Reports in U.S. and Israeli papers on Wednesday, alleging that Syria delivered Scud missiles to Hezbollah, has set off a firestorm about the limits of engagement and the danger posed by Syria and nonstate actors in the region. Yet the ensuing debate has ignored the broader context of which this episode is but a symptom: namely, that the continued lack of resolution to the decades-long conflict between Syria and Israel has been allowed to fester.
This new development could not have been better timed to throw a monkey wrench into Washington's engagement process with Syria and President Barack Obama's efforts to reanimate the stalled peace process in the region. Robert S. Ford, the first ambassador named to Damascus in five years, is in the midst of his confirmation process. A key committee in the Senate has recommended his confirmation, but the ultimate vote among the full Senate has yet to take place. There are many who would like to stop it, not the least because Obama seems ready to push forward efforts to resolve the long-festering Arab -Israeli conflict. On Tuesday, he declared that solving the dispute was a "vital national security interest of the United States" because it is "costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure."
In the short term, the White House's desire to help broker a Middle East peace means getting an ambassador back to Damascus and engaging with Syria. In the long term, it means convincing Israel to return the Golan Heights, a large swath of land that Israel conquered from Syria in 1967 and annexed in 1981 (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed not to return it). Obama's urgency to solve the Arab-Israeli dispute is causing some pro-Israeli groups to push back with the claim that the president is unfairly blaming Israel for the lack of movement on peace talks. Meanwhile, a Syrian Foreign Ministry source says that:
Israel is launching a campaign of statements alleging that Syria is supplying Hizbullah Party in Lebanon with SCUD missiles...Syria, while strongly denying these allegations, believes that Israel aims through them at adding more fuel to the tense atmosphere in the region and to create a climate that paves the way for a potential Israeli aggression in order to evade the requirements of just and comprehensive peace.
Has Syria supplied Hezbollah with Scud missiles? The short answer is that we don't really know. The story was first announced by Israeli President Shimon Peres, who told journalists earlier this week, "Syria claims that it wants peace, while simultaneously delivering Scud missiles to Hezbollah, which is constantly threatening the security of the state of Israel." The Wall Street Journal went further than the Israeli press by claiming that "U.S. officials" as well as Israelis have alleged that Scuds have been transferred from Syria into Lebanon. The Washington Post, however, took a more cautious stand. It quoted a U.S. official briefed on the matter to say, "I don't think we know whether they've gone over or not." The New York Times followed suit by explaining that "American and French officials have both said that they were aware of the Israeli concerns but did not know whether the missiles had actually been delivered."
A little history can help remind us how difficult it is to detect Scuds, which are easily concealed in a truck. During the 1990-1991 Gulf War, Israeli intelligence kept providing the U.S. Air Force (USAF) coordinates for emplacements of an even larger form of Scud (modified for extended range by the Iraqis). Thiry-nine of these wobbly rockets were fired at Israel while 41 were targeted at Saudi Arabia. All of the Israeli data, assessed by Mossad to have high validity, turned out to be worthless. When this proved to be so, every intelligence resource the USAF had was dedicated to finding the Scuds being fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia. With very few exceptions, the missiles were located only when their launching gave them away. Because satellite intelligence on Scuds is unreliable, this is undoubtedly why both French and U.S. intelligence officers are loath to confirm Israeli claims about the Scuds.
The larger question, however, is not whether Syria has delivered Scuds to Hezbollah. Syria has been rebuilding Hezbollah's missile supplies ever since they were largely exhausted during Israel's 2006 incursion into Lebanon. It will continue to do so as long as Israel refuses to trade land for peace. Syria says it will no longer have any reason to arm Hezbollah once it gets the Golan back and can sign a peace agreement with Israel.
Syria understands that the reason Israel will not return the Golan Heights is because of the terrible imbalance in power between the two countries. So long as there is no peace, Syria will feel compelled to arm itself and its allies. Only this week at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, we were reminded that Israel has hundreds of atomic warheads that can be delivered by missile, plane, and submarine. What's more, Washington continues to supply Israel with large amounts of military aid and cutting-edge military technology. Israel accuses Syria of trying to change the balance of power by introducing Scuds to Lebanon, but from Syria's point of view, it is Israel that has skewed the regional balance.
Israeli officials, when faced with the Golan question in private or at conferences, explain that the reason Israel refuses to strike a deal with Syria is that the country is too weak. It has nothing to give Israel in exchange for the Golan, which has been Israel's quietest border for 35 years. In the face of this debilitating weakness, Syria will do what all weak states do: find powerful allies and try to arm itself. It must also rely on nonstate actors, such as Hezbollah and Hamas. In short, it will struggle to right the balance of power. Some commentators have argued that Syria ought to simply renounce its current path, make a rapproachment with the West, and by doing so get back the Golan and normalized relations. But the notion that Israel would give Syria back the Golan if it renounces Hezbollah and Iran is naive. The Palestine Liberation Organization renounced violence some time ago and has little to show for it.
King Abdullah of Jordan has recently warned that an Israel-Hezbollah-Lebanon war may be "imminent" if peace is not advanced. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a similar point at the recent AIPAC meeting when she urged both sides to make peace:
Both sides must confront the reality that the status quo of the last decade has not produced long-term security.… We must recognize that the ever-evolving technology of war is making it harder to guarantee Israel's security. For six decades, Israelis have guarded their borders vigilantly. But advances in rocket technology mean that Israeli families are now at risk far from those borders. Despite efforts at containment, rockets with better guidance systems, longer range, and more destructive power are spreading across the region. Hezbollah has amassed tens of thousands of rockets on Israel's northern border. Hamas has a substantial number in Gaza. And even if some of these are still crude, they all pose a serious danger, as we saw last week.
It is thus clear that the only long-term solution to Scuds or the more serious problem of nuclear proliferation in the region is peace. A Syrian-Israeli peace is not impossible -- President Bill Clinton got close in 2000. President Obama can still do it. If he cannot, we will be hearing much more about the spread of missile technology as well nuclear technology.
Joshua Landis is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of the blog Syria Comment.