According to a recent report in Jane’s Defence Weekly, Syria, despite being prohibited by sanctions for producing medium to long range missiles, is “accelerating its production of missiles and rockets effectively” at a pace similar to March 2011 — before the start of the uprising.
Iran and North Korea are reportedly helping Syria overcome the international sanctions which make it harder to ship weapons components to the country.
Cooperation in missile development between North Korea and Syria dates back to the 1980s. It is currently focused on improving Syria’s Scud-D missiles which are known to be fairly inaccurate but have a range of up to seven hundred kilometers — more than the distance between Damascus and Cairo.
Iran is also helping Syria develop the Khaibar-1 missiles which has a range of up to one hundred kilometers and has been used by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which supports the regime in Damascus, against Israel.
Since 2008, Syria is reported to have spent more than $3 billion on procuring weapons and their development and received around $1 billion from Iran in 2007 to buy surface to surface and anti-tank missiles as well as anti-aircraft weapons.
Ballistic missiles, wrote Dany Shoham, an expert on biological and chemical weapons in the Middle East at the Bar-Llan University, in the Middle East Quarterly, are the “backbone of the Syrian posture, so that missiles effectively shape Syrian strategic orientation and operational preparedness as a whole.”
The recent increase in ballistic missile production is crucial to Syria’s security. One reason is that the regime simply needs more rockets to continue to fight the opposition against it. The second reason being the inaccuracy of the missiles which require larger number to inflict the same destruction a smaller arsenal of more accurate missiles would. Loyalist forces, including Hezbollah fighters, need the large number of missiles to be effective.
Moreover, as the conventional capabilities of Israel and Turkey are strengthening, Syria can only match that capability with the help of its short range ballistic missiles.
Syria is also improving its systems. A solid propulsion system is being developed for the Scuds which should shorten the preparation time needed to launch them, thus making them more difficult to intercept. Separating warheads on the Scud-D missiles can also be fitted to launch poison gases.
Scuds with an extended range pose a greater threat to Israel. In the hands of Hezbollah, the missiles would pose a threat to Tel Aviv and Israel’s nuclear installations. Indeed, it was reported last year that Syria had transferred Scud missiles to Hezbollah and Israel carried out several airstrikes, presumably to sabotage these weapons transfers.
Coupled with this is Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. Even if the President Bashar al-Assad has promised to eliminate it altogether, arms experts suspect the country will retain a sizable stockpile. Recent reports that Syria has failed to hand over for destruction the amount of chemicals it had promised would seem to bear this out.
Syria has also worked to construct underground tunnels for these missiles which could protect them against air strikes, especially from Israel.
The increase in missile production with assistance from Iran and North Korea is certain to heighten security and proliferation risks in the Middle East. Moreover, in case Iran becomes a nuclear weapon state, there is a chance the Scuds could be fitted with nuclear warheads as well.