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Tony Badran

Dangerous delusions

Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Mouallem, followed his rare meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday with a typically brazen interview in which he denied that his government was illegally transferring advanced weapons to Hezbollah. However, Mouallem’s denial is hardly credible, as the Syrian media has already exposed the Syrian regime’s intention to transfer Russian-made anti-ship missiles to the Shia militia in Lebanon.
 
Ten days prior to the Clinton-Mouallem meeting, Russia’s defense minister announced that Moscow would fulfill a 2007 contract to supply P-800 (Yakhont) anti-ship cruise missiles to Damascus.
 
The announcement set off a storm of criticisms and objections in Israel, with officials there labeling the Russian decision irresponsible. The Pentagon also shared Israel’s concerns, although the Obama administration has not forcefully commented on the issue. Meanwhile, some officials in Israel have threatened to sell arms to Russia’s enemies, while one defense official said that Russia’s decision puts future cooperation with Israel in doubt, namely the deal to purchase advanced unmanned aerial vehicles from Israel.
 
Israel’s concern is directly linked to the probability that Syria will pass these missiles on to Hezbollah, as it has been doing with other advanced weaponry. A look back at a number of reports and statements from April and May offers evidence that this is precisely, and explicitly, what the Syrians have in mind.
 
The first report came out in the Kuwaiti al-Rai in April, around the time when the story of Syria’s smuggling of Scuds to Hezbollah was still raging, along with assessments of growing military integration between Syria and Hezbollah in preparation for the next war with Israel.
 
The authors of the al-Rai report, known for their access to Hezbollah sources, quoted Syrian sources in laying out the shape of the military response to any Israeli attack against Syria. One element in this so-called “Syrian scenario” described in the report is of relevance here. It claimed that “Syria has prepared plans to hit the entire Israeli coast in case of a war against Lebanon and Syria, and Syria will use ground-to-sea missiles as well as imposing a blockade against Israeli naval targets, military and non-military, in order to shut down all Israeli ports.”
 
The report concluded with the Syrian sources warning Israel about the potency of the “unified military efforts” of the Syrian leadership and Hezbollah.
 
The theme of naval targets surfaced again about a month later in Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s “Liberation Day” speech. Nasrallah essentially echoed verbatim the Syrian claim reported in al-Rai, contending that his group possessed the capability to hit “all military, civilian and commercial ships” heading to “any port on the Palestinian coast from north to the south,” even threatening to target the port of Eilat on the Red Sea.
 
Then came the clincher. Immediately after Nasrallah’s speech, it was none other than the Syrian daily al-Watan, owned by Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, which offered the exclusive and detailed interpretation of what Nasrallah was referring to in his speech.
 
The paper’s report, headlined “Hezbollah possesses ground-to-sea missiles with a 300 km range,” described that the new missile was not the C-802, which Hezbollah had used to hit the Israeli Sa’ar warship, the Hanit, during the 2006 war. Rather, the new missile, according to “impeccable information” obtained by al-Watan, had a range of 300 kilometers, and covers the entire Israeli coastline.
 
Of course, it is precisely the Yakhont missile that has that range, as well as the capacity to carry a 200 kg warhead. In other words, the Syrians, by putting out an exclusive report, in their own media (and not through a leak to a Gulf newspaper, as is often the case), ahead of everyone else, were sending an unambiguous message regarding their intentions.
 
Moreover, the Yakhont could be vertically launched from inland sites in Lebanon (using a modified “Scud B” Transporter-Erector-Launcher vehicle), specifically in the Bekaa, behind the eastern Mount Lebanon ridge, in order to further avoid detection from the sea and to minimize early warning for the targets. The missile’s range also jeopardizes the port of Haifa.
 
All of the above, not to mention the recent reports of intercepted weapons shipments to Syria – including seven tons of military-grade explosives from Iran and a suspected vessel from North Korea – which framed the Clinton-Mouallem meeting, puts the lie to Mouallem’s denial. More worrying, however, is the lack of an appropriate American response.
 
Back in April, during the Scud fiasco, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman told a House hearing that, should the reports of advanced missile transfers pan out, the administration was “going to have to review the full range of tools that are available for us in order to make Syria reverse what would be an incendiary, provocative action,” adding that “all options are going to be on the table looking at this.”
 
However, this potentially substantive message was undercut by the administration’s priorities, verbalized by Secretary Clinton at the same time in April. Clinton instead focused on the need to express US concerns directly to the Syrians through the reinstatement of an ambassador to Damascus.
 
But US concerns were indeed expressed directly to the Syrians, to little apparent effect. And so, Mouallem felt confident enough to openly declare that his country would not cooperate with the IAEA investigation of Syria’s clandestine nuclear program, even when the US is raising the possibility of pursuing a special investigation, which could lead to a referral to the Security Council. In fact, Mouallem’s interview included, aside from the typical Assad regime obfuscation and propaganda, an open rejection of every single item of concern for the US, and Mouallem did so without any fear of consequences, diplomatic or otherwise. After all, he had just obtained the highest-level meeting to date, without the slightest change in Syrian destabilizing behavior.
 
In the run-up to the Clinton-Mouallem meeting, a US official told As-Sharq al-Awsat  that the meeting would discuss “the essential role that Syria could potentially play in regional stability.” That’s all very nice diplo-speak. More likely, in the continued absence of a clear and resolute enforcement of US red lines, Syria will simply keep on doing what it has been doing for years. For the US to substitute such resolution with platitudes about “comprehensive peace” is to engage in dangerous delusion.
 
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies