How Do You Say Patriot Missile in Hebrew?

Andrew Tabler has an important (if possibly a little too alarmist) piece in Foreign Policy on the current machinations of Syria, Hezbollah, and Israel.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak sent officials in Damascus and Washington scrambling when he claimed Tuesday that Syria is providing the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah with Scud missiles whose accuracy and range threaten more Israeli cities than ever before. His unexpected announcement, though vehemently denied by the Syrian regime, threatens to spark a new war between Israel and its antagonists in the region while further undermining U.S. President Barack Obama’s efforts at engagement with Syria.

Now, I’m not a naive optimist or fan of Hezbollah or the Syrian regime, particularly the latter. The former, though mafia-like in many regards, can at least claim to popularly represent a certain segment of the Lebanese population and has participated in a (admittedly shaky) coalition government and accepted electoral defeat without re-instigating a civil war. The Syrian government, on the other hand, is as corrupt and authoritarian as they come.

Though it’s possibly this didn’t happen (Syria denies it), it does appear probable that this arms transfer (or something similar) has indeed occurred.

If that is the case, what do these actions signal at the end of the day if not an attempt (from Syria’s perspective) to defend itself and work to undermine Israeli regional dominance? In other words, they sound more or less like the actions of a self-interested state. A state whose politics are nowhere close to the United States to be sure, but immediately labeling all such acts as “supporting terrorism” is a very unhelpful framework for interpretation and response.

To wit,

In early March, the head of the research division of the Israel Defense Forces’ Military Intelligence, Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, that Syria had recently provided Hezbollah with the Igla-S man-portable air defense systems. The shoulder-fired weapon can bring down the Israeli drones, helicopter gunships, and low-flying fighter aircraft that routinely fly over Lebanon to gather intelligence. (my emphasis)

Holy s–t. You mean to tell me that a country wants weapons to prevent an enemy it’s technically been at war with for 40+ years from unscheduled flyovers with drones and helicopters and bombers? No way. It can’t be.

And then this:

Both missiles have a range of up to 700 kilometers, which means they could hit most, if not all, Israeli cities even if fired from northern Lebanon. Both can carry chemical or biological warheads.

Now, no argument is made as to why Syria would want to drop biological or chemical grade weaponry on Israeli cities. To do so would be the military equivalent of a Syrian death wish, as everyone familiar with the arsenal and prowess of the Israeli military knows.

What if this is simply an asymmetrical deterrent?

Less than a week after a Feb. 17 visit by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns — the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Damascus in more than five years — Assad hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah at a banquet in Damascus. During the visit, Assad openly mocked U.S. efforts to distance Syria from Iran and stated that his government is “preparing ourselves for any Israeli aggression.”…These weapons transfers appear to mark a continuation of Assad’s belligerent stance. While Lebanon has long been the battlefield between Syria and Israel, the transfer of these weapons may indicate that the Syrian president is calculating that the next war with Israel could involve strikes on Syrian territory.

As the saying goes, even paranoids have enemies. Again is it fair to call it (with on the slightest qualification) belligerence? Isn’t it better to ask if Assad has any actual basis for thinking his country might be attacked by Israel? If so, then his actions

The policy begun under President Bush and continued under President Obama (and from the Israeli side only manifestly increased under the Netanyahu administration) of seeing everything in the Middle East as a battleground between pro-Iranian and anti-Iranian (or “moderates” and “extremists” or whatever the preferred term of the day is) is upping the temperature and making everybody grab for their glocks. Not actually an intelligent position (seems to me) in a region known for all kinds of itchy trigger fingers.

What I think we are seeing is the end of the Camp David approach to Middle East peace. Syria had (even up to last year) numerous opportunities to take a land for peace deal a la Egypt and Jordan’s peace accords with Israel. Though people talk about how Hezbollah would never accept a peace deal with Israel, I’ve always disagreed with that sentiment. Hezbollah was formed to eject Israel from Lebanon. Returning the Sheeba Farms (the sliver of land that Israel still occupies that would the Lebanese element of land in land for peace) would give Hezbollah a real victory. They would not only have forced Israel out of Lebanon, fought them to a draw (or victory in their view) in 2006, and then forced Israel to give up land to them.

