Damascus and Tehran likely engineered the crisis to divert US-led efforts to sanction Iran.
'Til Israel do us part?
So much commotion has been made about the recent so-called American engagement with Syria that one would think the two sides were embarked on the road to eternal matrimony after a whirlwind romance. The tongues of die-hard neo-cons, Likudniks and March 14 fantasists were immediately set wagging about the folly--and even the treachery--of US plans to pick up where things had been abruptly left five years ago by sending an ambassador back to Damascus.
Yet this nominal engagement notwithstanding, there is little to show for the touted warming of relations. Washington has had no qualms about continuing its policy of containment and attempted isolation while sending only a modicum of signals that the Obama administration might embark on some diplomacy, that road less traveled.
Of course, neither the uproar about American "engagement" nor the actual lack thereof has come in a vacuum. While US rapprochement has come (and gone) according to an Israeli agenda, Syria's ties with most regional powers have gradually regained a positive tone over the past few years.
This culminated in the resumption of collaboration on an array of issues with France. France had co-sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 1559 that precipitated the initial Franco-American opposition to Syria's presence in Lebanon. But with the arrival of President Nicolas Sarkozy, Paris has changed course and returned to a more balanced Levantine policy.
Disconcerted by France and its masterful political demonstration that the road to bilateral cooperation is best reached through dialogue and mutual compromise, Syria's detractors became determined to remain unaffected by such Cartesian logic. Luckily for them, the burden of proof does not seem to be a requirement to level accusations against the usual suspects, especially when dealing with the sacrosanct security of Israel at the expense of everything else.
It might have been dangerous to peddle yet again the notion of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East following the Iraq debacle, but there are instant advantages to announcing the sudden transportation of Scud missiles from Syria to Lebanon: they immediately evoke the Scuds launched from Iraq into Israel in 1991 during the liberation of Kuwait.
In addition to making such instant headlines and causing such ready connotations, Scuds are the perfect "provocation" for Israel to justify a state of belligerence it is barely hiding anyway. Israel feels it has unfinished business from four years ago in Lebanon and many Israeli officials are itching for a settling of the score. With the "appearance" of Scuds, the matter takes pole position once more.
The enormity of the propaganda leaves out the enormity of the Scuds themselves, too cumbersome to be a weapon of choice for the agile fighters of Hizballah and too huge to be missed by a simple application like Google Earth, let alone by 12,000 UNIFIL soldiers. And while Syria clearly feels no need to deny its logistic and political support for Hizballah, it can easily ridicule the Scud claim, so far-fetched does it seem.
Nevertheless, the Scud accusation has become a deafening chorus in Israel and the US. Officials in Washington have now started making statements of unprecedented gravity. Not only has Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unexpectedly claimed that, "President [Bashar] Assad is making decisions that could mean war or peace for the region," but President Barack Obama has described Syria's actions as continuing to "pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States".
Even for two sides breaking up an engagement, that is an unusual and extraordinary statement and it does not bode well for the coming months. It is little wonder that many Syrians are having a hard time seeing the difference between the current "engagement" and the isolation that preceded it. Indeed, if this is engagement, what exactly was wrong with isolation? And who could have imagined that Syria was so strong and effective in relation to the US?
The Lebanese resistance will not be launching Scuds if attacked by Israel, but it certainly won't be serving tea either. There is no doubt that Hizballah has rearmed and is readying to defend itself and its country from a likely Israeli assault that will be even more violent than the previous one and undoubtedly more arrogantly named.
For all its peace talk pretense, Israel has given none of its immediate neighbors any indication that it is serious about long term prospects for security and peace. On the contrary, the more time passes, the more Israel seems to be acting out, with slight adjustments, the recommendations it once received to achieve "a clean break to secure the realm". But without Turkey, for one, and with the new regional alliances, there will be no break, regardless of how many preemptions Israel makes while decrying provocations. So far, Syria has been neither contained nor weakened, and it doesn't look like it's going to roll back either.
The US has not acknowledged that fact and continues to coordinate policies with Israel that only damage its own interests and security--a point made by General David Petraeus in January. While the White House ignores voices of experience, if not of reason, Damascus will be welcoming the Russian president--a first for the Kremlin--and a succession of concerned world leaders, as it continues to prepare itself and its allies for the time when Israel avenges its own failures.- Published 6/5/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at London's Chatham House.
Beware the Scuds that shoot down hope
One of the non-missile definitions of the noun "scud" is "ragged low clouds, moving rapidly beneath another cloud layer". This, as it turns out, is quite an apt description of the clouded issue of alleged Syrian Scud missile transfers to Lebanon's Hizballah movement.
