‘Til Israel do us part?

So much commotion has been made about the recent so-called American engagement with Syria that one would think the two sides were embarked on the road to eternal matrimony after a whirlwind romance. The tongues of die-hard neo-cons, Likudniks and March 14 fantasists were immediately set wagging about the folly–and even the treachery–of US plans to pick up where things had been abruptly left five years ago by sending an ambassador back to Damascus.

Yet this nominal engagement notwithstanding, there is little to show for the touted warming of relations. Washington has had no qualms about continuing its policy of containment and attempted isolation while sending only a modicum of signals that the Obama administration might embark on some diplomacy, that road less traveled.

Of course, neither the uproar about American "engagement" nor the actual lack thereof has come in a vacuum. While US rapprochement has come (and gone) according to an Israeli agenda, Syria’s ties with most regional powers have gradually regained a positive tone over the past few years.

This culminated in the resumption of collaboration on an array of issues with France. France had co-sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 1559 that precipitated the initial Franco-American opposition to Syria’s presence in Lebanon. But with the arrival of President Nicolas Sarkozy, Paris has changed course and returned to a more balanced Levantine policy.

Disconcerted by France and its masterful political demonstration that the road to bilateral cooperation is best reached through dialogue and mutual compromise, Syria’s detractors became determined to remain unaffected by such Cartesian logic. Luckily for them, the burden of proof does not seem to be a requirement to level accusations against the usual suspects, especially when dealing with the sacrosanct security of Israel at the expense of everything else.

It might have been dangerous to peddle yet again the notion of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East following the Iraq debacle, but there are instant advantages to announcing the sudden transportation of Scud missiles from Syria to Lebanon: they immediately evoke the Scuds launched from Iraq into Israel in 1991 during the liberation of Kuwait.

In addition to making such instant headlines and causing such ready connotations, Scuds are the perfect "provocation" for Israel to justify a state of belligerence it is barely hiding anyway. Israel feels it has unfinished business from four years ago in Lebanon and many Israeli officials are itching for a settling of the score. With the "appearance" of Scuds, the matter takes pole position once more.

The enormity of the propaganda leaves out the enormity of the Scuds themselves, too cumbersome to be a weapon of choice for the agile fighters of Hizballah and too huge to be missed by a simple application like Google Earth, let alone by 12,000 UNIFIL soldiers. And while Syria clearly feels no need to deny its logistic and political support for Hizballah, it can easily ridicule the Scud claim, so far-fetched does it seem.

Nevertheless, the Scud accusation has become a deafening chorus in Israel and the US. Officials in Washington have now started making statements of unprecedented gravity. Not only has Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unexpectedly claimed that, "President [Bashar] Assad is making decisions that could mean war or peace for the region," but President Barack Obama has described Syria’s actions as continuing to "pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States".

Even for two sides breaking up an engagement, that is an unusual and extraordinary statement and it does not bode well for the coming months. It is little wonder that many Syrians are having a hard time seeing the difference between the current "engagement" and the isolation that preceded it. Indeed, if this is engagement, what exactly was wrong with isolation? And who could have imagined that Syria was so strong and effective in relation to the US?

The Lebanese resistance will not be launching Scuds if attacked by Israel, but it certainly won’t be serving tea either. There is no doubt that Hizballah has rearmed and is readying to defend itself and its country from a likely Israeli assault that will be even more violent than the previous one and undoubtedly more arrogantly named.

For all its peace talk pretense, Israel has given none of its immediate neighbors any indication that it is serious about long term prospects for security and peace. On the contrary, the more time passes, the more Israel seems to be acting out, with slight adjustments, the recommendations it once received to achieve "a clean break to secure the realm". But without Turkey, for one, and with the new regional alliances, there will be no break, regardless of how many preemptions Israel makes while decrying provocations. So far, Syria has been neither contained nor weakened, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to roll back either.

The US has not acknowledged that fact and continues to coordinate policies with Israel that only damage its own interests and security–a point made by General David Petraeus in January. While the White House ignores voices of experience, if not of reason, Damascus will be welcoming the Russian president–a first for the Kremlin–and a succession of concerned world leaders, as it continues to prepare itself and its allies for the time when Israel avenges its own failures.