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Hezbollah and the Policy of "Scud Ambiguity"

“We do not confirm or deny if we have received weapons or not, so we do not comment and we will not comment. This is our position.”

– Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, on charges that the group has acquired long-range Scud missiles from Syria, 1 May 2010

The story first broke in mid-April when the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai Al-Aam reported that Syria recently transferred Scud missiles to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, having trained them in their use the past summer. Days later, when Israeli President Shimon Peres publicly accused Syria of supplying Hezbollah with the notoriously inaccurate rockets, media attention became widespread. The pretense for a “pre-emptive” Israeli strike on Lebanon had been nicely set.

The Syrian government, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (who has no particular affection for Syria or Hezbollah) and his country’s president, Michel Suleiman, all denied the allegations. Even Egypt’s foreign minister, whose regime had just sentenced 26 alleged Hezbollah operatives for purportedly planning attacks inside Egypt—from confessions extracted under torture no less—dismissed the accusations as “laughable.”

Although Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Clinton intimated that Lebanon was inviting an attack on itself, the Obama administration could not confirm Hezbollah was in possession of the Scuds. In fact, several weeks after the story in Al-Rai Al-Aam appeared, the source of the leaked suspicions was revealed: the United States.

According to American officials, hinting that Syria was providing Hezbollah with Scuds was done in order to “lay the groundwork for a proposal to the U.N. Security Council to put together a resolution on the deployment of U.N. forces along the Syrian-Lebanese border.”

Bint Jbeil MP Hassan Fadlallah of Hezbollah’s Loyalty to the Resistance parliamentary bloc came to a straightforward conclusion:

“The United States is asking us to accept Israel’s alleged superiority to ensure Israel remains capable of launching attacks at its will while we are stripped of the ability to face these aggressions. We have no interest in acceding to these attempts to concretize Israeli superiority.”

As for Nasrallah’s response, in an April 29 interview with Kuwait’s Rai TV he said, “We don’t speak through the media about the rockets we have or their details.”

It is understandable why the governments of Lebanon and Syria were so vocal in rejecting the Scud story. They want to stave off an Israeli attack—historically done under a flimsy (and often, manufactured) pretext. But why is Hezbollah being so deliberately elusive?

In essence, they are taking a page directly from the Israeli playbook; its longstanding policy of “nuclear ambiguity” has served it well.

Were Hezbollah to confirm the presence of Scud missiles (or any other technology for that matter), it would only invite condemnation and confirmation of floated suspicions, and justify belligerent action from its adversaries. Were they to deny possession, it would not only fail to placate their enemies, but might embolden thoughts of military action if believed. Thus, neither confirming nor denying the acquisition of new military equipment, in the eyes of Hezbollah, serves its interests best by keeping Israel guessing.

Does Hezbollah believe the U.S. and Israel will exploit the current situation to rationalize an attack? Nasrallah characterized their protestations as mere “noise” and “intimidation.” He is already capitalizing on the strategy of “Scud ambiguity” though, by reminding Israel of the disastrous consequences should it recklessly decide to initiate an assault on Lebanon:

“Do we have what is more or less sophisticated than a Scud missile — these are details I don’t want to speak about. If a war breaks out … we said we will attack their [Israeli] infrastructure. We are able to fulfill these promises.”

Israel would be wise to remember the 2007 admonition made by current Industry, Trade and Labor minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer: “We have to take Nasrallah seriously. He has never lied.”

RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri [at] yahoo [dot] com.

 

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Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on Middle East affairs.

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