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Middle East: Analysts Debate Syria's Role In Crisis

  • Heather Maher

Syrian President al-Assad (left) with Iranian President Ahmadinejad in Damascus in January (epa) WASHINGTON, August 9, 2006 (RFE/RL) – Israel has frequently accused Syria of directly supplying the weapons Hizballah fighters are using to battle Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon.


Michael Herzog, a brigadier general in the Israeli Defense Forces, repeated that charge during a panel discussion at the Washington-based Nixon Center on August 8.


“Very sophisticated antitank weapons, which are being employed today by Hizballah in southern Lebanon and are causing most of the Israeli casualties, were provided by Russia to Syria, and then from Syria to Hizballah," Herzog charged. "[These are] very sophisticated antitank weapons, which can penetrate armored vehicles with over 1,000 millimeters of armor. That's very significant.”


Israel also alleges that many of the hundreds of rockets Hizballah has fired into northern Israel are Syrian-manufactured copies of Iranian-designed systems.


“I think [Syrian President] Bashar [al-Assad] adopted an attitude toward Hizballah which is notably different than his father's," Herzog said. "He adores [Hizballah leader Hassan] Nasrallah, and he decided to regard Hizballah as a strategic arm vis-a-vis Israel, which is why Syria, during Bashar's tenure, not only served as an conduit for arms shipments to Hizballah, but also started supplying Hizballah with its own weapons: Syrian-made, manufactured weapons. And these are the weapons that we are facing today during this war.”


Focus On The Golan Heights


Herzog said he believes Syria’s goal is to gain leverage in its own long-standing dispute with Israel, which centers on the Golan Heights. Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, and Damascus demands their return.


Theodore Kattouf, a former U.S. ambassador to Damascus, said Syria’s government makes all its decisions based on two criteria: Do those decisions strengthen its hold on power? And do they strengthen Syria’s national security posture in the region?


Kattouf said that Syria’s Arab-nationalist establishment is "swimming against the Islamist current in the region” and for this reason is seeking to bolster its military stance against Israel to gain popular support.


He said that produces a "mutually beneficial relationship" with Hizballah.


Iran In The Background


Israel also charges that Syria is the main conduit for aid from the militia’s other main foreign backer, Iran.


The two states’ support for the militia has helped bring them closer together in recent years, including signing a mutual-defense pact in June to counter what they regard as their common enemies: Israel and the United States.


“What has changed vis-a-vis Lebanon, Syria, and Iran is that Iran is now the senior partner, not Syria," Kattouf said. "With Syria out of Lebanon, Iran is now much more influential with Hizballah. Although I am not one who thinks that Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah is totally a pawn of either Syria or Iran. The man has a standing in the region that arguably surpasses anyone at this point in the ‘Arab street.’”


Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, agreed that Syria is in the middle of a three-way alliance, with Iran as the patron.


'The Year Of Prisoners'


He said Iran almost certainly knew what Hizballah was planning when it captured two Israeli soldiers on July 12 and precipitated the current regional crisis.


Sadjadpour told the conference that Nasrallah announced months ago that 2006 would be the “year of prisoners.” Hizballah says it captured the two soldiers to force Israel to make an exchange for Hizballah and Palestinian militants in Israeli detention.


An Iranian cleric at an anti-Israel demonstration in Tehran on August 3 (epa)

From that, Sadjadpour said, it seems clear that the border raid was part of a larger strategy by Hizballah, something for which it almost always seeks approval from Tehran.


Sadjadpour said Washington’s challenge now is to find a way to break up the Iran-Syria-Hizballah alliance, which it sees as a major threat to regional stability.


“Do we approach Syria first or do we approach Iran first, to break apart this alliance?" he said. "I would argue that the dilemma now is that the depth of mutual mistrust between Syria and the Bush administration and Tehran and the Bush administration is so deep that I don't see Syria selling out Iran or Hizballah, and I don't see Iran selling out Syria or Hizballah at the moment, either.”


U.S. President George W. Bush has so far refused to talk directly with Syrian leaders because -- as Bush has said – Syria already knows what Washington would say: Stop the violence it is sowing against Israel by supporting Hizballah.


Change Of Behavior Or Change Of Regime?


But former Ambassador to Syria Kattouf said U.S. policy objectives regarding Syria are complicated by the question of whether Washington wants not just cooperation in Damascus, but also a regime change there.


“U.S. policy toward Syria has been basically a take-it-or-leave-it approach," Kattouf said. "The mantra is: Syria knows what we want, and therefore what's the use of talking further with them? They haven't given us what we want, and we've tried, we've sent envoys there, so why deal with them? Why reward them for their bad behavior? And I think the administration is also ambivalent in terms of whether it's seeking a change of regime behavior or a change of regime.”


Regarding Tehran, the Bush administration has frequently said the government there poses a danger to world peace and that the Iranian people deserve an alternative.


Washington has had no formal relations with Tehran since U.S. diplomats were taken hostage for 444 days immediately after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran, Syria, And Hizballah

Iranians demonstrating in support of Hizballah in Tehran on July 17 (epa)

'FOR THE SAKE OF LEBANON': The Islamic Republic of Iran has served as an ideological inspiration for Hizballah since the Lebanese militant group's creation in 1982, and Tehran acknowledges that it supports the organization morally and politically. "Yes, we are friends of Syria and Iran" Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said. "For 24 years we benefited from our friendship with Syria and Iran for the sake of Lebanon...." (more)


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