Israel triggered an alert across the Middle East on Tuesday after test firing a missile defence system designed to deal with any fallout from Western military action against Bashar al-Assad. With tensions running high, the test, said to have been a joint exercise with America, raised fears that action against the Syrian regime had begun.
Russia raised the alarm, reporting the launch of two "ballistic objects" in the Mediterranean, heading east. The alert caused a jump in oil prices and some panic in Moscow. But the United States, Britain and France quickly issued denials and the objects fell harmlessly into the sea. Israeli defence ministry officials later confirmed that the launch, at 9.15am local time, had been a test of its sparrow missile system over a Mediterranean firing range.
"The Israel missile defence organisation (IMDO) and the US missile defence agency (MDA) completed a successful flight test of a new version of the sparrow target missile," a statement said. By then Moscow had announced that its early warning system in southern Russia had tracked two missiles being fired from the central Mediterranean in the general direction of Syria. There has been a US naval build-up in the region as a prelude to possible action against Syria over alleged use of chemical weapons.
President Vladimir Putin, one of Syria's staunchest allies and a vocal critic of the Obama administration's proposals for military strikes, was briefed by his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, Russian news agencies reported. Israeli officials mentioned just one missile but said the trial had been successful. Its aim was to test missile tracking capabilities by simulating the trajectory of a ballistic missile, they said. The Arrow system is a component in Israel's multilayered missile defences. The Pentagon later said the exercise had been planned a long time ago.
"This test had nothing to do with United States consideration of military action to respond to Syria's chemical weapons attack," said a spokesman. Israeli military chiefs have moved Iron Dome anti-missile batteries to central and northern Israel while activating patriot defence batteries amid rising tensions over the Assad regime's alleged role in a deadly chemical weapons attack on August 21. Without mentioning the test, Benjamin Natanyahu, Israel's prime minister, said that its survival depended on an "iron wall".
"We are building an iron wall, an Iron Dome, and we have an iron will," he said at the dedication ceremony of a national cyber centre in the southern town of Beersheba. "These are the things that give us the strength to defend ourselves and also to tell those who would attack us: It is not worth your while." Israeli officials have stated that the chances of Syria retaliating against Israel in the event of a US strike are low.
But around 1,000 reservists were called up before last weekend and then discharged after President Barack Obama announced he would put his plans before the US Congress. The prospect of revenge strikes by Syrian - which has evoked memories of Iraqi Scud attacks during the 1991 Gulf War - has caused a stampede in Israel for government-issue gas masks.