Syrian Saber-Rattling Has U.S. Concerned

On Saturday, many Syrians will celebrate their Independence Day by driving up into the foothills of Mount Hermon and picnicking amid the apple blossoms in that portion of the Golan Heights that remains under Syrian control. In recent years, the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad has used the occasion to call for Israel — which has occupied most of the Golan Heights since the war of 1967 — to return the territory in exchange for an end to the conflict between the two countries, which have officially been at war since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948. But the Syrian government appears no longer content to confine itself to symbolic posturing.

Over the past few months, U.S. and Israeli officials allege, Damascus has expanded and accelerated its customary deliveries of weapons to Hizballah, the Iran-backed Shi’ite militia in neighboring Lebanon. Israeli President Shimon Peres on Tuesday accused Syria of ratcheting up the stakes by sending midrange Scud missiles to Hizballah. The significance of the Scud is more symbolic than strategic. Though they have a longer range than any of the smaller rockets already in Hizballah’s ample arsenal — and that would allow the group to theoretically target any location in Israel — the larger Scuds can be easily tracked and destroyed by the Israeli air force before launching. Indeed, Israeli intelligence officials contacted by TIME say that, so far, they have evidence only of Syria’s training Hizballah operatives on the use of Scuds, rather than actual deliveries. Nevertheless, in the eyes of Israel, Syria’s clear preparation to deploy Scuds in Lebanon represents a major escalation, and a sign of Syria’s belligerent intensions.

The Scud specter threatens to sink the Obama Administration’s attempts to woo Syria away from its strategic alliance with Iran and militant groups such as Hizballah and Hamas. Until recently, Syria seemed to be one of the few areas in the Middle East where Washington’s diplomatic overtures appeared to be paying off. U.S. military officials in Baghdad have cited improved Syrian efforts at controlling the flow of jihadists over the Syrian border into Iraq as contributing to the reduction of violence there since 2007. More recently, American diplomats acknowledged that Syria has been playing a more constructive role in Lebanon, which Syria occupied until 2005, in part by finally recognizing Lebanon’s national sovereignty and opening a Syrian embassy in Beirut. In return, the Obama Administration named veteran Middle East diplomat Robert Ford to fill the vacancy created in 2005 when the Bush Administration withdrew the U.S. ambassador from Syria in protest at the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

But Ford has not yet been sent to Damascus, in part because of U.S. concerns over the increase in weapons deliveries to Hizballah and other issues. Administration officials were particularly miffed when Assad hosted both Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah at a dinner in Damascus in February, shortly after the U.S. had named Ford as ambassador-designate. In his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during confirmation hearings, Ford voiced concern that though the Syrian government says it is committed to a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement, it also threatens to revert to its old behavior as a regional “spoiler.”

Syria’s escalation of weapons deliveries probably represents frustration in Damascus that the U.S. hasn’t brought Israel to the negotiating table, according to Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy. Israel’s right-wing Likud Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has repeatedly vowed that he won’t give up the Golan, which he says Israel needs for military reasons, and has proposed that instead of trading “land for peace” — the basic formula for the Middle East peace process, as prescribed by successive U.S. Administrations and by U.N. resolutions — that Syria should simply accept “peace for peace.” Damascus may be trying to demonstrate that it reserves the right to recover its territory on the Golan by any means necessary.

If that’s the message Syria is trying to send through stepping up weapons shipments, the exercise could backfire. “Assad says he wants talks with Israel, but doubling down on Hizballah isn’t going to make the Israelis come running, especially not a Likud government,” says Tabler. “It makes a war that much more likely.”

The apparent breakdown in the Syrian-Israeli peace track is contributing to the widespread pessimism in the Middle East that the next war between Israel and one of its enemies — Iran, Syria, Hizballah or Hamas — could easily escalate into a regional war with all of them. And there are a number of potential triggers for such a conflagration. Hizballah, which has rearmed in violation of U.N. resolutions and is even more powerful than it was before the summer 2006 war with Israel, still claims the right to retaliate for the 2007 assassination of its operations chief, Imad Mugniyah. And although Hamas is enforcing a halt to rocket fire from Gaza, it has also vowed to avenge the assassination of a top operative in Dubai in January. Israel, for its part, has threatened to attack Iran if diplomatic efforts fail to stop the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. And now the Golan can be added to that list of potential triggers.

The Jerusalem Post, citing Israeli military sources, reported on Tuesday that Syria rebuffed an Israeli overture to have indirect military communications through the U.N. observer force that monitors the demilitarized buffer zone between the two sides in the Golan, whose purpose is solely to prevent an outbreak of violence. So this year’s Independence Day picnickers on Mount Hermon will enjoy their hummus under what appears to be a looming storm cloud.

— With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Tel Aviv

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