Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is known to have a penchant for brinksmanship. Calculating that he has nothing to fear from a timid Obama administration, he is upping the ante in his direct military support to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The latest brazen act may involve the shipment of Syrian Scud D missiles to his Shia allies.
Assad’s move appears to have followed his recent tripartite summit with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. It also comes after numerous reports in recent months about a steady increase in the quantity and quality of Syrian-supplied weapons to Hezbollah – from anti-aircraft systems (outdated models, like the SA-2, but possibly also the man-portable SA-18 and SA-24 Igla) to longer-range, Syrian-made surface-to-surface missiles (the M-600/Fateh-110). It is unclear whether Israel views items on this list as strategic game changers.
This development has quietly set off a seemingly heated discussion in Washington. Capitol Hill is not amused, and according to two reports, the confirmation of Robert Ford as ambassador to Syria has been placed on hold. The incident reportedly has led to the State Department’s summoning of Syria’s ambassador, Imad Mustapha, to relay to him a message about the severity of the situation. Reportedly, the Israeli government warned the United States that the transfer of such weaponry could lead to conflict with Syria.
Through such behavior, Assad has confused those who had high hopes for “engagement” of Syria. The believers only have themselves to blame. Assad’s determination to increase the weapons supply to Hezbollah is a strategic decision. As one Syrian official put it to the Qatari daily Al-Watan, “a strategic decision has been taken not to allow Israel to defeat the resistance movements.” Assad himself affirmed this principle on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV a few weeks ago.
Assad has been doubling down on “resistance” both in his rhetoric and in Syrian material support – exceedingly so ever since the US voiced its desire to improve relations with Syria in the hope of prying it away from Iran and ending Syrian backing for Hezbollah and Hamas.
The Syrian president made a telling remark at the last Arab League summit to the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas. He observed that “the price of resistance is not higher than the price of peace.” And therein lays the problem. Assad has not been made to feel that the costs of continued destabilization can be prohibitive. Instead, all he gets from Washington are weak statements in response to his actions, and rarely from high-ranking administration officials.
The Israelis may currently be unwilling to divert attention from their primary concern, which is blocking the Iranian nuclear program. As a result they might be leaving Syria for the United States to handle directly. Depending on how the Obama administration deals with the situation, the risk is that Assad will draw the lesson that he enjoys impunity – especially if Washington’s impulse is to address the problem by calling for resumed peace talks between Syria and Israel.
Furthermore, the Syrian president may calculate that, in the event of a conflict, the administration will ultimately prevent the Israelis from going all the way with Syria and, instead, pressure them into entering negotiations. If Assad senses that he is protected, expect him to push the envelope even further – at Lebanon’s expense, of course.
Assad’s mantra is that “peace and resistance are two sides of the same coin.” As he sees things, it’s not either peace or resistance. For him the two are simultaneous tools of attrition, with peace talks providing Syria with impunity as Assad pursues “resistance.” In his conceptual framework, the peace process is just warfare by other means.
Some have tried to paint Assad as a victim of Iranian entrapment. But this is simply wrong. By making Hezbollah’s arming a Syrian, as opposed to an Iranian, issue, Assad hopes to increase his leverage in Lebanon in order to bargain over Syrian control there with the US and Israel. Recalling the “red lines” agreement of 1976 and the April understanding of 1996, the Syrian president may be trying to gain US legitimization for a new such framework in Lebanon.
The Syrian wager always was that Israel would much prefer dealing with Syria than Hezbollah in Lebanon. Indeed, the whole logic of the so-called “strategic realignment” theory for Syria leads in that direction. Therefore, escalating and pushing toward conflict in Lebanon would serve to set in motion Assad’s scheme.
However, this could end up being a bad miscalculation for Syria.
PLO official Bassam Abu Sharif once recounted how, in 1982, ahead of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, he traveled to Arab capitals in order to ask for long-range weapons to deter Israel. The response he received is instructive today: “Seek the approval of your Syrian brothers. Because this type of weaponry carries responsibility, and the repercussions would be against Syria, and not you.”
When Assad’s father, Hafez, crossed Israel’s “red lines” back then, his army was battered in Lebanon. Bashar, perpetually seeking to deploy his army across the border, may also face Israeli military strikes against his smuggling convoys, or worse. Either way, Lebanon is likely to suffer massive Israeli devastation on the one hand, or a dangerous Syrian gambit to restore its military presence on the other. Keeping Lebanon was always Syria’s aim when embarking in peace talks.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.