Tony Badran

Peace talks, Bashar’s war by other means

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a steady increase in the quantity and quality of Syrian-supplied weapons to Hezbollah – from anti-aircraft systems (outdated models, like the SA-2, but possibly also the man-portable SA-18 and SA-24 Igla) to longer-range, Syrian-made surface-to-surface missiles (the M-600/Fateh-110).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.

  • Sami

    G. I refer you to the bayan wizary and advice you to read section 6.The Mukawameh(HA) is authorized by this cabinet to liberate and protect Lebanon by any means necessary(arms) as ratified by our freely elected parliament and confirmed by our freely elected president who promised to protect it by his "eye lashes".If this does not make these arms legitimate,I do not know what will.

    April 21, 2010

  • G.

    Lak.. The only point u made that i unfortunately am forced to agree with is the fact that Hizbollah is part of the government. But if it wasn't for this so called 'political party', there would never have been a war in 2006. Hizbollah will NEVER be part of the Lebanese Army unless its by force. Holding illegal weapons that are being used not 2 protect the Lebanese citizens but against them by initiating conflict after conflict and war after war. If this is the so called 'democracy' u seek; a democratic country under the rule of Syria or Hizbillah. Then you should be ashamed to call urself Lebanese. Also, please do not insult someone that actually is fighting for our democracy. You and your people have no right to talk about democracy. And democracy is something we will never achieve because of people like you!

    April 17, 2010

  • Tannourine

    unfortunately i see a bleak future for lebanon...hizballah is a cancer and it will kill lebanese society if it persists in its futile actions! and whilst this all happens assad is going to be safe at home....

    April 15, 2010

  • Michael Dar

    Lebanon pays the price for having let Hisbollah, which is the proxy of foreign (dark) forces develop into a "state into the state". Hisbollah is no part of the Lebanese army..but an extra-state army which holds Lebanon hostage....

    April 14, 2010

  • Jacob

    Syria, like most Muslim countries is not a democracy. When indeed Assad´s father crossed the RED LINE,Israel conquered the Golan heights. From there there were limitless attacks on to the kibutzim in Galil and the lake of Galilee. The area is silnt from that time (interrupted on in 1973).Syria´s rulers are not Sunnis, but Alawites, a gsmall minority in Syria. Afez did not hesitate to kill 10 thousands in th city of Hama, a forgotten genocid! As Syria dares not to act directly they us or misuse Lebanon by supporting Hezbollah. They take hostage a whole country. And most Lebanes cotow before the hiding stron man Nasrallah who is fighting to the last Lebanese. The key word "restistance" is an euphemisme for avoiding progress in the pretext of fighting against the Zionists. Your Lebanese memory should tell you what it means if Hezbollah would start a war (of attrition?) . This war destroyed areas in Israel too, killed people, of course. But Israel recovered and some Lebanese cities, towns

    April 14, 2010

  • Bob

    Hi Lak, I agree that Lebanon is united: United under the barrel of Hezbollah's guns. Hezbollah isn't part of the Army, and if a war with Israel broke out, i don't think many refugees from the South will be accepted as they were last time, so I totally disagree with your assessment. It just amuses me to see how as Lebanese we accept the fact that Syria wants Lebanon to remain a war zone, yet since 1973 not a single bullet has been fired between the Syrian-Israeli border. While we get perpetual war, Syria gets perpetual peace. Thank you Hezbollah!

    April 14, 2010

  • sam

    not quite Lak-17a. i disagree that 'lebanon is a lot more unified than when israel bombed the whole country back in 2006'. it isn't and people are waiting to show that the next time anything like this happens, they will be less forgiving and accommodating than before

    April 14, 2010

  • Hassan

    And you seem to have misunderstood the Lebanese heartbreaking story. Yes, you may be right about the fact the Hezbollah is now in the government. But, it is fact the most Lebanese do not agree on Hezbollah being in the government nor to be a part of the army. It was agreed on to avoid an internal depressing and miserable conflict for now. There should be only one army for any country. However, I agree with you, many Lebanese are unified now; unified against Hezbollah.

    April 14, 2010

  • Lak-17a

    Tony, You seem to have missed what is going on in Lebanon. Hizbollah is now part of the Lebanese government and Hizbollah forces in the south are considered to be part of the Lebanese Army. Lebanon is a lot more unified than when Israel bombed the whole country back in 2006. Oh, and hey, Tony, where was the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies when Israel was creating 750,000 Lebanese refugees? ...

    April 13, 2010