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.
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.