Israel signaled its ability to defend itself with a missile-defense test over the Mediterranean Sea today that briefly rattled stock and oil markets on edge over prospects for a U.S. attack on Syria.
As the Obama administration presses Congress to authorize a military strike against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Israel conducted what it called a joint test with the U.S. of its Arrow Ballistic Missile Defense system. The Israeli Defense Ministry called it a success.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the test that Israel’s defense is built on an “iron wall, iron dome and iron will.”
“These are the things that give us the strength to defend ourselves, and to anyone who is thinking to attack us - it’s not worthwhile,” Netanyahu said, according to a text message from his office.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the U.S. gave only “technical assistance and support” to a “long-planned” test.
The demonstration of Israeli preparedness served as a signal to Syria and to Iran, the embattled Assad’s main ally, and dramatized the potential for a regional spillover of a U.S.- led offensive against Syria’s chemical weapons capability.
“Nobody tests a missile system in the middle of an environment like this without being aware of it being interpreted as a message or signal,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington who’s advised several U.S. administrations on Middle East policy.
“The Israelis don’t like sitting on the sidelines passively, particularly when they’re worried about security issues,” Miller said.
The Israeli Defense Ministry said in a statement that “all elements of the system performed according to their operational configuration.”
Little said in a statement that “this test had nothing to do with United States consideration of military action to respond to Syria’s chemical weapons attack.”
He said the flight test of a Sparrow target missile over the Mediterranean was designed to evaluate the Arrow system’s “ability to detect, track and communicate information about a simulated threat to Israel.”
The Arrow interceptor is designed to stop medium-range missiles such as Syria’s surface-to-surface Fateh 110, supplied by Iran, which has a range of about 124 miles (200 kilometers).
Depending on the trajectory of the target missile, the Israeli test also could help assess the ability of Syrian defenses and Russian ships in the Mediterranean to detect sea-launched missiles, intelligence that could be useful to the U.S. if President Barack Obama orders a cruise-missile attack on targets in Syria, said two American officials familiar with such testing who asked not to be identified in order to discuss classified matters.
The officials said U.S. and Israeli intelligence and the U.K.’s electronic listening post on Cyprus normally listen for bursts of radio traffic from Syrian air defense sites and from any Russian ships in the area that would indicate that the launch of the target was detected, and how quickly and accurately.
Russia’s RIA-Novosti news agency was the first to report today’s Israeli test, saying Russia detected two unknown ballistic missiles that had been launched at sea and fell back into the Mediterranean.
Russia’s ability to detect the test may be of limited value to Syria if the U.S. attacks with cruise missiles, which unlike ballistic missiles generally fly at low altitudes, and as a result are harder for defense radars to detect, the two officials said.
Oil futures jumped as much as 1.2 percent after RIA-Novosti reported the missile test. The market settled down on confirmation that war hadn’t broken out. The price of crude traded at $115.04 per barrel at 1:10 p.m. in London today, 0.6 percent higher than yesterday’s close.
In Washington today, House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, urged Congress to support Obama’s call for lawmakers to authorize limited military action against Syria. At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, the panel’s Democratic chairman, Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, also backed Obama.
The committee’s top Republican, Bob Corker of Tennessee, said he was dismayed the administration isn’t doing more to aid the “vetted, moderate opposition” in Syria.