June 2, 2010 | NOW Lebanon

Assad May Be Cruising For A Bruising

If Damascus continues to arm Hezbollah, would the Israelis strike against Syria? Despite Israel’s past track record of overlooking Syrian malfeasance, there is reason to think the equation may have changed. Bashar al-Assad’s gamble that he would be immune, therefore, may be misreading Israeli and American thinking. He may in fact be inevitably placing himself in the path of an Israeli strike against Syria.

The Israelis have already indicated that they may be conceptualizing Syria’s role differently than in the past. The head of intelligence research in the Israel Defense Forces, Yossi Baidatz, for instance, has characterized the arms transfers to Hezbollah as an organized, officially-sanctioned process, not mere “smuggling.” Thus, arming Hezbollah has become an integral part of the Syrian regime’s military strategy, offering the proper context for understanding Bashar al-Assad’s recent dubbing of Syria as a “resistance state.”

The adjustment in framing Syria’s position in this equation comes in the midst of recent media reports that once again shined the spotlight on Damascus’s growing military integration with Hezbollah.

The first report appeared on May 27 in an exclusive story in the Syrian daily Al-Watan (owned by Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf), immediately following the “Liberation Day” speech by Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah. In the speech, Nasrallah threatened that, in the next war, Israel’s ports on the Mediterranean and possibly on the Red Sea would be targeted.

Al-Watan, citing “reliable information” it received, claimed that Nasrallah was hinting at a new surface-to-sea missile, with a 300-km range capable of reaching “all of Israel’s ports.” Leaving aside that Eilat would be outside this range (though, within the range of a Scud-D missile), the fact that this specific detail was reported first and exclusively in Al-Watan is in itself noteworthy. Normally, these types of claims are floated in Gulf papers (usually the Kuwaiti press), and then recycled in the Arab and Israeli media. It’s as though the Syrians wanted to be the ones to announce Hezbollah’s newly-claimed capability.

No sooner did the Syrian story appear than another report surfaced in the London Times, both reaffirming older claims and adding new details. The Times, citing unnamed security sources, maintains that the Syrians have afforded Hezbollah a military site in the town of Adra that functions as an arms depot and living quarters for Hezbollah cadres, who “operate the site freely.”

Israel’s Channel 2 News followed this by reporting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Italian counterpart that Hezbollah was operating Scuds from bases inside Syria. Some initial reports about the Scuds had also maintained that the Syrians did train Hezbollah on using them, and did pass them along to the group, but kept them on Syrian soil and not across the border (even as they passed along the Syrian-made and WMD-capable M-600 missiles into Lebanon).

What emerges, then, is that not only is Syria transferring strategic weapons, but also allowing its territory to be used as a base of operations and logistical coordination. As one Gulf-based security analyst put it , this is “more than Syrian assistance; [it is] Syrian complicity.”

This then raises the question of what the repercussions of this policy will be for Syria. It is one thing for small rockets to be launched from Gaza and Lebanon. These are the rockets of so-called “non-state actors.” But heavy-payload, guided rockets are “state” rockets, so to speak.

It is reasonable to assume that Bashar al-Assad is betting that the impulse of the Obama administration is to avoid conflict by deterring Israel. Even should hostilities break out, Assad, a consummate gambler, might be calculating that the default US position would be to deescalate, call for resumed talks, and perhaps even barter over new security arrangements in Lebanon.

Moreover, Assad could be observing the strained US-Israel relations and figuring that it would imply even more stringent constraints on Israeli maneuverability.

But there are reasons to suspect that this is an erroneous reading of the situation. For one, the Times report repeated the claim that the US stopped Israel from striking arms convoys and even the Adra base in Syria.

However, there’s a flipside to this equation. If the US stopped Israel this time, it may not do so (or may not be able to) during conflict. And one can speculate that this too could be part of the message being relayed to Assad through emissaries such as Senator John Kerry. In fact, the Israelis have sent messages of their own through the Russians and the French.

Moreover, there is one relevant Israeli precedent. Back in 2003, following a suicide operation in Haifa that killed 19 civilians, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered a strike against an Islamic Jihad camp inside Syria. One can speculate that a missile attack against a major Israeli city could result in a similar course of action.

More to the point, there is chatter in Washington that some in the Obama administration are in fact discussing allowing such an Israeli preemptive strike. This is also starting to come out among establishment policy wonks, suggesting perhaps that the discussion is growing.

Either way, the Israelis, as evident in their defensive drill last week, are preparing for a chemical attack, which likely indicates preparation for a possible Syrian involvement – either as a result of friction due to an IDF incursion into the Bekaa Valley, or as retaliation for an Israel Air Force strike inside Syria.

Lastly, the US-Israel rift might have the opposite result for Syria, as the US then will have less leverage to curtail the Israelis.

In the end, Israel will not allow an Iranian, WMD-capable ballistic base on its northern border, regardless of whether it ends up taking action against Iran or not. The default position so far has been to woo Syria through talks. However, given the increasingly provocative Syrian role, even if talks remain the preferred policy, a strike against a Syrian target is emerging as a growing probability.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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