Editorial: Syria’s derisive response to US engagement

Over the weekend it became known that Russia would provide Syria with its P-800 Yakhont supersonic anti-ship cruise missile.

iranian missile 311 (photo credit: AP)
iranian missile 311
(photo credit: AP)
Over the weekend it became known that Russia would provide Syria with its P-800 Yakhont supersonic anti-ship cruise missile. Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced the deal during talks last week in Washington with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, noting that his country was simply honoring a contract that had been signed back in 2007.
The Yakhont is about 9 meters long, weighs close to 3 tons, has a range of 300 kilometers, can carry a 200 kilogram warhead and has the ability to cruise at just a few meters above sea level at over twice the speed of sound, which makes it a highly difficult missile to intercept.
Israel is concerned that the missile will be transferred by Syria to Hizbullah, its terrorist proxy in Lebanon, to be used against Israeli naval vessels.
There is more than a little basis for such concerns. During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, four Israeli sailors were killed when Hizbullah, aided by undercover Iranian Revolutionary Guards fighting in Lebanon at the time, hit the Israel Navy missile boat Hanit with a Chinese-made C-802 surface-to-sea radar-guided missile that had been sold to Iran and smuggled into Lebanon via Syria.
In April of this year, reports surfaced that Syria was supplying Hizbullah with Scud missiles that could strike any part of Israel.
And if these precedents were not enough to arouse concern, Syrian President Bashar Assad made it clear with whom his loyalties reside this Yom Kippur when he met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was on a stopover en route to the UN General Assembly.
The meeting with Ahmadinejad symbolically canceled out any purported “understandings” reached just two days before when Assad received US Middle East envoy George Mitchell. Mitchell had claimed he had had a “very useful conversation” about renewing the Syrian-Israeli track.
IT HAS become abundantly clear that the Obama administration’s attempt to “engage” Syria – which has included, in addition to Mitchell’s recent visit there, ongoing attempts to reinstate a US ambassador in Damascus – has been a resounding failure.
This effort has not prevented Assad from allowing anti-American fighters to enter Iraq via his country. Nor has it stopped Damascus from providing these insurgents with financial, logistical, and operational support to kill American soldiers serving in Iraq.
Engagement also failed to prevent Syria from reasserting its influence in Lebanon via Hizbullah after the March 14, 2005 Ceder Revolution, which for a time stoked hopes of democratic rule there. Nor is engagement likely to prevent Assad from transferring the P-800 Yakhont missiles, also known as Oniks (Onyx in English) missiles, to Hizbullah.
Israel has made its own attempts at deterring Syria. For instance, in April, when it was discovered that Syria was providing Hizbullah with Scuds, Israel quietly warned Assad that his country would be held responsible for any Hizbullah missile strike against Israel. Unlike in the Second Lebanon War, Syria would also be targeted.
However, the seriousness of such a threat is limited since it is understood that Israel has no interest in upsetting the relatively stable minority Alawite dictatorship and running the risk of it being replaced with an extremist Sunni leadership. That would explain why Defense Minister Ehud Barak hushed Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman after he publicly warned Assad at the beginning of the year that “when there is another war, you will not just lose it, but you and your family will lose power.”
As outlined in his June 2009 Cairo speech, President Barack Obama has set as a goal reaching out to Muslims around the world in an attempt to encourage moderate streams of Islam. But this can only work if it is accompanied by a parallel strategy of effectively sanctioning Islamic extremism.
Failing to do so means defaulting on America’s deterrence capabilities and, with the direst consequences, allowing terror groups – including the anti- American insurgents in Iraq and Hizbullah in Lebanon – to continue to receive support from states like Syria.