Fuelling the Middle East arms race

Israel’s President, Shimon Peres, set the proverbial cat among the pigeons this week with his sensational assertion, subsequently confirmed anonymously by United States intelligence officials, that Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militia, has obtained Scud tactical ballistic missiles from Syria.

Denials from Damascus and Beirut have been quick in coming and will be just as quickly discounted. From an Israeli perspective, the balance of terror in the Middle East just tipped dangerously. And that spells more problems for Barack Obama’s Middle East peace efforts.

“Syria claims it wants peace while simultaneously delivering Scud missiles to Hezbollah, which is constantly threatening the security of Israel,” Peres said. He accused Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, of playing a “double game”, talking about peace while arming Israel’s enemies.

It’s not known what type of Scud rocket has allegedly been supplied. Even the older Scud C has a reach of 600km, which might put all of Israel’s main cities and its Dimona nuclear facility within range. The Scud C carries one tonne of explosives, twice as much as earlier models, while the more advanced Scud D is accurate to within a few hundred yards.

“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 organised armies,” said security specialists Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, writing in Haaretz newspaper.

Although the reported sale is described in some quarters as a “game-changer” in terms of Israel’s defence, Harel and Issacharoff suggest the weapons would be used only as a last resort; and that Israel’s Arrow anti-missile system has proven capability in shooting down Scuds. Although it has been busily acquiring other weapons, including anti-aircraft systems, since its 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah, currently consolidating its position in Lebanon, is said to have little immediate interest in a return bout.

The political implications of this development are potentially more significant, at least in the shorter term. In Israel, perceptions of increased Syrian hostility may revive bilateral tensions that peaked in January when Assad – still smarting from Israel’s 2007 bombing of a suspected nuclear reactor – accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of preparing for war.

Damaging Israel’s relationship with the US
Netanyahu remains under fire at home for allegedly seriously damaging Israel’s relationship with the US in the unresolved row over Jewish settlement activity in east Jerusalem. But if he can plausibly point to a growing Syrian-Hezbollah threat, underwritten by the menacing regime in Tehran and hard-line Palestinian groups, such criticism will be easier to deflect.

Netanyahu, never enthusiastic about the opening to Syria, may also feel emboldened to join US Republicans in telling Obama that his attempts to engage with Damascus, including an easing of sanctions and the appointment of a new ambassador, are misconceived.

Assad’s motives may not be as opaque, in this instance, as they are often portrayed. First, despite Israeli assurances, Syria’s leader fears another military humiliation. He may see the Scuds as a sort of insurance policy or as a deterrent; his ally Iran, also fearful of future Israeli attack, would certainly do so.

Second, Obama has failed, in Syrian eyes, to bring Israel to heel, to reboot the peace process and, in particular, to hasten the return of the occupied Golan Heights. At present there is no great advantage to be gained from Obama’s good opinion, and many attendant risks.

Closer collaboration with Hezbollah is also part, thirdly, of Assad’s successful drive to re-establish Syrian influence in Lebanon after the humbling, forced withdrawal of 2005. Recent meetings with traditionally anti-Syrian leaders such as Walid Jumblatt show how far Assad has come since the lowpoint that followed the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri.

Last but not least, Assad can point to a double standard that many across the Arab world find deeply objectionable: namely Israel’s continued possession, unchallenged at this week’s Washington nuclear counter-proliferation summit, of weapons of mass destruction.

To many in the region, Israel’s undeclared and internationally uninspected arsenal, including hundreds of nuclear warheads, looks considerably more threatening than a few truckloads of North Korean-made Scuds. While this remains the case, there is no reason to believe the head-long Middle East arms race will stop. — guardian.co.uk

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Simon Tisdall
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