Scudding into the whirlwind
Are Israel's claims that Syria is giving bigger guns to Hizbullah just an excuse for its next invasion of Lebanon, asks Bassel Oudat from Damascus
Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Scud-D missiles with a range of more than 650km crossed the Syrian-Lebanese border and reached the hands of Hizbullah fighters. Consequently, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Israel's nuclear installations at Dimona are now within Hizbullah's striking range. Britain's Daily Telegraph and Israel's Yediot Aharonot related that intelligence reports confirm that Syria is also training Hizbullah agents on using these missiles.
A few days later, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs expressed Washington's concern about the reports, and warned of "severe" repercussions against Lebanon and "changing the balance of power".
Within days, Commander of US Centcom General David Petreaus joined the chorus, saying that Iran is supplying Hizbullah and Hamas with "bigger and bigger" missiles, in reference to Scuds. Meanwhile, Israeli circles issued a covert threat to Syria, delivered via Israel's representative to the UN, who officially accused Damascus of transporting missiles to Hizbullah. At the same time, Israeli President Shimon Peres warned of Syria's "double talk. The Syrians talk about peace, but at the same time encourage Hizbullah".
Meanwhile, Europe did not remain silent. Deputy spokesperson for the French Foreign Ministry Christine Fages stated that if the information revealed by US and Israeli officials is confirmed, "it would be of great concern." Fages called for "complete adherence to Security Council Resolution 1701", regarding banning weapons in Lebanon if they are not sanctioned by the Lebanese government or the UN Interim Force in Lebanon.
The Syrian embassy in Washington denied the accusations, saying that it is an attempt by Israel to divert international attention from its settlement building, occupation of Arab lands, alleged nuclear arsenal and continued arming with US weapons.
While it is uncommon for Syria to respond to every hostile claim by Israel and the US, it appears that the Syrian leadership sensed a real danger behind these latest accusations. The Syrian Foreign Ministry "strongly" denied Israel's claims, asserting that they "aim to increase tensions in the region and pave the way for possible Israeli aggression, as well as evade the requirements for a just and comprehensive peace." Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim said in Tehran this week. "The controversy instigated by Israel paves the way for an Israeli aggression."
This public reaction confirms that Syria senses that the accusations are a run-up to an attack. Israeli newspapers reported that the Israeli Air Force had prepared a plan to prevent Syria from sending missiles to Hizbullah, but decided not to implement it. This confirms that there is a plan of attack against Syria and Lebanon, targeting military bases and infrastructure in Syria, and possibly Hizbullah military bases in Lebanon. Fear of the potential reaction of the US administration could be the reason why the plans were shelved.
Some political analysts asserted that the news is nothing new or surprising, and that US-Israeli objections came 20 years too late. Otherwise, how is it that Hizbullah possesses an arsenal of more than 40,000 missiles of various sizes and ranges. Some 4,000 such missiles were launched at Israel during the war in July, 2006. The only new factor is the game-changing size of the missiles because their range can reach every city in Israel.
Last September, through special ops, Israel was able to detain a vessel in the Mediterranean which it claimed was carrying weapons from Iran to Syria on their way to Hizbullah. It broadcast photographs of missiles and weapons on the ship. Syria denied its involvement in the shipment and claimed it was fabricated.
Damascus says it is not easy to hide long- range missiles which measure 10m in length and 1m in diameter and are transported on huge trucks. They compare US and Israeli warnings to others issues over the years, which were followed by invasions of Lebanon's airspace, declarations of mobilisation and then revelations of Israel's attack plans.
The Syrians and Israelis know that Scud missiles cannot tip the strategic balance in the region against Tel Aviv, because they cannot harm most Israeli cities. At the same time, neither Syria nor Lebanon is capable of withstanding Israel's attacks if war broke out. Sending Scuds to Hizbullah will not "threaten the balance of power in the Middle East", according to the Americans; and blocking them will not improve "peace and stability" assert the Israelis. With or without these missiles, stability in the region will remain fragile.
US-Israeli accusations come at a time when the US Congress is considering the appointment of the new US ambassador to Damascus, and as the dialogue between Syria and the US continues. They also coincide with improving relations between Syria and Lebanon, and as Washington looks into international sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear portfolio.
The Syrians have not gone to battle with Israel since 1973, and during the 37 years since, Syria's alliances have shifted. Iran has become its number one strategic ally instead of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and Syria's special relationships with Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine represent a significant addition to this alliance. This alliance represents a threat to Israel, especially that a nuclear programme has been thrown into the equation with the capability of producing nuclear warheads in two to three years, according to US estimates. This implies that a unilateral or multilateral war by Israel against Syria, Lebanon or the Gaza Strip could be a way to try to break up this alliance.
One month ago, Syria's Al-Muallim stated that any Israeli aggression will ignite a war, indicating that Israeli cities will be within striking distance if his country is attacked. The foreign minister was implying that Syria is working on changing the balance of power after losing faith in US and European promises, and the failure of Arab proposals.
Nonetheless, Damascus realises that arriving at a new balance of power is risky, since Israel's missile attacks against Syria and Lebanon would be far more destructive and painful than damage done by a few Scud missiles aimed at Tel Aviv. But it also believes that the new military reality could cause Israel to rethink the situation if it wishes to attack Syria and Lebanon.
Since the US and Israel ignore the peace process, Syria may be compelled to arm Hizbullah with Scuds and other weapons as a message to both Washington and Tel Aviv. It appears that Damascus is not worried by the Americans or Israeli threats this time, even though it knows it is playing a risky hand and that transporting missiles and arms to Hizbullah is a red line which should not be approached.