By Stephen Green
In the days after Israel’s September 6 air strike into northeast Syria at what may or may not have been a nuclear or strategic weapons facility, I read the major papers and followed serious news broadcasts, waiting for the warning from the military/intelligence "experts," looking and listening for the key word: "SS-21".
A week passed….then two….and then there it was, in a publication of one of the major neo-con think tanks.
On September 20, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy issued a "Policy Watch/Peace Watch" paper authored by Michael Eisenstadt entitled, "Syria’s Strategic Weapons Programs." Near the end of the piece, after mentioning Syria’s arsenal of Scud-Bs, Cs and Ds, Eisenstadt adds, almost as an afterthought:
"Syria also possesses the Soviet SS-21 missile with a 70 kilometer range, as well as a large number of domestically produced….artillery rockets….Should deterrence fail, Syria’s rocket and missile forces would likely play a major role in any major confrontation with Israel, as a means of deterring further escalation or disrupting Israeli mobilization and military operations."
Mr. Eisenstadt got that right. If anything, he understates the risks to
Israel, should she continue to attack Syria’s strategic military installations. The general problem is that, since the early 1980’s, offense beats defense. As Israel has proved repeatedly and often all over the Middle East, state-of-the-art fighter bombers with advanced avionics, electronic counter-measures, chaff dispensers, smart munitions, computerized fire-control systems, and well-trained pilots can finesse virtually any air defense system currently deployed in the Region.
The problem with the game of offense, however, is that both sides can play it. As I indicated in "Living by the Sword", published in 1988, some Arab governments have learned that while they may not be able to defend themselves against the Israeli Air Force, they can obtain and deploy weapons against which Israel has virtually no defenses…..such as the Soviet SS-21.
In the late 1970’s and early 80’s, SS-21s were installed by the Soviets across Eastern Europe, and it gravely concerned the U.S. and its NATO allies. The effective range of the weapon is a little more than Mr. Eisenstadt indicated in his Washington Institute policy paper – about 80-100 miles, in fact, or enough reach all of Israel to points just south of Tel Aviv.
Unlike the Scuds and the multiple-launch rocket systems which the Soviets sold to many of their client states across the globe in the period, the SS-21 is a tactical ballistic missile that is accurately targetable to within about 50-100 yards, and carries a payload of around one ton. It is not a Scud. At impact, it is traveling at over 2000 MPH. Launch to target times from southern Syria to northern Israel would be 3-5 minutes: Israeli pilots would not even have a chance to get their helmets on. And anti-missile systems, like the Patriot, would be about as effective as they have been to date.
Moreover, Syria has for decades been developing radiological and chemical/biological agents which could be carried in the SS-21 warheads, and these could render Israel’s main air bases uninhabitable for many, many years. In the 50 year history of Arab-Israeli conflict, the moments when Israel did not have total air superiority on the battlefield have been so few and so localized as to be not worth mentioning. That’s what could change in 3-5 minutes.
I first learned of the deployment of the SS-21s to Syria in the summer of 1982. At the time, I was researching the Six-Day war at the State Department in Washington, in the Bureau of Political and Military Affairs. It was difficult, however, to get anyone at "pol-mil" to focus upon the 1960’s, or to focus in fact upon anything other than the devastating news just received by policy and military analysts at State that the SS-21 was coming to the Middle East. And there was anger – bitter anger – at the Israelis.
Beginning in 1981, the Israeli Government had announced and the Israeli Air Force had carried out a policy of pre-emptive attacks against the PLO and in support of the Christian Phalangists in the on-going Lebanese civil war. Originally, the air operations focused upon south Lebanon around the Zahrani and Litani Rivers. Bridges, water installations, the American Medreco oil refinery, and Palestinian refugee camps were targeted. [What other country in the world would use American planes, provided on concessionary terms, to shut down an American refinery? It truly is a "special" relationship.]
Over the next two years the Lebanon War raged, featuring devastating urban warfare in Beirut, the arrival of a U.S. Marine Multi-national Peacekeeping Force, the Sabra and Chatila refugee massacres, and Israeli air raids into the Bekaa Valley, successfully targeting the PLO, but also the Syrian forces supporting them.
In fact the Israeli Air Force was busy all over the Middle East in the period 1981-1985, attacking the Osirak nuclear facility in Baghdad and the PLO offices in Lebanon in 1981, Syrian airfields and defensive missile emplacements in 1982, and PLO offices in Tunisia in 1985. During the Osirak raid, there were overflights and suppression of the air defenses of Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
All of these operations were carried out without the loss of a single plane. In most (though not all) of them, U.S.- made and supplied offensive systems were overcoming Soviet defenses. In the international arms trade business, buyers were taking notice, and the Soviet Union was becoming concerned, embarrassed and angry.
This was the background to the discovery in Washington, in the summer of 1982, that the Soviets had finally agreed to supply Syria with SS-21s. Moreover, at State Department / Political and Military Affairs, it was learned that the missiles had already been installed; the Syrian Air Force had been trained to operate and maintain them; and the Soviet technicians had already gone home. The Syrians had the keys. Militarily, a new regime, a new status quo existed between Israel and Syria.
So when about three weeks ago, for the first time since the SS-21’s were installed 25 years ago, Israeli planes apparently attacked a Syrian strategic arms facility, my antennae were up and running. They still are.
-Stephen Green is a retired UN official, author and writer living in Berlin, Vermont. Among his books is "Taking Sides: America’s Secret Relations With a Militant Israel."