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Update No: 077 - (28/05/10)

Much Ado about Scuds
The peace process in the Middle East continues to drag on in a quagmire and Syria is facing threats from Israel and pressure and accusations from the United States. The cause of the latter is an alleged shipment of Scud missiles to Lebanon last April.

The name ‘Scud’ conjures images of the 1991 Gulf War as Iraq rather feebly tried to draw Israel into the mess it had created in Kuwait. The images of Israeli citizens fleeing as alarm sires sounded, the ‘defiant’ concert by Isaac Stern at the Israel Philharmonic, who played on as the missiles were coming, and the constant use of the word ‘scud’ on CNN, have made a rather ineffective weapon sound far more important than it is. The Soviet Union produced Scud missiles during the Cold War and they were first used by Egypt against Israel in the Yom Kippur war of 1973. This explains, perhaps, why the very term ‘scud’ is considered such a threat in Israel. The issue is, however, that deadly as they can be, Scuds are hardly sophisticated, they have a fairly long range, much more than Hezbollah would ever need to reach any of the main Israeli cities, but they are heavy, difficult to store and not very accurate. Hezbollah already has more accurate and smaller missiles that should cause far more concern to Israel than Scuds.

This is relevant, because Israel has accused Syria of helping to deliver Iranian supplied Scud missiles to Hezbollah. The White House has not dismissed the story and the Scuds are now causing a rift between the US administration and Syria. The US Department of State has reacted to the Israeli allegations – without demanding proof – informing a member of the Syrian embassy in Washington that the US “condemns the arms transfer, especially Scud missiles, from Syria to Hezbollah. Two Congressmen, a Democrat and a Republican, have asked Congress to enforce sanctions and restrictions against Syria in response to the allegations. It should be noted, that in November, Israel accused Syria of transferring Katyusha rockets to Hezbollah.

Moreover, the people of Lebanon know that Israel needs few excuses to justify a full-scale attack; the Scud missile transfer excuse has great potential as a casus belli and Israel has typically invaded Lebanon in the months of June or July – somehow, always timed around a FIFA World Cup. Whereas, Lebanon is on alert, Syria is busy securing closer ties with some regional powers and some old allies. Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, has been wondering why, if Israeli PM Netanyahu “claims to be wanting to talk about peace with the Palestinians, is he undertaking military maneuvers?” Hariri asked president Obama during a visit to Washington for assurances that Israel would not attack Lebanon. Hariri fears that Israel might launch an attack to destroy Hezbollah’s missile launching capacity. Seeing, as Israel knows very well that Hezbollah’s arsenal of thousands of rockets and missiles, and possibly even drones, is far more capable than the ‘scud’ missiles Syria is accused of delivering, Israel’s urgency in eliminating Hezbollah’s missiles has more to do with Iran. Indeed, it is widely expected that should Israel or even the United States attack Iranian nuclear facilities, Hezbollah would retaliate on Iran’s behalf, firing missiles against Israel.

Syria has flatly denied having played any role in the alleged Scud missile transfer; in fact, it has denied that any such transfer has ever taken place. Nevertheless, the rumors have been sufficient to prompt US president Obama to ask Congress, and obtain, over USD 200 million to help Israel develop the ‘Iron Drome’ missile defense system. While the focus of the Scud dispute has been Lebanon, Syria has not been waiting on the sidelines, and president Asad has been active in strengthening ties to older regional and international allies. Russian president Medvedev visited Damascus in May, and Asad has clearly stated that he would welcome an expanded Russian political role in the Middle East. Syria would see a greater Russian role in the region as beneficial in putting more pressure on Israel to participate more actively in the ‘peace process’. Russia would bring some balance to a political situation left uneven by the presence of a sole superpower, the United States. Russia would also be particularly useful in pursuing the Israeli-Syrian peace ‘track’, rather than the Palestinian one, and fill the role left vacant by Turkey in mediating with Israel on this issue.

In the next few months, while Syria will continue to maintain as good relations as possible with Washington, Israeli Scud allegations notwithstanding, the Syrian leadership will be securing other strategic alliances in an effort to re-balance the region. The US has to be careful; it needs Syria to keep effective lines of communication with Teheran and with Hamas, both of which would inevitably play an important role in an ‘exhumed’ Palestinian peace process. Syria shunned the EU in late 2009, foregoing a trade partnership to which it had been denied access before. Europe and the US have so far failed in helping Syria resolve what it feels is its main political problem, the Golan Heights and their restitution.

Russia and Turkey as well as Iran, will continue to play a greater role in Syrian affairs. Russia wants a chance to recover some of the former USSR’s diplomatic influence in the Middle East and access to the Mediterranean, while Turkey, has been exercising greater influence in areas, which until 1918 made up the Ottoman Empire. President Obama’s good intentions in the Middle East, in Syria, have not yet materialized in concrete results, and Syria is actively looking for other partnerships to achieve its goals. Certainly, this means that Syria will not give up relations with Iran, as the Israeli prime minister has demanded as a condition to resume bilateral talks over the Golan. The emerging alliance between Syria, Turkey, Iran and Russia may not seem especially important on paper; in fact, the strength lies in what their geographic proximity entails for energy resources and infrastructure. The four countries can share gas and oil pipelines, as well as roads, railways and even power generation and transmission. All four cover an area including the Red Sea, the Black Sea, the Caspian and the Mediterranean. This is a strategic region, and one of interest to the West. The new alliance and its infrastructure potential may be the key to gaining the political power needed to overcome the prevailing prejudices and lobby pressure in the US government to secure a more determined US peace effort.

President Obama offered a renewed hope for peace in the Middle East. Indeed, under his leadership, Syria and the United States have improved their diplomatic relations; the US has even removed its veto over Syria accessing the World Trade Organization; however, the president, interested in peace as Obama may be, has to confront Congress and lobbies which intervene more negatively than positively, when it comes to Syria.

 
 

 

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