It’s Syria that’s always been the one opposed to a peace deal. The Syrian authoritarian regime only maintains any scrap of legitimacy left by its reflexive anti-Israeli stance. If Syria made a peace deal it would be Egypt overnight: Syria’s already got the corruption, political oppression, and poor economic situation. It would have that plus looking like sellouts to the Israelis.

In the worst case scenario this breakdown of the land for peace (and possibly the two state solution paradigm) will indeed lead to all out war. Whether the hawks will have been proved “right” or simply will have made it to be so could always be argued ex post facto.

But what could emerge is a possibility for a different security arrangement for the region. It would be undoubtedly tense in nature but I think achievable. It will mean dealing everybody in whose in power now and looks likely to remain so for a time to come (including and even especially the Iranian and Syrian regimes). It may also include the loss of former ally states in, e.g., a post-Mubarak (Muslim Brotherhood led?) Egypt.

It will likely not occur until after a potential Iranian nuclear weapon. Or at least clear deterrence capacity on the part of the Iranians.

I can see it getting much better for the region as a whole on the far side of such an event. But the run up to that period (i.e. now and in the meantime) looks quite dangerous to me. Particularly if Israelis feel themselves (rightly or wrongly, however that would be determined) increasingly encircled and/or isolated.


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6 thoughts on “How Do You Say Patriot Missile in Hebrew?

  1. This is a little too glib. I don’t think any serious analyst doubts that Syria is pursuing what it perceives to be its own self-interest. The alarm stems from the fact that Syria is seeking to alter the regional balance of power. That’s an inherently destabilizing move in a region where peace is always a precarious balance among contending interests. Proliferation of new capabilities is indeed belligerence, and is recognized as such both by policy makers and by international law.

    Moreover, you spend too much time on the ManPad capabilities, and too little on the Scuds. Handing out sophisticated shoulder-fired weapons is an action with consequences, to be sure; they’re now under Hezbollah’s control, and can be aimed as readily at civilian flights as at military aircraft. But the real issue here is Scuds, which you cavalierly dismiss as ‘deterrents.’ Really, Chris? What’s the nature of the deterrence? They’re inaccurate, long-range weapons that lack the precision needed to target military sites. They have two functions – delivery vehicles for dispersive weapons, for which accuracy is not necessary; or targeting civilian areas, where inaccuracy is practically a virtue. So let’s be perfectly explicit that Syria is attempting to enhance its regional standing by handing over the capability to randomly kill civilians to a proxy. If you want to consider that deterrence, I suppose that’s your right. But it’s the more technologically sophisticated equivalent of the suicide bomber in a cafe. Syria knows that perfectly well. Ask yourself this key question – if Syria already possesses such weapons, how does handing them over to Hezbollah increase Syrian security? It doesn’t increase the number of rockets aimed at Israel. If Syria were prepared to launch them itself in retaliation for strikes on military targets, handing them over should lessen Syrian security by reducing its arsenal and its control of the situation. So for the logic to work, it must mean that Syria is either eager to hand the weapons to a proxy with a lower threshold for killing civilians, or that it’s prepared to have those civilians killed in retaliation for strikes outside its own borders. And also that it’s not prepared to directly pay the costs of such strikes, and is hoping for plausible deniability. Tell me again why Assad shouldn’t be viewed with contempt for this act? This has nothing to do with deterrence, and everything to do with negotiating posture and regional standing. And that’s not a good enough excuse for proliferation.