The whole story falls well into the territory of known unknowns, as coined by former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: we know that we don't know what's true or not. So, let's turn to the usual speculation and/or conspiracy theories masquerading as analysis that such stories are made for.
The current Pentagon boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, may or may not have blown away some of the clouds obscuring the issue last week when, after a meeting with his Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak, he relegated the whole Scud story to irrelevance. He did not mention the evocative missiles, because Scuds or no Scuds he seemed to say, Hizballah "has far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world". Which is certainly true for the Lebanese government in which Hizballah is a partner but not so true for the Israeli government that it is facing.
"Rockets and missiles" may sound threatening but do not resonate nearly as much as the more specific specter of Scuds, the weapons that Saddam Hussein launched at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. After the initial allegations of the Scud transfer were made, both American and Israeli officials quickly dropped the specific name and referred more generically to Hizballah's rocket arsenal. Maybe Scuds were only mentioned to get more attention? That at least is one of many possibilities in the current saga.
On the other hand, Israel's claims about Hizballah's missile capacities were pooh-poohed prior to the July/August 2006 war, during which it emerged that some of the estimates had actually been on the low side. Hizballah itself keeps mum on the Scud issue but has said that it has extensively rearmed and has also promised Israel some "surprises" were it to engage in hostilities with the movement. And even if it does not have actual Scuds, just much more useful missiles with a different name, it may serve the movement to let people believe that it does have them, or advanced anti-aircraft missiles, or a magic dog-whistle that turns all Israeli mutts on IDF soldiers.
It is a tad problematic to discuss motive without being sure who did what and without the benefit even of a corpse. So, just a quick rundown of the possibilities.
If it's an Israeli ploy it may have been aimed at torpedoing US-Syria rapprochement, such as it is. President Barack Obama has now rolled over the sanctions on Syria and his nominee for the vacant US ambassador's position in Damascus may run into Senate opposition. It seems doubtful however that any torpedoing was necessary since the sanctions were not about to be lifted in an election year and the ambassador's appointment is not a big enough issue.
Israel may also have invented the story to prepare the ground for an attack against Hizballah, Syria, Lebanon or Iran, but that seems even more implausible. Why give advance warning by raising the temperature, for one?
What we're left with is the slight possibility that the storm was created specifically for the purpose of getting the US to side with Israel during a particularly tense period in their relations.
But, just to think outside the box for a minute, could Iran have leaked the story, initially to a Kuwaiti newspaper, also in order to sabotage Syrian-US realignment? This seems equally unlikely for the same reasons as mentioned above, plus Tehran knows Damascus will never risk really embracing the US.
If somehow the Scuds transfer really happened or was about to happen, the significance is easier to gauge. The situation in the region remains highly unstable, and Hizballah and Iran still worry about an Israeli military strike. The peace process is non-existent and Lebanon's domestic situation is unpredictable at best. In these circumstances it makes sense to acquire as much deterrence as possible. On the other hand, it could just as easily be meant as a provocation rather than a deterrent, to goad Israel into premature action.
Thus the Scud issue emerges as the ultimate Middle Eastern mix and match story for the spring. Just assemble the elements according to your inclinations. What is much more serious than the allegations themselves is that they feed into the narrative of a region on the edge, where too many people keep mentioning the possibility of war and where the belief in any kind of effective diplomatic process has disappeared on all sides. Beware the Scuds that shoot down hope.- Published 6/5/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Ferry Biedermann is a Beirut-based journalist.
Missiles, missiles everywhere
Recent reports indicate that Syria has transferred Scud missiles to Hizballah. While still not fully confirmed, there is little doubt that the reports are accurate, even if some of the details, such as the specific Scud model and the quantities supplied, remain unknown.
Not for the first time, Syria is playing with fire. On the one hand, the Scuds present neither a fundamentally new capability nor a basic change in the overall Hizballah threat. Hizballah already has some 45,000 rockets, with significantly more long-range ones than in the past and virtually all of Israel is in range. The range of the Scud D model, the one Syria probably supplied, is indeed longer than that of the rockets Hizballah already has, but the added range is of questionable benefit, the warheads are lighter and the missiles are inaccurate.
Far more worrying than the missiles themselves is the expression of Syrian intent, whether calculated or not. Provision of the missiles, the above notwithstanding, is clearly a provocative act, one that Syria knows will be of deep concern to Israel, especially coming on top of both its and Iran's already massive supply of weapons. Lebanon is a tinderbox as is and Syria is stoking the fire.
