A False Start (How the World Avoided World War III)

September 13, 2013
Kirill Benedictov

On September 3rd, a somewhat puzzled world awoke to a hyperventilating Russian media. The report making its rounds in the Russian press, translated by The Interpreter, said that Russian radar systems had recorded a ballistic missile launch over the Mediterranean. Eventually, the Israeli government stated that it had conducted a test of a missile defense system.

Below is a translation of an article in the pro-Kremlin Izvestia, written by Kirill Benedictov, a political analyst, who postulates that Israel’s September 3rd missile test was designed to scare the Assad regime and perhaps even provoke it into action. The subtext suggests that this was done out of frustration, as Obama and Cameron have faced delays, mainly due to political pressure. Thus, an Assad military response to an Israeli missile launch would bypass the political process and lead to military intervention.

Furthermore, Benedictov says that it because of the “strong nerves” of Assad’s generals that Syria prevented the start of World War III.

Some Western military analysts have suggested that Russia would have known exactly what kind of weapon was being launched, and the entire story was over-hyped. We are not in a position to know one way or the other, but this article provides interesting insight into how the subject is being treated in the Russian press. – Ed.

World War III did not start on September 3rd.

At 10:16 Moscow time, the radar station at Armavir registered launches of two ballistic targets in the Mediterranean Sea. At 12:48 it was reported by the Russian media with reference to the Ministry of Defence.

By that time it was already known that the “targets,” that were most likely ballistic missiles, had been launched eastward from the central part of the Mediterranean Sea. If you look at the map, it will be clear where these “targets” were flying. Eastern Mediterranean – that is Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. Nobody had any doubts that the missiles were targeted at Syria. For way too long, the West had threatened Assad with missile strikes. Too many guns were hanging on the wall in the first act. Everyone understood that they must sooner or later be fired. It was clear that after the first shot, the story will start galloping, like a spurred horse. As it often happens: no one really wants the war but after that dreadful first shot nothing can be reversed. The logic of war finally prevails, and yesterday’s peacekeepers reluctantly apply war camouflage to their faces and dig out their stashed tomahawks. This process is described in the great Barbara Tuchman’s book “Guns of August,” describing the beginning of World War I.

But this time, it seems like the worst hasn’t happened. First, the missiles did not hit any targets. They were self-destructed and fell into the sea. It was first reported by “an informed source” in Damascus, and then confirmed in Moscow. Second, for almost two hours both the U.S. and its NATO allies kept denying that they had anything to do with those launches. “We have no such information,” was the standard reply by the Western allies. Then, through the communication channels of military bureaucracy apparently some new information was received because the UK Defense Ministry announced that it knew about the ballistic targets launches in the Mediterranean, but had nothing to do with them.

Guessing game lasted nearly two hours, until finally Israel admitted that it had conducted an air defense test. However, not by itself, but jointly with the United States — as part of exercises to test the missile defense system “Hetz-2”. So, the “targets” were indeed the test missiles, apparently launched from a USAF F-15 aircraft.

It is interesting to note that an hour before this Israel had claimed that it knew nothing about the mysterious launches. But the Pentagon seems to be still denying any involvement in the incident, that made the world hold its breath.

It is worth mentioning what this “Hetz-2” system is. In Hebrew, “Hetz” means “arrow” (as the Israeli system itself is a replica of the American Arrow complex). The first set, deployed in Israel 13 years ago, were able to destroy the TBM  and OTBM [Tactical Ballistic Missile and Theatre Ballistic Missiles) at a distance of 150 km and at an altitude of 50 km. In the present modification, it is able to provide a two-tiered missile defense at altitudes of 40-50 km and 8-10 km respectively. Since 2011, they have been testing the Hetz-3, marketed as “the most advanced interceptor missile in the world.” The Hetz-3 is able to destroy targets at the boundary of the Earth’s atmosphere. Last February, for example, an anti-missile missile, launched from one of Israel’s Mediterranean testing sites, flew through exoatmospheric path entering the open space. The missiles that fell into the sea today, 350 km from the Syrian coast, were less sophisticated. Actually, Israel reported only one of them, an “Anchor,” was the target missile. The second one was most likely an interceptor, but there is no data on this.

So, just a routine exercise? Let’s believe this version. Especially since in more recent days that Israel has been living a troubled life: against the background of growing tensions over Syria and the expectations of the Western coalition attack on Assad’s forces, the residents are lining up for gas masks. Just over the last day more than 12 million sets of personal protective equipment were issued. And if we recall that in the summer the Israeli Defense Ministry warned that Syria is equipped with multiple warhead missiles, the Israeli military concern seems quite reasonable. Yet there is some hidden agenda behind today’s launch of missiles in the Mediterranean, it could be assumed.

While Barack Obama presses the Congress, seeking support for a military operations in Syria (whether he is sincere in this desire, or, as suggested by Boris Mezhuyev, he is just buying time, is a different question), and Francois Hollande, in righteous anger, shakes “conclusive” evidence that the Syrian president was responsible for the chemical attack on August 21, the initial impulse to “punish” Assad is slowly fading away. The UK Parliament has buried Cameron’s proposal to support the plan for a missile strike on Syria (English media point out that Cameron became the first prime minister since 1782 whose initiative on matters of war and peace was not supported by legislators). Political scientists began to talk seriously about how the geopolitical hegemony of the West, that lasted five centuries, has ended. Meanwhile, the Syrian government forces are going about their business as usual, destroying the rebel groups. And now time, oddly enough, works in their favor.

In this situation, for the Western military bureaucracy it is extremely important to show that the bellicose rhetoric of politicians is backed by at least some concrete steps. This probably explains the mysterious silence for nearly two hours elapsed between the missiles launches and the second statement by the Israeli defense ministry. The interceptor missile tests, possibly planned, were conducted at a time when the expectation of imminent war made ​​the situation in the Middle East is extremely volatile. After all, the missile flew in the direction of the Syrian coast, so it is likely that those who planned the launch expected a response from Damascus. To get on Assad’s nerves, and at the same time to see how the Syrian army will respond to a missile attack from the sea, which is the plan of the American and Israeli militaries.

The fact that there was no reaction indicates that Assad’s generals have strong nerves. Otherwise, it would be impossible to rule out an option, whereby the 3rd of September, 2013, would go down into the history books as the beginning of a new great war.