    Your analysis of Hezbollah’s aims is equally flawed. There is no evidence that the return of Sheba’a Farms would lead to peace; Nasrallah has, in fact, been entirely explicit on the point. The land has been certified by the UN as belonging to Syria, a claim that Israel actually recognizes. The Lebanese claim it as theirs, in defiance of international law. And the Syrians have maintained a calculated posture of ambiguity, designed to inflame the situation and leverage Lebanese resentment while maintaining their own claim to the land. What would you have Israel do, exactly? Pull out, and hand Syrian land over to Hezbollah or Lebanon? And if it did, why wouldn’t your logic regarding the Baathist regime in Damascus apply in equal force to Nasrallah? Hezbollah’s very foundation is opposition to the Zionist regime. It is the bedrock of its support. I doubt it could survive a formal declaration of peace with Israel, without seeing its base splinter and fragment. And even the current uneasy calm has been destabilizing – Hezbollah’s drive to re-arm and train is evidence of that concern. Without the organizing imperative of conflict, it lacks a basis as a movement, so even when it’s not actively engaged it must prepare for the next engagement.

    And, for what it’s worth, Hebrew for Patriot is pronounced Hetz

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    • @Cynic,

      On Hezbollah, it’s also moved into the position of being a vehicle for Shia Arab Lebanese uplift. Not the only one (Amal). It’s entered electoral politics. It also (like any crew over there) exists to funnel money, influence to your cronies. I assume all of those could still exist after a presumed peace deal.

      I don’t think such a deal is at all likely to happen but I don’t think the deal is in principle impossible. If something ever were to happen with the Lebanese gov’t, that would really isolate Hezbollah. Perhaps they would balk, but that could leave them seriously left out of the economic future. That doesn’t guarantee their actions, but I think it would shape them.

      Do you really think Syria is going to launch a pre-emptive strike with some Scuds on Israel? Whether via Hezbollah or on their own? Particularly after the public announcement by the Israeli Defense Minister that Israel knows Syria gave them away?

      If there ever were an attack with Scuds, the Israelis are clearly signaling they will retaliate against Syria. As would be their right. Hezbollah is many things, but dumb is not generally one of them.

      As to civilian casualties this is a pretty specious point. If there ever were an all out war between Syria and Israel, Israel is going to drop bombs from airplanes that will kill civilians. War in the 20th and 21st centuries does not (ever) separate between civilian and non-civilian in any fundamental sense. Partly this is because non-state actors hide in civilian areas. Partly this is because aerial assaults inevitably cause “collateral damage.”

      It’s deterrence (I think) in the sense that all of Syria’s actions in helping arm Hezbollah act as deterrence. It gives them a more weaponized ally that has a common enemy, potentially making Israel think twice about an attack.

      I agree with you that Syria (and also Iran) are trying to shift the balance of power in the Middle East. I think that shift is occurring anyway for all kinds of reasons (ideological, demographic, economic). I’m not supporting the Syrian or Iranian regime. I don’t want to see conflagration in the Middle East.

      As I’ve said before, I think that shift will apex if and when the Iranians get a nuclear weapon. I think such an action would require (likely) an American nuclear shield guarantee to the Gulf, Israel (who doesn’t need it per se), Saudi Arabia, etc.

      What I see Syria doing is just a smaller scale version of the Iranian regime’s efforts over the last years.

      Daniel Larison the last few days has been quoting Peter Scoblete on how with the rise of democracy in the Middle East we are likely to see increasingly oppositional (if not directly confrontational) regimes relative to US/Israel in the region.

      This puts the US/Israel in a short term lose-lose: either support autocracies for short term peace or accept more democratic regimes that will likely sap some of their regional dominance.

      I favor (generally though not in all specific cases) the latter option.

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      • @Chris Dierkes,
        The one take away for me is that the clock is ticking on the current (relatively) favorable situation Israel finds itself in. This underlines and puts an exclamation mark on what a colossal and imbecilic disaster Bibi and his coalition represent for Israel as they are essentially frittering away time and good will that would be much more productively employed bargaining and resolving issues from Israel’s current position of strength. Israel has the freedom to move almost in any direction at this time. Their (potential and current) opponents are either prone, harmless, in disarray or inclined towards the Jewish state. And yet with conditions being as they are now, on the ground, in the Middle East we are treated to the spectacle of Bibi and his religious crackpot government either literally maintaining the status quo or allowing the Israeli rightwing fringe to actively entangle them further with their neighbors. They need a new election, soon.

