Syria prefers deterrence over peace with Israel
Currently, there is no stick that can compel Syria to reconsider its alliance with Hezbollah.
It's a good thing we can rely on the Kuwaiti press. Two reports that appeared in the daily Al-Rai Al-Aam provided a detailed explanation of the root causes of the tension characterizing relations in recent months between Israel, Syria and Hezbollah. The newspaper removes the remnants of secrecy over what reports in the Israeli press vaguely referred to as "weapons that tilt the strategic balance," arms that Syria has provided to Hezbollah. According to the Kuwaitis, these are Scud ballistic missiles that the Lebanese organization has obtained despite Israeli warnings to Damascus.
Scuds are weapons in a league of their own. This will be the first time that any terrorist-guerrilla group can boast of possessing ballistic missiles of the kind that usually comprise the arsenals of organized armies. In recent years, Hezbollah has amassed an extensive and dangerous array of rockets, all in defiance of Israeli threats and international condemnation.
The Scud will serve as an important, significant addition to the group's cache of projectiles, even though it would be reasonable to assume that these arms will only be deployed as a last resort. The question, ostensibly, is who determines the proper timing of a last resort. Iran would prefer that the Scuds be used as a response to any Israeli attack against its nuclear installations, while Hezbollah may view Scuds as the fitting Lebanese answer to a more local clash with the Israel Defense Forces.
Israelis remember the Scud as a not particularly lethal weapon with absolutely no accuracy, the type of missile launched by Iraq that hit population centers in Greater Tel Aviv and the Haifa area during the 1991 Gulf War.
The Kuwaiti newspaper does not specify which brand of Scuds was given to Hezbollah. Is it the older B and C models, or perhaps the newer, more precise incarnations? According to various reports emanating from Western sources in recent years, Hezbollah is already in possession of rockets with a range of 300 kilometers, enough to cover most of Israel. The Scud C, whose range is double, will enable the militia to strike targets south of Dimona, a wide swath of territory that is largely uninhabited and whose strategic significance is marginal. The most noteworthy difference is the size of the Scud's warhead. The Scud C can carry one ton of explosives, twice as much as its predecessors.
The missing piece of information is the level of the missiles' accuracy. A Scud D is capable of repeatedly striking an area a few hundred meters in radius. Providing Hezbollah with such a weapon, if it was indeed given this missile, will enable it to systematically threaten not just Israel's population centers but also strategically sensitive sites, including army command posts and key infrastructure installations.
Nonetheless, it should be remembered that the Arrow missile defense system has already proven its ability to intercept Scud missiles. In a joint U.S.-Israeli test in the summer of 2004, the Arrow easily shot down an incoming Scud B missile. More so than the Zilzal missile that was destroyed by the Israel Air Force before it could be launched during the Second Lebanon War, the Scud leaves a "signature" which makes it easy for intelligence to identify and destroy.
It was no coincidence that on the day after these reports emerged, Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke boastfully of "the best pilots and planes in the world" during a visit to the Ramat David air base. Barak vowed that the IDF can act against "threats both near and far."
What does Syria have to gain from these developments? Much like the leaders of Turkey and Iran, it appears that its president, Bashar Assad, is not overly impressed with the declarations emanating from the Obama administration. Since entering office, Assad has assumed a different stance than that of his father, Hafez. While the father was cautious in forging close ties with Iran and made sure to keep a distance from Hezbollah, his son does not hesitate to embrace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Nasrallah.
Even if the Syrians are interested in peace with Israel in exchange for the Golan Heights, for the time being they do not sense that there is a genuine Israeli partner with whom they can reach agreement. Thus they prefer to bolster deterrence, which will prevent Israel from once again striking their territory, as it did in September 2007.
Currently, there is no stick that can threaten Syria and compel it to reconsider its alliance with Hezbollah. The West continues to coddle up to Damascus, and even the heads of the anti-Syrian camp in Lebanon, namely Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, make pilgrimages to the presidential palace while fully cognizant of the new balance of power in the region. If the Americans won't come to their rescue, they will be left to their own devices in dealing with the Syrians. It is doubtful whether the delayed stationing of the American ambassador in Damascus will be enough to affect a change in Syrian policy.
Hezbollah, meanwhile, is making clear that it has no interest, for the time being, in another war with Israel. It is, however, continuing to prepare for this possibility. The militia's representatives occupy positions in the Lebanese government, yet for Hezbollah it is important to stress its unique standing in the Lebanese arena: that of the only resistance movement that poses a considerable threat to Israel. Most importantly, the Shi'ite Hezbollah will continue to act as the long arm of Iran in case of an Israeli assault against the Persian country.