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Viewing cable 09DAMASCUS804, IS NOW THE TIME TO RAISE HIZBALLAH WITH SYRIA?

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
09DAMASCUS804 2009-11-19 09:09 2010-12-06 21:09 SECRET//NOFORN Embassy Damascus
VZCZCXRO2489
OO RUEHROV
DE RUEHDM #0804/01 3230900
ZNY SSSSS ZZH
O 190900Z NOV 09
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 7038
INFO RUEHXK/ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHAK/AMEMBASSY ANKARA PRIORITY 5866
RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON PRIORITY 0787
RUEHMO/AMEMBASSY MOSCOW PRIORITY 0861
RUEHFR/AMEMBASSY PARIS PRIORITY 0744
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK PRIORITY 0759
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHMFISS/HQ USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL PRIORITY
RUEKJCS/JOINT STAFF WASHDC PRIORITY
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY
RUMICEA/USCENTCOM INTEL CEN MACDILL AFB FL PRIORITY
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 03 DAMASCUS 000804

NOFORN
SIPDIS

DEPARTMENT FOR NEA/FO, NEA/ELA, S/CT
NSC FOR SHAPIRO/MCDERMOTT
PARIS FOR NOBLES
LONDON FOR LORD

E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/07/2029
TAGS: PTER PREL LE IZ IS SY
SUBJECT: IS NOW THE TIME TO RAISE HIZBALLAH WITH SYRIA?

Classified By: CDA Charles Hunter, Reasons 1.4 b and d.

1.  (S/NF) Summary: Syria's determined support of Hizballah's
military build-up, particularly the steady supply of
longer-range rockets and the introduction of guided missiles,
could change the military balance and produce a scenario
significantly more destructive than the July-August 2006 war.
If rockets were to rain down on Israeli civilians in Tel
Aviv, Israel would still have powerful incentives, as it did
in 2006, to keep Syria out of the conflict, but it might also
face compelling reasons for targeting Hizballah facilities in
Syria, some of which are in and around populated areas.
Syria's current strategic mindset appears to assume Syria
could avoid involvement in a new conflict, based largely on
its 2006 experience.  Syrian leaders also appear convinced
that arming Hizballah will increase Syria's leverage in
bringing Israel to the negotiating table.  As Washington
weighs how to approach Syrian officials in upcoming
engagement efforts, discussing Hizballah from the perspective
of the regional strategic landscape may help to facilitate a
"big picture" conversation in which we could challenge these
assumptions and focus Damascus on the importance of taking
cooperative steps with the U.S. now.  Though raising this
subject could well distract from a cooperative approach that
shows signs  of progress after months of investment, we
believe sounding a warning, probably in a one-one-on meeting
with President Asad, would be worth considering in pursuit of
a broader, more strategic dialogue. End Summary.

----------------------------------
Is the Strategic Balance Changing?
----------------------------------

2.  (S/NF) Syria's determined efforts to re-arm Hizballah
during and after the July-August 2006 war between Israel and
Hizballah have consistently grabbed Israeli headlines, most
recently with Israeli Chief of Staff Ashkenazi's November 10
revelation that Hizballah possessed 320-kilometer range
rockets.  Jane's Defense Weekly reported October 28 on
Hizballah's deployment of the first guided surface-to-surface
M600 missile on Lebanese soil, with a range of 250 kilometers
and circular error probability of 500 meters.  Public
estimates put Hizballah's stockpile as high as 40,000 rockets
and missiles, reinforcing assessments by some experts that
this build-up may portend a shift in the military balance
between Israel and its northern nemesis.  Hizballah SecGen
Nasrallah's recent claims of possessing a capability to
"destroy" the IDF may overstate the case for domestic and
regional propaganda purposes, but reporting in other channels
confirms Nasrallah's bragging on November 11 that Hizballah
can sustain fire on Tel Aviv and reach "all of Israel."  This
capability, if fully used, would represent a quantum leap
over the damage and psychological terror Hizballah rockets
caused in northern Israel during the 2006 war.

3.  (S/NF)  There is overwhelming evidence that shows Syria
provided not just logistical and other support in moving the
weapons, but was the main source of the weapons.  Syria's
integration of Hizballah into its military doctrine,
moreover, means that Hizballah operatives and facilities
enjoy a growing footprint in Syria.

4.  (S/NF) At least two potential consequences flow from
Hizballah's increased capabilities and Syria's role in
creating them:  (1)  If there is another war between
Hizballah and Israel, it will be far deadlier than the 2006
conflict; (2) as in 2006, there would be compelling reasons
for Israel to want to keep Syria out of any future war if
possible, but there might be a countervailing need to hit
Hizballah and perhaps targets in Syria, some of which are
located in populated areas.

---------------------------------
Agreeing to Disagree on Hizballah
----------------------------------

DAMASCUS 00000804  002 OF 003

5.  (S/NF)  U.S.-Syrian discussions on Hizballah have tended
to "agree to disagree" after hitting the wall of conflicting
views on the legitimacy of armed resistance and Israeli
occupation.  Syrian officials, including President Asad,
emphasize their political link to Hizballah and flatly deny
that Syria is arming Hizballah.  They then defend the right
to armed resistance in response to prolonged Israeli
occupation of Syrian and Lebanese territory.  When
convenient, Syrian officials claim they no longer have
responsibility for Hizballah, noting "we are out of Lebanon."
President Asad and FM Muallim have also suggested that the
challenge of disarming Hizballah would be solved after Syria
and Israel signed a peace treaty.  This agreement would lead
naturally to a deal between Lebanon and Israel, thereby
removing the rationale for Hizballah's resistance movement
and setting the stage for the transition of Hizballah to a
purely political party.

