More than a year after Obama entered the White House, it is not clear what anyone has gained from the new conciliatory tone in U.S.-Syrian relations. If anyone knows of any substantive concession yet made by either side, please send me a note. Words matter...but they only go so far, especially in a context where words pour out from all quarters in a steady flood that mixes nice with nasty just the way real floods mix rain with mud. So what are we to make of the new story of Syrian Scuds being turned over to Hezbollah?
If Israel made this story up, then it is extremely serious for it would suggest Israel is looking for an excuse to start another war. But that is a very cynical interpretation for which I have no evidence, so enough about that.
If Syria in fact gave Scuds to Hezbollah or plans to give them or is trying to create the impression that it intends to give them, then the most obvious interpretation would seem to be that, amazingly, Damascus has figured out...that it is not clear it has gained anything from the new conciliatory tone in U.S.-Syrian relations. This statement rests on the assumption that what Syria really wants is a combination of national security and the return of the Golan Heights. On neither score is it getting anywhere.
Perhaps the enormous prestige of having a U.S. ambassador in residence and the possibility of various economic incentives that might flow from an improved bilateral tone are more important than security and territory, but land and security are normally pretty basic goals. By Occam's Razor, I'm going to stick with that assumption until presented with some persuasive evidence to the contrary. It flows from this logic that Damascus has decided that it needs to signal Washington that its core interests are not being served by a "new tone" in bilateral diplomacy. This isn't a romance; it is an effort to create a military balance in the Levant to replace the current Israeli dominion that sees Israel with not just an overwhelming military edge but also with the political ability to 1) decide what weapons its opponents may possess, 2) attack without being attacked in return, 3) overfly its opponents' territory without penalty, and 4) keep in perpetuity whatever it conquered in 1967.
The Scuds, balanced against Israeli weaponry, aren't much of a strategic military weapon, but they constitute a serious political statement. Washington should be interpreting the Scuds not as a threat but as a message. Lunch on the White House lawn is not Syria's goal; it's goal is redress of grievances.