Scud crisis exposes cracks in U.S.-Lebanon relations

Regardless of the accuracy (or lack thereof) of the reports about Syria allowing the transfer of Scud missiles to Hezbollah, the absence of the Lebanese government from the debate is extremely alarming. It is also telling of the subdued state of affairs in the country, as well as the changes in the recent political dynamics, ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Regardless of the accuracy (or lack thereof) of the reports about Syria allowing the transfer of Scud missiles to Hezbollah, the absence of the Lebanese government from the debate is extremely alarming. It is also telling of the subdued state of affairs in the country, as well as the changes in the recent political dynamics, which have come at the expense of the United States and its allies.

Recent statements by Lebanese leaders, notably in response to official U.S. comments, reflect the shift in policy and rhetoric that Lebanon has undergone in the past few years. Prime Minister Saad Hariri likened the accusations of the alleged transfer of Scud missiles from Syria to Hezbollah to "the weapons-of-mass-destruction allegations against Saddam Hussein: They were never found; they did not exist." Hariri was followed by his defense minister, Elias El-Murr, who claimed that "neither the Lebanese army nor the intelligence have any information about the transfer of the missiles" and "we heard about it through the media only." Compare that with February 2007 when El-Murr himself ordered authorities to intercept an arms shipment to Hezbollah, and a few months before that when Hariri and his allies championed U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 in the aftermath of the July war, calling for demarcating the Lebanon-Syria border and an end to weapons smuggling to  Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Regardless of the accuracy (or lack thereof) of the reports about Syria allowing the transfer of Scud missiles to Hezbollah, the absence of the Lebanese government from the debate is extremely alarming. It is also telling of the subdued state of affairs in the country, as well as the changes in the recent political dynamics, which have come at the expense of the United States and its allies.

Recent statements by Lebanese leaders, notably in response to official U.S. comments, reflect the shift in policy and rhetoric that Lebanon has undergone in the past few years. Prime Minister Saad Hariri likened the accusations of the alleged transfer of Scud missiles from Syria to Hezbollah to "the weapons-of-mass-destruction allegations against Saddam Hussein: They were never found; they did not exist." Hariri was followed by his defense minister, Elias El-Murr, who claimed that "neither the Lebanese army nor the intelligence have any information about the transfer of the missiles" and "we heard about it through the media only." Compare that with February 2007 when El-Murr himself ordered authorities to intercept an arms shipment to Hezbollah, and a few months before that when Hariri and his allies championed U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 in the aftermath of the July war, calling for demarcating the Lebanon-Syria border and an end to weapons smuggling to  Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Understandably, a lot has happened since then. Hezbollah’s show of force in Beirut in May 2008 led to a change in government. This was followed by last June’s  parliamentary elections in which the March 14 (pro-Western) camp scored a short-lived victory and kept the majority — after which, only weeks later, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt broke ranks with the bloc and reconciled with Syria. The key development, however, has been a diplomatic retreat on the part of the United States and its allies from the Lebanese field. This was due to a combination of other pressing policy priorities and a lack of leverage on the parties both inside and outside Lebanon, which were disappointed by Washington’s inability to reshape the situation after Hezbollah’s actions on May 7, 2008. This exposed the limitations of George W. Bush’s policy in isolating Syria and not having the necessary diplomatic tools on the ground to curb its allies.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman alluded to the situation in his last appearance before the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia on April 21, when he said, referring to the events of May 7, 2008, "we [the United States] had few means at our disposal to reinforce that policy and engage in frank discussions with Syria about our concerns over its continued support to Hezbollah and its destabilizing actions inside Lebanon." He added that "seeking to isolate Syria in the international community inhibited our ability to forge international consensus and speak with one voice."

While the Bush administration made a crucial mistake by completely shutting out Damascus and ignoring the peace process for most of its first term, Barack Obama’s administration is making a different mistake by scaling down the level of engagement and diplomatic efforts on this issue. Washington was almost absent in the aftermath of the Lebanese elections and the new government formation last summer, and no high-level official has visited Beirut since Undersecretary William Burns’s visit last February. Hariri has yet to come to the White House, after a series of visits to European capitals, seeking reassurances for Lebanese political, economic, and security stability (notably from renewed Israeli aggression)

Meanwhile, Hezbollah has, according to a recent report by the U.S. Defense Department on Iran’s military power, "exceeded 2006 Lebanon conflict armament levels" and is receiving around $200 million in funds from Tehran annually. Reversing Hezbollah’s gains will require the United States and the international community to increase their engagement with the government in Beirut and have a more robust diplomatic presence in the country. Talking to Syria is a necessity, but that alone will not be enough to contain Hezbollah’s arms smuggling. Indeed, the situation is not exactly what it was in the 1980s, when then-President Hafez al-Assad had a larger say in the party’s decision-making. Iran has increased its regional clout after the Iraq war, and Hezbollah has growing confidence after the 2006 war and the events of 2008.

Parallel to its comprehensive peace efforts and aid to Lebanese state institutions, the Obama administration should consider resuming the trilateral cooperation with France and Saudi Arabia on Lebanon. The mechanism was initiated by the Bush administration in the aftermath of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s 2005 assassination and was crucial in securing the Syrian withdrawal, establishing the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and brokering U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701. However, disagreements between the three allies over engaging Syria, with the Bush administration showing reluctance on that issue, halted that process in the final years of the Republican administration. Today, there is more convergence between those allies on broader Near East policy and in particular on engaging Syria. The expected arrival of Robert Ford as the first ambassador to Syria since 2005 (if he is confirmed by the Senate) should help Washington in closing the gap with Paris and Riyadh on this issue.  

Without such engagement and with Hezbollah’s growing control, the current status quo is increasing the risks of a second confrontation between Israel and the Iranian-backed party — a conflict whose outcome would be inevitably catastrophic on both the Lebanese people and the U.S. agenda in the region.

Joyce Karam is the Washington correspondent for Al-Hayat newspaper, a leading pan-Arab daily.

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