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Scuds for Hezbollah?

Israeli officials this week accused Syria of providing the armed Islamic group Hezbollah with medium-range Scud missiles, which would make the Lebanese militants the first irregular army to possess such weapons, and would enable them to target virtually all of Israel. U.S. officials have not confirmed that the weapons were actually delivered, and Syria adamantly denies the charge. Israel and Syria each are warning that the other is preparing for war, raising concerns about a new military conflict in the region and prompting Republican calls for President Obama to delay sending a U.S. ambassador to Damascus for the first time in five years. That would be a mistake. The United States does not send ambassadors as a reward to countries for their behavior, but to provide tools for defusing crises precisely like this one.

Syria has armed Hezbollah for decades. The delivery of Scuds, however, would mark a significant advance in its arsenal, further undermining the Lebanese state, although the effect on Israel would be as much psychological as military. During the 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah used rockets with a range of up to 60 miles, and Scuds could increase that by at least sevenfold. But the large 1950s-era missiles are inaccurate, and Israel has the capacity to intercept them. Still, Israel would view their introduction as an act of belligerence on Syria’s part.

It is hard to see what Syria would gain by giving Scuds to Hezbollah. (Well-armed insurgent groups have a way of escaping the control of their patrons, as the U.S. and Russia have discovered.) Some suggest that Syria and Hezbollah believe Israel is planning a repeat of the 2006 war against a now-rearmed Hezbollah; by this theory, the Scuds serve as a deterrent. Others suggest that Damascus is frustrated at lack of progress in talks with Israel over the return of the Golan Heights, and wants to turn up the pressure. Still others propose that this has been masterminded by Tehran as part of a potential regional response to any Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities. Whatever the scenario, Israel often responds to a perceived threat increase with a strike, as it did on an alleged nuclear site in Syria in 2007.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II is reported to have told members of Congress in Washington on Thursday that there is an imminent threat of war in the region. This is further argument for engagement by the U.S. Despite the apparent lack of results so far, the U.S. should continue its efforts to woo Syria away from Tehran. The administration should mediate between Israel and Syria, and should do so with a full diplomatic arsenal. That means the Senate must confirm Robert S. Ford as ambassador to Syria.

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