Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak sent officials in Damascus and Washington scrambling when he claimed Tuesday that Syria is providing the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah with Scud missiles whose accuracy and range threaten more Israeli cities than ever before. His unexpected announcement, though vehemently denied by the Syrian regime, threatens to spark a new war between Israel and its antagonists in the region while further undermining U.S. President Barack Obama's efforts at engagement with Syria.
The alleged missile transfer now looms over the Senate confirmation of Obama's ambassador-designate to Syria, Robert S. Ford, who is slated to be Washington's first emissary to Damascus in more than five years. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's apparent decision to transfer more accurate and longer-range weapons to Hezbollah is a disheartening development for U.S. officials, who had hoped Obama's diplomatic opening would lead the Syrian regime to moderate its behavior. As Damascus arms its Lebanese ally with an increasingly lethal array of weaponry, Syria's credibility as a peace partner for Israel is increasingly in doubt.
Weapons have been flowing from Syria to Lebanon for decades. However, in recent months, reports have indicated that the sophistication of the weapons systems provided to Hezbollah has grown. In October 2009, the British military magazine Jane's Defence Weekly reported that Syria had supplied Hezbollah with M-600 rockets, a Syrian variant of the Iranian Fatah 110, whose rudimentary guidance system can carry a 500-kilogram payload to a target 250 kilometers away.
In early March, the head of the research division of the Israel Defense Forces' Military Intelligence, Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, that Syria had recently provided Hezbollah with the Igla-S man-portable air defense systems. The shoulder-fired weapon can bring down the Israeli drones, helicopter gunships, and low-flying fighter aircraft that routinely fly over Lebanon to gather intelligence.
Reports of increased weapons transfers surfaced again following Ford's nomination hearing on March 16. Rumors circulated around Capitol Hill that Syria had delivered Scud-D missiles to Lebanon. These reports did not specify whether the missiles were Russian Scud-Ds or Syrian varieties of Scud-Ds, which are upgraded versions of older Scud models that Syria reportedly began producing in mass quantities during the last year. Both missiles have a range of up to 700 kilometers, which means they could hit most, if not all, Israeli cities even if fired from northern Lebanon. Both can carry chemical or biological warheads.
Less than a week after a Feb. 17 visit by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns -- the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Damascus in more than five years -- Assad hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah at a banquet in Damascus. During the visit, Assad openly mocked U.S. efforts to distance Syria from Iran and stated that his government is "preparing ourselves for any Israeli aggression."
These weapons transfers appear to mark a continuation of Assad's belligerent stance. While Lebanon has long been the battlefield between Syria and Israel, the transfer of these weapons may indicate that the Syrian president is calculating that the next war with Israel could involve strikes on Syrian territory. Conversely, others have postulated that the transfers could also be designed to put pressure on the United States to get Israel back to the negotiating table -- a bizarre tactic that is clearly not working.