6.  (S/NF)  The Syrian government's strategic view of
relations with Hizballah is difficult to assess with high
confidence.  According to various contacts, President Asad
appears to be focused on the possibility of a new conflict
between Israel and Syria, but many suggest he believes that
the red lines of the 2006 war would be preserved.  According
to this model, Syria could avoid direct involvement as long
as Israel refrained from striking targets on Syrian soil.
Syria also seems to be hedging its bets through improved
relations with Turkey, France, and Saudi Arabia, which,
Syrian officials probably hope, would object to Israeli
attacks against Lebanon and/or Syria.

7.  (S/NF) Asad nonetheless appears more convinced than ever
that arming Hizballah is necessary for Syrian security and
perhaps as a stick to bring the current Israeli government
back to negotiations on the return of the Golan.  Syrians
remain resistant to the notion that Syria bears
responsibility for managing a potentially explosive situation
that could draw Damascus into a war neither sought nor
winnable.  They have ably deployed a force field of cognitive
dissonance to resist arguments linking Syria's arming of
Hizballah and the future prospects of Syrian-Israel peace
negotiations.  Israel, they insist, remains the problem, and
only a more active U.S. role can bring and sustain a
resolution.  According to the prevailing Syrian view,
however, U.S.-Syrian relations must normalize before the U.S.
can play the role of a credible honest broker.

----------------------------------------
The Cooperative Approach Shows Potential
----------------------------------------

8.  (S/NF)  As the interagency continues to plot future plans
to engage Syrian officials and thinks about how to recruit
other countries to support our efforts, we face a choice not
only about the level of our engagement, but about the
approach itself.  Up to now, U.S. efforts have largely
focused on developing a cooperative relationship on issues of
mutual interest, such as Iraq and U.S. sanctions.  Our four
month pursuit of military-to-military cooperation on Iraqi
border security represented, in effect, a first step toward
establishing a broader and higher-level dialogue on Iraqi
security issues, including Syrian support of foreign
fighters.  After the August 19 bombings Baghdad rendered
implementation of this initiative impracticable, discussions
in late-September shifted toward a possible CT dialogue.
This new focus provides an alternative mechanism to continue
discussions on Iraqi security issues such as foreign
fighters.  Syrian officials appear willing to go along with
this approach, as long as the emphasis is on building
bilateral relations first.  After months of investment, our
engagement efforts are close to enabling both sides to
exchange positive gestures.  This cooperation should help to
the stage for more focused discussions on a broad range of
issues and strategic choices about the future direction of

DAMASCUS 00000804  003 OF 003

the relationship.

9.  (S/NF)  During this process, U.S. officials have
carefully placed markers on key issues, including human
rights, IAEA compliance, Bank Aman, Lebanon (e.g., border
demarcation), and Palestinians (pushing Hamas to accept the
Quartet principles), and the new embassy compound.  We have
addressed these issues mainly in discussions with Vice
Foreign Minister Miqdad and the Syrian Embassy in Washington
(with less dialogue between Embassy Damascus and the Syrian
MFA).  Our view is that the cooperative approach will have
more chance of success if we continue to use these channels
to deal with such issues, until the relationship can sustain
discussion at higher levels that will yield a higher
probability of favorable progress.

10.  (S/NF)  Against this backdrop, sending U.S. officials to
focus on Syrian relations with Hizballah could distract
significantly from our efforts to build a cooperative
foothold.  There is unlikely to be common ground or any
breakthroughs, and a new focus on Hizballah-related issues
could further set back our efforts to re-energize the
engagement process, not least by spurring the Syrians to
demand a reciprocal change in U.S. behavior, e.g., lifting
sanctions.  Focusing our higher political-level discussions
on the issue of foreign fighters provides a more familiar
subject with a higher chance for initial progress.

--------------------------------------------- --
But Hizballah's Arsenal Poses Urgent Challenges
--------------------------------------------- --

11.  (S/NF)  While the near-term chances for a successful
dialogue on Syria's strategic relationship with Hizballah are
much lower, the stakes -- the possibility of a regional
conflict and significant obstacles to achieving comprehensive
peace -- are just as, if not more, urgent.  Sharing our
concerns about the dangers of Syria's arming of Hizballah,
probably best done privately in a one-on-one session with
President Asad, could serve to establish the basis of a more
frank exchange about Syria's role, and enable us to challenge
potentially dangerous Syrian assumptions as part of a wider
strategic dialogue.  Recent revelations about Syria's role in
weapons shipments create some urgency in turning Syrian
attention toward ending these supplies and restraining
Hizballah from making good on its provocative rhetoric.

12.  (S/NF) We don't expect these points immediately to
change Syrian behavior or its relations with Hizballah, but
we believe sounding this warning would put President Asad and
others (such as Turkey and France) on notice that Syria's
actions have created a situation in which miscalculation or
provocative behavior by Hizballah could prove disastrous for
Syria and the broader region.  This message could likewise
underscore our belief that Syria needs to demonstrate a more
active role in achieving peace with Israel and better
relations with the United States.  Even if a war between
Israel and Hizballah does not materialize in the immediate
future, we should try find a way to use our ongoing
cooperative engagement with Syrian officials to help them
recognize their overriding interest and responsibility in
preventing this unappealing scenario altogether.

HUNTER