System Could Help Tehran Dodge Israeli Strike; a Blow to U.S. Strategy on Damascus
JERUSALEM—Iran has sent Syria a sophisticated radar system that could threaten Israel’s ability to launch a surprise attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities, say Israeli and U.S. officials, extending an alliance aimed at undermining Israel’s military dominance in the region.
The radar could bolster Syria’s defenses by providing early warning of Israeli air-force sorties. It could also benefit Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group based in Lebanon and widely believed to receive arms from Syria.
Any sharing of radar information by Syria could increase the accuracy of Hezbollah’s own missiles and bolster its air defenses. That would boost Hezbollah defenses, which U.S. and Israeli officials say have been substantially upgraded since 2006, the last time Israel fought the southern Lebanon-based group.
The mid-2009 transfer was described in recent months by two Israeli officials, two U.S. officials and a Western intelligence source, and confirmed Wednesday by the Israeli military. Though they didn’t name the system’s final recipient in Syria, these and other officials described it as part as a dramatic increase in weapons transfers and military coordination among Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.
Iran and Syria both denied that a radar transfer took place.
The increased sophistication of the weapons transfers and military cooperation among the three signal an increased risk of conflict on Israeli’s northern border. U.S. officials worry any new fighting would be more likely to include Syria, which hasn’t directly engaged Israeli in combat since 1974.
The radar transfer could potentially violate a 2007 United Nations Security Council resolution that bans Iran from supplying, selling or transferring “any arms or related materiel.”
Though officials say the transaction took place about a year ago, Israel and the U.S. haven’t publicized it, a departure from years past when Israeli officials were often eager to trumpet Iranian arms transfers to Syria and Hezbollah as violations of Security Council resolutions.
Some analysts say Israel believes Iran wants to escalate tensions on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon and Syria to divert attention from its nuclear program. Israel has shied away from publicizing the transfer, these people say, to avoid playing into Iran’s hands by increasing domestic pressure on Israel’s government to take military action.
The radar report is likely to place greater pressure on the Syria strategy of the Obama administration, which has aimed to tamp down tensions with Syria as it tries to rebuild diplomatic ties.
U.S. officials including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who sent a high-level trade delegation to Damascus in June, continue to argue that Washington has the best hope of altering Syrian President Bashar Assad’s behavior, and weakening his alliance with Tehran, through diplomatic dialogue.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on the transfer.
Israeli officials confirmed in private the transfer of the advanced radar, but the military wouldn’t release specifics in response to queries by The Wall Street Journal.
“Iran is engaged in developing Syrian intelligence and aerial detection capabilities, and Iranian representatives are present in Syria for that express purpose,” the Israeli military said in a statement. “Radar assistance is only one expression of that cooperation.”
Ahmed Salkini, the spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in Washington, called the report of the radar shipment “classic Israeli PR stunts aimed at diverting the world’s attention from the atrocities they are committing in Gaza and other occupied territories, and we will not continue wasting our time” commenting on them.
Iran denied that it had sent sophisticated radars to Syria. “It is absolutely not true,” said Mohamad Bak Sahraee, spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations. Hezbollah officials in Beirut declined to comment.
Syria, which has long struggled against Israel’s superior military, has its own interest in acquiring advanced radar. Israeli fighter jets bombed a Syrian site in 2007 that Israelis say housed a nuclear reactor in the final stages of construction. Syria said it was a defunct military facility.
Some military analysts have suggested that Israel was able to slip into and out of Syrian air space during that raid by jamming older Syrian radar.
In the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, “There was no opposition to our jets. We flew freely,” said Cpt. Ron, an active duty Israeli F-16 pilot, who under Israeli security restrictions would allow himself to be identified only by his first name and rank. “In the next Lebanon war, we know it will not be like that.”
Israeli officials have in recent months accused Iran and Syria of transferring to Hezbollah Syrian-made M-600 missiles, capable of striking targets in Tel Aviv within a few hundred feet of accuracy; advanced shoulder launched anti-aircraft missiles; and an arsenal of short-range rockets that Israeli officials say has grown to more than 40,000, from 12,000 in 2006.
U.S. and Israeli officials also say Hezbollah has received training in Syria on more advanced radar-guided, truck-launched anti-aircraft missiles, though they say it isn’t clear whether those weapons systems have been transferred from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In April, Israeli President Shimon Peres publicly accused Syria of transferring Scud missiles to Hezbollah, an accusation that U.S. officials privately affirmed.
The public accusation marked the first time Western intelligence agencies believe a state may have transferred ballistic missiles to a non-state militia that the U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist group. The missiles would give Hezbollah the ability to hit virtually all of Israel from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
Syrian, Lebanese and Hezbollah officials have denied the Scud transfer.
A radar deal stands to further shift the region’s strategic balance.
Israeli and U.S. officials wouldn’t say how they determined the shipment took place or discuss the radar’s type or capacity.
But they say it would give Syria and its ally Iran improved visibility of Israeli air space and provide early warning of any imminent Israeli strike. Amid Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West, Israeli officials have suggested they could strike Iran to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
More advanced radar technologies would also likely increase the accuracy and lethality of Hezbollah missiles aimed at Israeli cities and incoming Israeli aircraft.
“An effective long-range radar is the kind of thing you’d need to make longer-range missiles accurate,” said David Fulghum, an electronic warfare and radar expert. “Up till now, [Hezbollah] was just sort of lighting the fuse and shooting them to land wherever.”
A clear picture of the skies above Israel and Lebanon would give Hezbollah greater freedom of movement during any conflict, since the group would know when its fighters were at risk of being bombed from the air.
“The Iranians have two interests,” said a U.S. official who is familiar with the arms transfers. “They need Hezbollah to be a powerful threat against Israel, and they are interested in knowing what is coming to them from Israel.”
Current and former U.S. officials who’ve worked on Syria said the U.S. and Israel have often had to trend lightly on the issue of Damascus’s arms dealings for fear of stoking a broader Middle East war. President George W. Bush’s administration was notified of Israel’s planned 2007 attack on Syria.
For more than a half year, the U.S. kept secret its intelligence outlining the reactor’s construction, fearing that publicizing it could pressure Israel and Syria into a conflict, said a former U.S. official who was part of the deliberations.
“We didn’t comment on the reactor for six months” after Israel’s attack, only then accusing the Syrians of building a reactor, this official said. “We wanted to find a way to use the situation for our advantage.”
Indeed, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert communicated to Mr. Assad through third channels after the attack that Israel remained open to peace talks.
Many Syrian and Israeli officials said the two sides made progress on resolving their dispute over the Golan Heights region before Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip in early 2009 stalled the process.
—Jay Solomon in Washington and Farnaz Fassihi in New York contributed to this article