News / Middle East

Syria Again Sanctioned for Role in Middle East

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad is playing a more prominent role in the Middle East, buttressed by his alliance with Iran and links to Lebanon's militant group, Hezbollah.  Syria's recent stances have put the country at odds with its moderate Arab neighbors and prompted the United States to renew sanctions against Damascus.

The United States' decision to renew sanctions against Syria follows recent reports alleging Damascus has supplied Lebanon's militant group, Hezbollah, with long-range SCUD missiles.

The United States has not confirmed the SCUD missiles claim, but recently accused Syria of arming Hezbollah militants with sophisticated missiles and rockets.  The U.S. State Department considers Hezbollah a terrorist group.

In a letter to Congress, President Barack Obama said the United States is renewing sanctions against Syria for continuing to support terrorist organizations and pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs.

Syria President Bashar al-Asad continues to maintain strong ties with Iran, even as the international community considers new U.N. sanctions against Tehran for conducting sensitive nuclear work.

Mr. Asad has also taken a tough stance during recent Arab summits on the Middle East peace process.  President Asad has also encouraged Hezbollah and the Palestinian militant group Hamas to pursue what he calls "legitimate resistance against Israel."

Peter Harling of the Crisis Group in Damascus says the rhetoric signals the level of instability in the region.

"This revolving talk of war today in Lebanon, tomorrow in Gaza, the day after in Iran and back to Lebanon and so on and so forth just says a lot about the state of the region," he said.  "All key issues remain unsolved and the region as a whole is very unsettled. I think that the potential belligerents are preparing for a confrontation that they would like to avoid, but which they see as probable."

University of Oklahoma Political Science Professor Joshua Landis writes the popular blog "Syria Comment."   Landis believes Damascus has made it clear it will pursue a path of "resistance" against Israel if the Jewish state does not return the occupied Golan Heights.

"If Israel wants to keep [the Golan] and no one is willing to make it give it up, that means war, unless Syria is prepared to give it up, and Syria has said that it is not prepared to give it up and it will resist," he said.  "That means, if I were Syria, you have to build up the military readiness of your allies, and missile technology is the best way to do that."

Editor Alex Vatanka of Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst argues Syria and Iran have started to use more aggressive language, demonstrating their confidence their strategic position in relation to Israel is improving.

"What I detect in recent months is a shift from what you could have called the sort of defensive mode to an offensive approach to dealing with issues like we have had with the SCUD missiles," he said. "We have gone from first denial by the Syrians and Hezbollah to [Hezbollah leader] Nasrallah and others saying 'so what if we have received missiles, not only do we want missiles, but we want the best arsenals we can have to defend ourselves against Israel."

Vatanka believes the more aggressive rhetoric coming out of Syria is linked to Iran's more aggressive rhetoric against world powers working to limit Tehran's nuclear activities.

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