Israel and the United States carried out a missile test over the Mediterranean Sea on Tuesday morning that was detected by Russian surveillance systems, adding to regional tension as President Obama campaigns for a US-led attack on Syria.
The launch of an eastward-bound missile from the Mediterranean was initially reported in Russian media, spooking financial markets as there was speculation that an attack on Syria had begun, Reuters reported. Both the US and Russia – one of the chief backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – have been building up their presence in the Mediterranean, raising concern about a clash between superpowers.
"Tensions are high. Everybody is waiting for an American attack," says Ephraim Inbar, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.
Israel’s Defense Ministry eventually said that a Sparrow rocket had been fired to simulate a ballistic missile attack on the Jewish state to test the Arrow interceptor system. The Arrow – which wasn’t fired Tuesday – has been developed to defend against long-range rockets primarily from Iran, a main patron of the Syrian regime.
Later on Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to allude to the exercise as he spoke on Israel’s missile defense systems at the inauguration of a high-tech park.
"We are building an iron wall, an Iron Dome, and an iron will," he said referring to the Iron Dome, a different interceptor system for short-range missiles. "These are the things that give us the power to defend ourselves and whoever thinks about striking us – it's not worthwhile.’’
A spokesman for the prime minister declined to say if Mr. Netanyahu was referring to the test launch, or even if he was aware of it.
One Israeli expert said the incident could be seen as muscle-flexing by the US and Israel. Officials in Syria and Iran have threatened to attack Israel should the US decide to order reprisals for the alleged use of chemical weapons by the regime two weeks ago.
"You could say perhaps it's a show of strength to Syria and its Iranian ally – that Israel has a range of options at its disposal. And to place pressure on Assad and Iran that Israel takes [retaliation threats] seriously," says Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer on Iranian politics at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. "Through Israel, Obama is also possibly sending a message to Assad – that if the Congress doesn’t approve an attack against Syria, then America might protect its interests in the region through Israel."
Over the weekend, Mr. Obama accused Syria of using chemical weapons and spoke in favor of using US military power to punish the regime. The test launch comes as the administration is trying to convince members of Congress to approve a resolution authorizing the president to order the attacks.
Arieh Herzog, a former Israeli missile defense director, says that the Sparrow missile is developed to simulate "the worst threats" in the region so Israel can hone the capabilities of the Arrow III missile interceptor. He speculated that the launch Tuesday was done at a considerably long range.
Mr. Herzog says that although the missile testing with the US is planned months in advance, they are sometimes postponed due to geopolitical tension. However, he denied the test was timed to send a message to Israel’s enemies. "We need to develop the systems as fast as possible to get better defenses," he says.