HARI SREENIVASAN: With all the talk the past many months about a possible military conflict between Israel and Iran, a new source of conflict might be emerging. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the Islamic militant group, Hezbollah, is getting more advanced weaponry that could be far more precise in their attacks. Charles Levinson was one of the authors of the piece and joins us now. So, there has been this arms race under the guise of the Syrian war that has been happening in the neighborhood. Who is getting what kind of weapons?
CHARLES LEVINSON: Right. So, when Assad starts losing control in Syria in 2012, Iran and Syria want Hezbollah to lend its expertise to the fight. Hezbollah was reluctant because of its own domestic political considerations inside Lebanon. To sweeten the deal, Iran basically offered Hezbollah to upgrade its weapons arsenal from having tens of thousands – about a hundred thousand unguided, dumb bombs and rockets and missiles to having smart, guided missiles that can hit precise targets inside Israel. So, the weapons transfers that we are looking at so far are the SA-17. It is an anti-aircraft, sort of highly mobile, advanced anti-aircraft missile that would really threaten Israel’s dominance in the skies above Lebanon, especially its helicopters. You are talking about the Fato-110, which is very precise within a… I cannot remember the exact… but within a few dozen/few hundred meters let’s say. A surface-to-surface missile that can reach basically all of Israel, and the same thing called the surface-to-ship/anti-ship missile, which can basically take out any Israeli ship patrolling the Mediterranean off the coast of Lebanon.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So, these are missiles that are now in Lebanon and in Syria where Hezbollah stores them?
CHARLES LEVINSON: So, Hezbollah operates, obviously, in Lebanon, and also has a presence inside Syria, including warehouses and bases and whatnot. So, the way the transfers usually work is Syria transfers the weapons to Hezbollah inside Syria and then Hezbollah transfers them, you know, when it wants to inside Lebanon. There are conflicting reports about how successful they have been in getting them into Hezbollah’s hands and into Hezbollah’s hands inside Lebanon, but it appears that we have started to see at least some of these advanced weapons inside Hezbollah’s hands inside Lebanon.
HARI SREENIVASAN: And Israel has been trying to stop these. In the past year they have actually had five air attacks into Syria, but without crossing into Syrian airspace. How do they do that?
CHARLES LEVINSON: Right. So, once Israel starts getting wind of these transactions going on, starting in early 2013, Israel started launching airstrikes basically every time it was aware of one of these weapons transfers. Israel does not want to get tangled up in the Syrian conflict, so it was important to Israel to try and take out these weapons/ shipments without actually crossing into Syrian airspace, and so they deployed a rather remarkable tactic to do this. So, to take out these weapons in Syria without crossing into Syrian airspace, Israeli pilots have literally used this tactic called “lofting,” where they gun it – they gun their planes towards Syrian airspace and at the last minute they accelerate and go up, and on their heads up displays on their planes they literally have this basket icon that is the target and they have to sort of time the launch of their payloads, and this arch into Syria to hit these targets without ever going into Syrian airspace.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright. Charles Levinson from The Wall Street Journal. Thanks so much.
CHARLES LEVINSON: It is my pleasure. Thank you.