from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

More Iranian Missiles to Syria: A Problem that a "Working Group" Cannot Solve

Russia protects the shipment of precision guided missiles to Iranian proxies

In the typically anodyne White House read-out of the April 27 conversation between National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat appears this sentence:

The United States and Israel agreed to establish an inter-agency working group to focus particular attention on the growing threat of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Precision Guided Missiles produced by Iran and provided to its proxies in the Middle East Region.

On the same day, the web site Breaking Defense carried an article entitled “Russian Fleet Protects Iranian Ships Smuggling Arms, Israelis Say.”  It said this in part:

Amid confused reports of a drone attack on an Iranian ship in the Mediterranean on its way to Syria, Iran appears to have moved its weapons shipments to Syria and Lebanon from the land — where Israel has regularly tracked and destroyed them — to ships that may be receiving protection from Russian vessels in the Mediterranean….

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Israeli defense sources here say the Iranian ships sail from the Red Sea, transit the Suez Canal and arrive in the Mediterranean. The defense sources say the ships documents claim they carry only oil, but there are indications that “oil is not the only cargo….”

The shift is occurring, Israeli sources told BD, because of the success of the massive Israeli campaign against the shipments of weapon systems from Iran to the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel performed hundreds of attacks on convoys on their way to Lebanon, as well on locations where the Iranian made systems are stored before being transferred to Lebanon.

This is an important aspect of exactly what was mentioned in the White House read-out. And it suggests trouble ahead.

Russia appears willing to assist Iran now in placing precision guided missiles or "PGMs" in Syria, for Syrian use but also for transfer to Hezbollah. This may mean fewer Israeli attacks on land convoys but it will also mean more attacks on locations in Syria and eventually Lebanon where such weapons are stored. The PGM threat is one that Israel has been intent on diminishing to the extent possible, because such missiles could do great damage if Israel and Hezbollah ever come into conflict as they did in 2006. Israel will not decide that its efforts must cease because the shipments are now going by sea rather than land, and it will have no alternative but to hit the shipments when they arrive in Syria or Lebanon. To date, Israel has avoided such strikes at Lebanon and hit only inside Syria—but that cannot last if the number of PGMs rises and rises.

That Russia helps Iran ship oil to the Syrian regime, which Russia supports, is no surprise. But why Russia would help Iran get PGMs to Hezbollah is not obvious-- not to me at least. The Syrian regime, not Hezbollah, is the Russian client, and assisting Iran to ship PGMs to Hezbollah is an incendiary action, especially in the context of generally deconflicted Israeli and Russian military actions north of Israel.

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The establishment of a new U.S.-Israel working group is a sensible move, if it allows Israel to keep the United States informed on what weapons are arriving in Syria--  and on Israel’s general policy  and intentions regarding those weapons. But it solves nothing, and cannot be a substitute for action.  Working groups offer Israel no protection from precision-guided Iranian missiles that arrive in Syria and Lebanon. Only Israeli action can do that, and we can expect that we will see more of it in the coming months and years.