One of the non-missile definitions of the noun "scud" is "ragged low clouds, moving rapidly beneath another cloud layer". This, as it turns out, is quite an apt description of the clouded issue of alleged Syrian Scud missile transfers to Lebanon's Hizballah movement.
The whole story falls well into the territory of known unknowns, as coined by former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: we know that we don't know what's true or not. So, let's turn to the usual speculation and/or conspiracy theories masquerading as analysis that such stories are made for.
The current Pentagon boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, may or may not have blown away some of the clouds obscuring the issue last week when, after a meeting with his Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak, he relegated the whole Scud story to irrelevance. He did not mention the evocative missiles, because Scuds or no Scuds he seemed to say, Hizballah "has far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world". Which is certainly true for the Lebanese government in which Hizballah is a partner but not so true for the Israeli government that it is facing.
"Rockets and missiles" may sound threatening but do not resonate nearly as much as the more specific specter of Scuds, the weapons that Saddam Hussein launched at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. After the initial allegations of the Scud transfer were made, both American and Israeli officials quickly dropped the specific name and referred more generically to Hizballah's rocket arsenal. Maybe Scuds were only mentioned to get more attention? That at least is one of many possibilities in the current saga.
On the other hand, Israel's claims about Hizballah's missile capacities were pooh-poohed prior to the July/August 2006 war, during which it emerged that some of the estimates had actually been on the low side. Hizballah itself keeps mum on the Scud issue but has said that it has extensively rearmed and has also promised Israel some "surprises" were it to engage in hostilities with the movement. And even if it does not have actual Scuds, just much more useful missiles with a different name, it may serve the movement to let people believe that it does have them, or advanced anti-aircraft missiles, or a magic dog-whistle that turns all Israeli mutts on IDF soldiers.
It is a tad problematic to discuss motive without being sure who did what and without the benefit even of a corpse. So, just a quick rundown of the possibilities.
If it's an Israeli ploy it may have been aimed at torpedoing US-Syria rapprochement, such as it is. President Barack Obama has now rolled over the sanctions on Syria and his nominee for the vacant US ambassador's position in Damascus may run into Senate opposition. It seems doubtful however that any torpedoing was necessary since the sanctions were not about to be lifted in an election year and the ambassador's appointment is not a big enough issue.
Israel may also have invented the story to prepare the ground for an attack against Hizballah, Syria, Lebanon or Iran, but that seems even more implausible. Why give advance warning by raising the temperature, for one?
What we're left with is the slight possibility that the storm was created specifically for the purpose of getting the US to side with Israel during a particularly tense period in their relations.
But, just to think outside the box for a minute, could Iran have leaked the story, initially to a Kuwaiti newspaper, also in order to sabotage Syrian-US realignment? This seems equally unlikely for the same reasons as mentioned above, plus Tehran knows Damascus will never risk really embracing the US.
If somehow the Scuds transfer really happened or was about to happen, the significance is easier to gauge. The situation in the region remains highly unstable, and Hizballah and Iran still worry about an Israeli military strike. The peace process is non-existent and Lebanon's domestic situation is unpredictable at best. In these circumstances it makes sense to acquire as much deterrence as possible. On the other hand, it could just as easily be meant as a provocation rather than a deterrent, to goad Israel into premature action.
Thus the Scud issue emerges as the ultimate Middle Eastern mix and match story for the spring. Just assemble the elements according to your inclinations. What is much more serious than the allegations themselves is that they feed into the narrative of a region on the edge, where too many people keep mentioning the possibility of war and where the belief in any kind of effective diplomatic process has disappeared on all sides. Beware the Scuds that shoot down hope.- Published 6/5/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org