So what are we to make of the allegation that Syria is moving, or has moved, Scud missiles, or parts of Scud missiles, into Hezbollah country in Lebanon -- even as the Obama administration tries to send a U.S ambassador back to Damascus for the first time in five years?
On the one hand, it's a little baffling. Why would Syria risk an Israeli strike by taking such a provocative step? With an assist from U.S spy satellites, Israeli jets could easily take out the missiles -- they've already proven their ability to evade Syrian radar with the 2007 raid on an early-stage nuclear plant near the Euphrates River. And the international opprobrium that would result from proof of such a weapons transfer to a terrorist organization would be severe.
Despite all the Syrian bravado about Hezbollah's strong showing against Israel in the 2006 Lebanon war, surely Bashar al-Assad knows that his creaking Soviet weaponry would fare badly in any conflagration -- and that his presidential suite is well within the range of Israel's F-15s. For all the figures you read in the press about the size of Syria's military and its vast arsenal of tanks, the country is essentially a tin-pot dictatorship with little ability to project power beyond Lebanon, where for decades it has dominated its smaller neighbor's domestic affairs.
If you think in regional terms, the (alleged) move makes marginally more sense. Iran, Syria's ally and patron, is looking to show the West that any strike on its nuclear facilities would be extremely costly for the United States and its allies. With pressure escalating, it's not hard to imagine that the powers that be in Iran leaned on Bashar to lend a helping hand next door. (Syria expert Andrew Tabler offers some other plausible motives here.)
The insane thing about all this is that Syria would be much better off by joining the pro-Western camp. It could get the Golan Heights back, get the sanctions lifted, and attract foreign assistance and investment -- while fending off pressure to open its deeply authoritarian system, just as Egypt has. It could reap billions in tourism revenue, thanks to its incredible archaeological and cultural riches. And it could finally bury the hatchet with other Arab states, which have long been frustrated by Syria's close ties to Iran, its support for militant groups, its meddling in Lebanon, and its intransigence on all things Israel.
But dictatorships are strange animals; they often make poor decisions for reasons that are inscrutable to all but the most informed observers.
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