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      • @Chris Dierkes,
        There’s a lot here about which we agree. The Middle East is indeed in a state of flux, that’s likely to result in a shifting of the balance of power. We’re better off betting on the long-term reform of civil society and opening of political systems than forging short-term alliances with unsavory regimes. And no one wants war in the region.

        On a few other matters, though, I continue to disagree. The distinctions between deliberate targeting of civilian populations, indiscriminate fire, and collateral damage are not specious. They are the very foundation of international law, and set the rules under which Western militaries operate. It’s one thing to recognize that, even when waged with the best of intentions and strictest procedures, wars inevitably take a heavy toll upon the lives of innocent civilians, and so should never be lightly entertained. Surgical strikes and precision-guided-munitions still kill. But to erase those distinctions, to make a claim of equivalence, is even worse. I just don’t know how to argue with someone who doesn’t share that basic premise.

        I still don’t see your point about deterrence. There’s been no increase in the number of Scuds targeting Israel, just a shift in where they’re located, and by whom they’re controlled. If Syria was already prepared to use Scuds in retaliatory attacks, it gained no additional deterrence vis a vis Israel by means of this transfer. Indeed, by surrendering control of part of its arsenal to another regional actor, it diminished its own ability to calibrate a response to attacks.

        So this isn’t about Syria deterring Israeli strikes on Syria. Rather, this move accomplishes three things for the Syrian regime. First, it contributes to the continued destabilization of Lebanon, by strengthening the position and influence of Hezbollah. Syria does not wish to see a unified state next door, pursuing its own objectives. Second, it strengthens the position of Hezbollah vis a vis Israel. Syria itself would never launch Scuds during a spat between Hezbollah and Israel; it much prefers to arm and train Hezbollah, encouraging it to damage Israel without suffering Israeli retaliation. It knows perfectly well that Scud attacks launched from Syria would invite the devastation of its own infrastructure, and risk the stability of the regime. So it’s moving Scuds from its own control, where they are unlikely to be used, to the control of Hezbollah, where they’re much more likely to be employed. And that has the additional benefit of heightening Syria’s regional prestige and domestic popularity, by demonstrating the strength of its support for those resisting the Zionist entity. The third effect is to strengthen the regime’s international influence, by demonstrating a measure of the harm it is capable of inflicting upon the region if it is not appeased. Already, there is a chorus of calls for closer engagement, and that’s just from transferring a handful of missiles. Assad isn’t stupid. He doesn’t want to be isolated. He understands that the present international consensus supports engagement over sanctions; that, ironically, proliferating weapons and destabilizing the region may be the best way to clear the taint of Hariri.

        Regarding Hezbollah and its intentions, I’ll refer you to the work of Andrew Exum, who knows far more than I. He’s written insightfully, I think, on the internal dynamics of the group that contribute to what he terms its ‘strategic incoherence.’ He points out that, among other things, its fighters signed up to fight. That Hezbollah has increasingly made its military wing into a ‘cult of resistance.’ And that it’s far from clear that, even if the politico-religious leadership wished to arrive at a modus vivendi with either other Lebanese factions or with Israel, that the young men whom it has armed and trained would be interested in following their lead. That’s a singularly depressing thought, but it’s also one that demands contemplation.

        Finally, I’ll just return to my original point. What Syria did by transferring these weapons was not trivial or excusable. There’s a distinct possibility that the transfer may yet spark regional war. And that can’t be laid at the feet of either American or Israeli strategy. The regional actor that just made a major, unprovoked move was Syria. It’s a reminder, and a useful one, that our own strategic plans and actions don’t control the situation – other actors may move unexpectedly in ways that confound our desires.

        If you want to inveigh against American foreign policy, go right ahead. If you want to press for comprehensive peace deals, fine. But there’s no reason why such points should preclude the possibility that we’re not the only ones in the region acting in a stupid or self-defeating manner. And, in this case, Syria’s actions demonstrate just that.

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