Syrian Muscle Flexing

While most Arab nations remain preoccupied by internal uprisings, Syria focuses on expanding its power with an assist from Iran.

When Syria recently rejected efforts by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect a nuclear facility near al-Kibar in eastern Syria, it was the latest of a series of provocations by Syria, aided by Iran, designed to exert its regional influence amid the ongoing unrest in the Middle East.

The al-Kibar nuclear reactor, built with North Korean assistance, was believed to be nearly operational before it was bombed and destroyed by the Israeli air force in September 2007. Although the Syrians have denied it was a nuclear installation, it has prevented inspection of the al-Kibar facility since 2008 after the IAEA found traces of possessed uranium at the site.

Now, concerns exist that the al-Kibar reactor has been rebuilt and is more advanced than ever.  According to a report released by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), satellite images show Syria has built three nuclear facilities in addition to the one destroyed near al-Kibar Those three storage installations near Marj as-Sultan, 15 miles east of Damascus, were confirmed to have equipment in line with “what would be expected in a small uranium conversion facility”

While not directly addressing the ISIS findings, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu preferred to take a more diplomatic route when he said, “I want to make it clear that if Syria strives for peace, it will find a loyal partner in Israel.”

However, Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs, Moshe Ya’alon, was not as hesitant to avoid the real issue. Accusing Syrian President Bashar Assad as a man possessed with “negative intentions,” he pointedly warned: “I hope Assad will not challenge us with provocations of this kind.”

Yet, if anything, Syria seems extremely intent on provoking Israel. Days before the ISIS report was released, two Iranian warships, both armed with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles, crossed through the Suez Canal and headed to the Syrian port of Latakia, marking the first time Iranian warships had crossed the Suez Canal since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Shortly after the ships docked at Latakia, Syria and Iran agreed to participate in joint naval training exercises.

On the same day the naval agreement was announced, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said Russia would fulfill a contractual agreement signed in 2007 and supply Syria with cruise missiles, despite the objections of both Israel and the United States.
Publicly, the appearance of the Iranian warships in Syria was downplayed by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak who said “I don't like it, but I don't think that any one of us should be worried by it.” That view was echoed by Moshe Ya’alon: “It certainly does not bode well, but these two ships are not an immediate threat against us.

However, those sentiments were contrasted by one Israeli official who called the move “an Iranian provocation,” adding “When you look at the Middle East, wherever the Iranians weigh in, the situation is never good.” As if to prove his point, the Israelis placed their navy on high alert.

Moreover, others, like Israel's top Iran expert, Menashe Amir, stressed that Iran's long-term plan is to establish a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean. With Iran already in possession of over 300 Shahab missiles that can reach any part of Israel from Iran, the deployment of some of those missiles on the two Iranian warships would not only pose a lethal threat to Israel but to all of Europe.

For Syria, its confidence to ratchet up such an aggressive agenda with its Shiite partner Iran can be traced to the fact that it has in recent months been able to be rewarded for its past and present terrorist actions.

In December 2010 President Obama appointed the first US ambassador to Syria since 2005. That ambassadorial post had gone unfilled since the Bush administration recalled the US ambassador in protest for what it said was Syrian involvement in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005.

Less than a month later, the Syrian-backed Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah forced the collapse of Lebanon’s unity government in an attempt to thwart a UN tribunal report that was prepared to implicate members of Hezbollah in al Hariri’s murder. 14

Adding further fuel to Syrian confidence is Assad’s belief that his country is immune to the current unrest sweeping the Arab world and, as such, he will not suffer the same fate as former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali Zine and former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. While some may argue that viewpoint, there are several factors that make the case.

For starters--unlike the leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Jordan--Assad is viewed by Syrians as an uncompromising opponent of both the United States and Israel. His backing of the Palestinian and Lebanese terrorist groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as his continued challenge of Israel's occupation of Syria's strategic Golan Heights, allow him to maintain a level of popular support.

As explained in an editorial in Syria’s government-controlled press, the current troubles in the Arab world stem from “the complete acquiescence of some (Arab) regimes to the U.S. and their acceptance to take Zionist dictates.”

Since 2000 Assad has also enacted in Syria some of the economic reforms being clamored for by Arabs in the ongoing Mideast rebellions, specifically moving Syria away from Soviet-style economic restrictions by letting in foreign banks, allowing imports and empowering the private sector.

Of course, it also helps that Assad has another, unmentioned asset to keep power: a brutally harsh regime that routinely draws outcries from international human rights groups. Throughout his thirty-year reign Assad has been ruthless in putting down opposition uprisings, best illustrated in 1982 when he quelled a rebellion by razing the Syrian town of Hama and butchering its 40,000 citizens.

Still, despite Assad’s public bravado, he is taking few chances to test his regime’s durability in today’s political climate. For example, after allowing two small, peaceful demonstrations to be held in Damascus, he had the next demonstration quickly and violently dispersed by police.

Those clashes were followed by increasing reports of intimidation and the blocking of communications by agents of the Mukhabarat, Syria’s intelligence services. Fearful that its citizens would use the internet to exchange information and potentially organize protests, Syrian authorities placed further restrictions on the internet by banning programs that allow access to Facebook and other messaging programs. Official explanations of the ban said it was to prevent Israel from “penetrating Syrian youth.”

Of course, Syria’s current bravado has a potential downside. Israel, which has never been reluctant to forcefully protect its interests, finds itself in the most threatening situation in its history. As it looks out at the current political landscape it sees its peaceful relationships with Egypt and Jordan in jeopardy; Hezbollah in control of Lebanon; Hamas emboldened; and Iran undeterred in its quest for nuclear weapons.

So, when Hamas recently fired rockets into the Israeli city of Beersheba and was met by a fierce Israeli response, Benjamin Netanyahu said: “I don't advise anyone to test Israel's determination.” Or as Moshe Ya’alon put it: “I hope they won't put our capabilities to the test.”

While their words were directed at Hamas, both men may have been just as easily talking to Syria and cautioning them about the inherent risks of its current forays. Unfortunately, for now, it seems a gamble Syria is willing to take.

Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank's work at his blog,