The 2006 war ended inconclusively, in itself a failure for Israel, but with both sides able to claim achievements. Hizballah rightly claimed that it was the first Arab force to fight Israel to a standoff; the 4,000 rockets it fired severely disrupted Israel's north. Israel, for its part, gained four years of quiet on the Lebanese border, the longest such period since the early 1970s.
For Hizballah another round is a question of when, not if. Its domestic role in Lebanon notwithstanding, Hizballah remains a jihadi organization whose raison d'etre is Israel's destruction. So while the Lebanese public's reluctance to pay the price of a further round may have deterred Hizballah so far, there is little doubt that it is just biding its time. The question is whether Hizballah will choose to act in the near term or wait for some propitious timing, even until Iran goes nuclear.
The next round, in any event, is just a matter of time. Syria may have been overly impressed by Hizballah's achievements and may be spoiling for an opportunity to "give it to Israel" again. While its newfound enthusiasm presumably does not include a direct confrontation with Israel--Syria appears to prefer continued indirect conflict through Hizballah--its very willingness to provide the missiles and risk escalation is worrisome.
Syria's actions also have an indirect effect on the internal debate raging in Israel since 2006: should Israel have attacked Syria at the time rather than Hizballah, and more importantly, should it do so in the next round? As a state actor, Syria presents precisely the kinds of targets that the IDF is structured to attack, in contrast with the difficulty of destroying Hizballah's tens of thousands of short-range rockets. By attacking Syria, it is argued, Israel could force it to restrain Hizballah or end the fighting earlier and on terms favorable to Israel.
Others argue that Israel's military focus should be on Lebanon's government--in order to force it to exert influence on Hizballah to prevent another round, end it rapidly should one break out and promote the long-term objective of pushing Hizballah to disarm and go the political route. This approach, which was the initial basis for the IDF's strategy in 2006, was fatally flawed then and remains so today.
Israel always claimed, rightly, that there is in fact no Lebanese government worth speaking of. This has not changed and the international community, including the US, will not tolerate an attack on Lebanon's civil infrastructure in order to pressure its people to pressure the government. Arguably, the IDF's most egregious error in 2006 was its failure to inform the cabinet that acceptance of the American demand to refrain from attacking Lebanon's civil infrastructure, justified as the cabinet's decision may have been, left the IDF without a viable military strategy and should thus have led to a fundamental reevaluation of Israel's war plans.
The US continues to support the strengthening of Lebanon's government as the primary means of promoting stability there. In effect, this leaves Israel with two options: either develop an effective capability to deal with Hizballah directly, which is even harder to do today, or the indirect approach of attacking Syria.
In 2006, Hizballah fired 4,200 rockets at Israel out of a total arsenal of approximately 13,000. If that ratio is maintained today, with an arsenal of 45,000 rockets we can expect 15,000 rockets to be fired at Israel and possibly far more. This poses new and heretofore unknown threats to Israel's home front and makes it truly essential that Israel get it right this time.- Published 6/5/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is now a senior fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School and an adjunct professor at NYU. He recently completed a study on the threat of nuclear terrorism to Israel.
It's not the Scuds, it's support for the resistance
In late March, reports emerged in the Kuwaiti press that Syria had transferred Scud missiles to Hizballah. One month on, news of the Scud transfer continues to reverberate in Washington and the Middle East. A congressional resolution condemning Syria has been drafted and the confirmation of the Obama administration's ambassador-designate to Damascus has been delayed. Meanwhile, tensions on the Lebanese-Israeli border have spiked, once again raising the specter of war.
Despite the fact that no authoritative evidence has been presented showing that the transfer actually occurred, in many ways the reports appear credible. First, the Israeli accusations were tabled by two unlikely officials--President Shimon Peres and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak--who are well-known supporters of Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations. Likewise, although Washington has not officially confirmed the transfer, several statements--including one from Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Dianne Feinstein and another off-the-record statement by a senior administration official to the Wall Street Journal--have lent weight to the allegations.
At the same time, the transfer of Scuds to Hizballah would be entirely consistent with the reckless and provocative policies pursued by Syrian President Bashar Assad in recent years. Despite the risks, for example, Damascus for years openly facilitated the movement of insurgents into Iraq to kill Americans and destabilize its neighbor. And Syria--which proclaims that its "foreign policy depends on supporting the resistance"--has a track record of providing top-shelf weapons to Hizballah, including the Russian-made Kornet anti-tank system and its own indigenously-produced 220mm anti-personnel rockets. In this regard, the Scuds--if transferred--would represent a change of magnitude but not of kind.
