By Tony Badran

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Last week, an interesting set of reports and statements came from the US and France concerning Syria, highlighting its subversive role in the region. While this potentially signals a shift in dealing with Damascus, US policy in particular remains vague, as the White House seems unwilling to tell the Assad regime the costs of its chronic destabilizing behavior.

The opening salvo came in a report by the French Le Figaro last Monday. The paper claimed to have been given access to official Ministry of Defense documents that detail the location of three Hizbullah “logistical structures” inside Syria that are “dedicated to the transfer of its arms and personnel.”

According to the defense documents, Hizbullah has three units that oversee their operations in Syria. One unit is charged with “transferring arms and munitions between these storage sites in Syria and other infrastructures situated on the Syrian-Lebanese border.” The sites in Syria are located in and around Damascus, including near the airport. Other “reserve” storage sites are dispersed between Aleppo, Homs and Tartous.

A second unit is in charge of distributing the arms to various locations in Lebanon. The third unit “transports Hizbullah members and combatants, as well as Iranian experts who move between Lebanon, Syria and Iran through the Damascus airport.”

The story of Western intelligence uncovering Syrian-Hizbullah military integration is not new, as is evident from the story of the Scuds and M-600 missiles that surfaced back in April. What is somewhat new, however, is Washington’s reaction. Last time, the Obama administration reportedly dispatched Senator John Kerry to Damascus with a “warning” to the Syrians regarding their transfer of increasingly advanced weapons to Hizbullah. According to one unconfirmed report, the US may have even interfered to prevent a preemptive Israeli air strike.

In its report, Le Figaro quoted an anonymous source at the French Ministry of Defense who said that “targeted action by Israel against the sites… in Syria is still possible.” Indeed, veteran Israeli journalist Ron Ben-Yishai observed that one message behind the report was “to indicate to [Bashar Assad] that Hizbullah’s headquarters and training camps in Syria are, in Israel’s view, legitimate targets.”

On Tuesday, Israel’s outgoing head of Military Intelligence, Amos Yadlin, briefed the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, warning them that the next war will be “much wider in scope” and “won''t be focused on one theater, but rather will incorporate two or three.” Yadlin singled out Syria’s procurement of advanced weapons systems from Russia, which he said could be made available to Hizbullah.

The US reaction came a couple of days after the article’s publication when Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, read a strongly worded statement outside the Security Council.  In her statement, she repeatedly accused Syria of providing “increasingly sophisticated weapons” to Hizbullah, violating multiple UN Security Council resolutions, “flagrantly disregard[ing]” Lebanon’s independence and threatening stability.

The reaction was markedly different than the one in April. Rather than send an envoy to privately discuss matters with the Syrians, the US made it a public issue. Many have read this as signaling the predicted failure of the Syria engagement policy, especially as the situation in Lebanon heats up.

And yet, despite the glaring failure of the policy, US messaging remains inconsistent and hesitant, perhaps reflecting confusion about how to proceed forward, as well as an inability to lay out credible and exorbitant costs for Syrian intransigence.

Take for instance the press briefing by State Department spokesman PJ Crowley, released on the same day as Ambassador Rice’s statement. While equally harsh in his critique, when confronted with the failure of the administration’s “engagement” policy, Crowley could only double down on the defense of the policy, repeating tired platitudes such as the need to send an ambassador to Syria in order to better “communicate” with Damascus, when there has been no shortage of high-level diplomatic contacts.

And then came the $50,000 question to Crowley from a reporter: “What are the consequences if they continue not to listen to you?” This is where the administration’s failure was most painfully obvious. Crowley could only remind the reporter of the existing sanctions while laughably adding that Syria’s continued problematic behavior would deprive it from acquiring investments from American hi-tech firms.

Similarly, in an interview  with the Washington Post, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman could not convincingly address the same question, and instead offered the feeble retort that such behavior blocks improved relations with the US, thereby potentially affecting the Syrians’ ability to gain the Golan Heights from Israel.

This lack of convincing deterrence poses a serious problem for US interests. The Syrians are accustomed to the politics of brinkmanship, as has been especially evident since Bashar Assad inherited power a decade ago. The Obama administration, with its projected image of a regional drawdown, already invites a test of wills, and Assad has shown that he relishes the conceit of staring down world powers.

This is precisely why Assad, who was brazen enough to pursue a covert nuclear program in collaboration with the North Koreans, has now progressed from providing Syrian-made weaponry to the Shiite militia to hosting Hizbullah installations on Syrian soil. This suggests that he has already taken measure of the administration as not being willing to follow through with its threats, and that its impulse is to “engage” and perhaps pursue peace talks as the preferred solution to Syrian roguishness. This perceived US posture permits and drives Assad to push the envelope further. This does not bode well for regional stability or American interests.

This is what the Syrians have become trained to expect, dating back to the American reaction to the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, and all the way to the lack of a forceful response to the Syrian war by proxy against the US in Iraq. The US cannot keep projecting this image of indecisiveness, nor can it continue to use the excuse of the “peace process” – which only feeds the Syrian sense of impunity and self-importance. Assad has to be shown that his role as propagator of violence will have clear, credible and devastating costs. Can the US muster such a decisive policy or will it continue to relinquish the initiative to regional actors?

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This article was first published on NOW Lebanon.


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