont systems in its possession in Syria, and that it has been assiduously and successfully smuggling parts of the advanced system into Lebanon, Ya’alon said that the Israeli defense establishment believes that the Shiite organization “does not have the missiles…”
The Yakhont, a Russian-made, sea-skimming anti-ship missile, flies at several times the speed of sound and is notoriously difficult to intercept. In Hezbollah’s hands it could endanger all Israeli maritime traffic moving through the shipping lanes off the Lebanese coast and the Israeli offshore gas platforms in the Mediterranean.
Although it can be defended against, its acquisition would represent a major leap forward for Hezbollah, which is armed predominantly with tens of thousands of simple steel munitions.
The US officials, who were briefed on the relevant intelligence, told the Wall Street Journal last week that Israel’s last two airstrikes within Syria, on July 5 and October 30, targeted Yakhont missile systems. The strikes were only partially successful, they said. “A US damage assessment concluded that Israel had taken out only part of its target, and that the Yakhont missiles and launchers appeared to have been moved out of the line of fire,” according to the report.
Additionally, they asserted that supply lines of arms to the Assad regime in Syria and to Hezbollah have become increasingly intertwined and that it is difficult to monitor which weapons go where. On several occasions, the US officials told the Journal, Israel has called off air strikes in order to avoid unintended damage.
In 2011, Russia sent Syria a shipment of 72 Yahkont missiles and 36 launcher vehicles, according to a report in Jane’s International Defence Review. Those missiles have been deployed on bases along the Syrian coast. In May 2013, Russia sent the Syrian regime additional Yakhont missiles. This time, according to a NY Times report, the weapons, which have a range of 180 miles, were equipped with a more advanced guidance system.
The discrepancy between the Israeli and US assessments may be related to terminology. Full systems in Hezbollah hands in Syria may not constitute possession in Ya’alon’s understanding, as the organization does not yet hold the weapons on its own turf. Or it may reflect a fundamental difference in intelligence assessments. Regardless, Israel — still vividly aware of Hezbollah’s surprise attack on the third night of the Second Lebanon War, when it fired two Iranian-made C-802 surface-to-sea missiles at the INS Hanit, killing four Israeli seamen and crippling the vessel — will have to assume, in the next, inevitable conflict with Hezbollah, that it may possess advanced surface-to-sea missiles.