Uzi Mahnaimi, Tel Aviv Published: 19 May 2013
SYRIA has put its most advanced missiles on standby with orders to hit Tel Aviv if Israel launches another raid on its territory.
Reconnaissance satellites have been monitoring preparations by the Syrian army to deploy surface-to-surface Tishreen missiles.
An Israeli official told The New York Times that Israel, which has launched three recent attacks on Syria, was considering further strikes and warned President Bashar al-Assad that his government would face “crippling consequences” if he hit back at Israel.
The deployment of the Syrian-made Tishreen missiles, each of which can carry a half-ton payload, marks a significant escalation of tension in a region in which the United States and Russia appear to be preparing for a Cold War-style stand-off.
In a signal of its continued support for Assad, Russia last week sent a dozen warships to patrol the eastern Mediterranean close to its Syrian naval base in Tartus, its only naval outpost outside the former Soviet Union.
“This very much resembles the Cold War days when the Russian navy was patrolling the Mediterranean alongside the US Sixth Fleet,” said a Middle East analyst.
Talks between the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, failed to win any assurances last week that Israel would stop its raids.
In turn, Netanyahu was unable to extract a promise from Putin to stop shipments of Yakhont P-800 Oniks anti-ship missiles to Syria. The missiles, described as “ship killers”, would deter western powers from any direct assistance to the rebels from the sea.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, described Russia’s recent supply of the missiles to Assad as “ill-timed and very unfortunate” and said it risked prolonging a war that has already killed more than 80,000 Syrians.
Russia also appears ready to supply the regime with state-of-the-art S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. “Missile defence systems are delivered to protect the country that buys them from airstrikes,” said Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister.
All parties fear hostilities spreading beyond Syria’s borders. Faisal al-Miqdad, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, said last week that the Israeli airstrikes represented “a declaration of war”.
Amid growing tension, John Brennan, the CIA director, met Tamir Pardo, the head of Mossad, Israel’s external espionage agency, and Moshe Ya’alon, the defence minister. According to Israeli press reports, Brennan’s mission was to “cool down” the Israelis over their Syrian raids.
Some Israeli defence experts believe that if Israel strikes again, Assad will have little choice but to retaliate.
“The Tishreen missiles are extremely accurate and can cause serious harm,” said Uzi Rubin, Israel’s leading missile expert.
He said Syria had large stocks of Tishreens. Referring to Israel’s main international airport, he said: “Even if they don’t hit Ben-Gurion directly, they would halt all commercial flights out of the country.”