Syria has taken another backward step to distance itself from a relationship with the United States.
This was implicit in Damascus' response to an American warning, reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly 435 of March 5 in an article captioned Assad Warned of Retribution for Mocking America.
The US warning was conveyed to Syrian ambassador Imad Moustapha when US Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman and the head of the Pentagon's Syrian desk, Jasmine Gamal, summoned him for an interview earlier this month.
The Syrian response from the presidential palace in Damascus was delivered this week through a third party, pointedly evading open or even backdoor Syrian-American diplomatic channels. It was delivered to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's bureau, so reverting to the aloof pattern which marked Damascus' ties with the Bush administration.
Our sources report the Syrian reply came in two parts:
The first addressed the American query about the transfer of weapons to the Lebanese Hizballah from Syrian army depots, which Under-Secretary of State William Burns put to Bashar Assad when they met in Damascus on February 17.
The Syrians said they did not intend supplying any more advanced air defense weaponry to Hizballah, after Russian-made IGLA 9K338 shoulder-mounted missiles had been delivered (as reported exclusively by debkafile on March 3).
While aware that this weapon is capable of intercepting drones, helicopters and missiles, including cruise missiles, as well as Israeli F-16 planes, Damascus stressed that because they are shoulder-mounted and not battery-fueled, they do not upset the balance of strength between Israel, Syria, and Lebanon.
Syrian missiles still flow to Hizballah, excepting only Gecko anti-aircraft batteries
Syria went on to assure the US administration that it would not let Hizballah have the Russian-made SA-8 Gecko anti-aircraft missile batteries, the only mobile air defense missile system that incorporates its own engagement radars on a single vehicle.
Our military sources have reported repeatedly that the Gecko missiles are standing near the Syrian-Lebanese border, dismantled and crated ready for transport to the Hizballah for some months. Two Hizballah battalions have even been trained in Syria to operate them. However, Israel has warned Damascus via Washington that their handover to Hizballah would spur Israel to destroy them and also strike Syrian military targets near Damascus. Syria's promise to keep them out of the hands of the Lebanese Shiite extremists indicates that Israel's warning was heeded.
However, the Syrian message deals exclusively with the consignment of air-defense systems to Hizballah, and dodges the issue of middle-range ground missiles currently flowing in large quantities from Syria into Lebanon in violation of UN resolutions.
The latter part of the Syrian message is shorter and deals with the Assad regime's relations with Iran.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources report that, for the first time, Damascus has told the Obama administration in the bluntest terms that it has no intention of cutting off or even downgrading its close bonds with Tehran.
This response denies the Obama administration one of the key objectives of its Middle East diplomacy.
The Syrians emphasize their alliance with Iran is not an ideological one, but a strategic bond dictated by political and military circumstances in the Middle East. When the region no longer needs Arab “Makawama” (resistance) to Israel, the Damascus-Tehran partnership will naturally fade – so they say.
In other words, the Arab-Palestinian conflict with Israel is the mainspring of Syria's friendship with Tehran and cause of America's troubles in the region.
This oft-used ploy lobs the disputed relationship back into the American court and puts the onus for addressing the root-causes of Middle East extremism squarely on the United States and Israel.