The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that US officials believe the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah is receiving advanced guided-missiles from Syria despite efforts by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to take them out. If true, this could severely hinder Israel’s ability to operate against the Shiite group in the future.
US officials, according to the Journal, believe “as many as 12 anti-ship guide-missiles systems may now be in Hezbollah’s possession inside Syria.” These are Russian-made SS-N-26 Yakhont missiles, which use a ramjet engine to travel over 75 miles at more than twice the speed of sound. When launched, the missile skims above the waves to avoid detection, guided by a seeker that is designed to resist countermeasures. It is one of the most advanced anti-ship missiles in the world (the U.S. does not have a long range supersonic anti-ship missile like this) and its sale to Syria indicates how important Assad’s survival is to Vladimir Putin.
According to sources that track the arms trade between Russia and its Syrian ally, 72 Yakhont missiles with their SS-C-5 coastal defense systems were delivered to Bashar al-Assad’s military in 2011. Israel targeted some of these missiles in Latakia last July, but may not have fully destroyed them. It is also unclear if a subsequent IDF strike in October succeeded. To avoid further targeting, Hezbollah is believed to be smuggling these missiles into Lebanon piecemeal with help from Iran’s Quds Force.
Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons understand the importance of these weapons. In the 2006 war, Hezbollah launched two Iranian made C-802 anti-ship missiles at the INS Hanit, one of Israel’s newest and most advanced warships. The first overshot and hit an Egyptian merchant ship. The second hit the Hanit, killing four.
The Yakhont is more advanced than the missiles used in that attack, which explains why Israel conducted multiple strikes in an attempt to prevent their transfer across the border to Hezbollah. Israel’s naval fleet may now be forced to operate outside the Yakhont’s range, farther from Lebanon’s coast, during the next conflict.
The transfer of these weapons could be an indicator that the tide of war may be turning in Assad’s favor. Indeed, it may signal that Assad does not see a need for the Yakhonts anymore, particularly since the opposition has no navy and the Obama Administration has apparently ruled out intervention in Syria.
From Israel’s perspective, the transfer of these weapons to Hezbollah represents an erosion of its Qualitative Military Edge (QME), as more advanced weapons make their way to non-state actors in an increasingly volatile region.
Patrick Megahan focuses on Middle East military affairs at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.