Not surprisingly, Damascus and Beirut--which increasingly is parroting the Syrian line--have denied the Scud reports. Indeed, in a recent interview with the Italian daily La Stampa, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri derisively likened the Scud claims to faulty US intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Meanwhile, in typical fashion, Hizballah has neither confirmed nor denied the Scud transfer, preferring, in its own inimical way, constructive ambiguity. Hizballah's reaction in fact has been quite similar to the way the organization responded last year to reports that Syria provided it with the IGLA advanced anti-aircraft system, a weapon many analysts believe the Shi'ite militia has indeed obtained.
The Scud crisis is to some extent a tempest in a teapot. An antiquated system, the Scud is more a psychological than strategic threat to Israel. While the missile is capable of carrying WMD warheads or a heavy payload in excess of 1,000 pounds, it does little to expand the already impressive arsenal that Syria has helped Hizballah to acquire. Likewise, this heavy weapon would seem an anathema to the successful highly mobile insurgency tactics employed by the organization since its inception. On April 15, an article in the Kuwaiti daily Al Rai laid out why Hizballah--irrespective of whether the transfer occurred--does not consider the Scud to be a significant upgrade to its armory.
According to the anonymous Hizballah official interviewed, while the Scud has a range of 1,000-1,500 kilometers, the fire prep time is a lengthy 45-60 minutes, and it is only accurate to five kilometers. (Reports in the western press suggest the weapon in question, the Scud D variant, is accurate to within 50 meters). Meanwhile, the official said, Hizballah already possesses the Iranian-made (Syria-provided) Fatah-110, which takes "less than four minutes for an experienced hand" to launch and is accurate to within 5-10 meters. Of course, the payload capacity and range are less, but 250 kilometers, the Hizballah says, "is the distance required for precise strikes in all the land of occupied Palestine". The Fatah-110 is also WMD capable.
Given the negligible strategic benefit the Scud constitutes for Hizballah--as well as the logistical headaches involved with establishing an infrastructure for the nearly 40 feet tall weapon and its challenging liquid fuel rocket--and the minimal additional detrimental impact for Israel, the real question is: why have the reports emerged now? Some analysts in the region, including senior officials of the militia, suggest that the government of Israel invented the issue to distract from its current bilateral problems with the Obama administration. Based on Washington's sympathetic response to Israeli claims, however, this explanation isn't particularly convincing.
More likely, Damascus and Tehran engineered the Scud crisis to divert US-led efforts to build an international coalition to sanction Iran for its nuclear endeavors. Indeed, the timing of the reports is eerily reminiscent of Hizballah's cross-border operation on July 12, 2006, which occurred the same day the P-5+1 meeting in Paris was slated to refer the Iranian nuclear issue to the UN Security Council. The kidnapping/killing of Israeli soldiers sparked a war that effectively purchased Tehran nearly another year of unfettered enrichment activity. (While it's impossible to know with any certainty, the new diversion initiative might have been what was discussed at the February 2010 meeting in Damascus between Assad, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinezhad).
Today, though tensions remain high, both Israel and Hizballah do not appear interested in an escalation. And until the next war, it will likely not be known whether Hizballah in fact obtained the Scuds from Syria. Nevertheless, for Washington the crisis is a useful reminder that Damascus, whether innocent or guilty of this particular transfer, continues to provide the Shi'ite militia with increasingly advanced capabilities that will make the next war even costlier for Lebanon and Israel. But for Washington, the Scud issue should prompt more than just a temporary refocusing on the well-intentioned but poorly implemented United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for Syria to end weapons transfers to its Iranian-backed allies in Lebanon.
That the Assad regime is upping the ante with Israel via Hizballah at the very moment Washington is working to deepen its diplomatic engagement with Damascus should give the Obama administration pause. If this unhelpful Syrian behavior continues, the Obama administration will likely arrive at the same conclusion the Bush administration reached in 2004: that Damascus actually is--as it so vociferously claims to be--a regime dedicated to supporting "the resistance." One year into President Barack Obama's tenure, it may be too early to declare the Syria policy a failure. But the administration's decision earlier this month to renew sanctions against Damascus just might suggest a growing appreciation in the White House as to the nature of the Syrian regime and perhaps for the limits of diplomatic engagement with this self-defined resistance state.- Published 6/5/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
David Schenker is the Aufzien Fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.