Both Sides of the Arms Race

December 8th, 2010

It’s not hard to imagine a conflict between Israel and Hezbollah quickly spiraling into a full-scale regional war.  Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, has already declared that his government would support the Shiite military organization if a new war broke out with Israel.  A recent paper authored by Jeffrey White and published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argues that if war were to come to Israel’s northern boarder it would be “transformational” and “fateful.”  White argues the participants would fight the war over extensive portions of Lebanon, Israel, and probably Syria, “featuring large military forces executing complex operations and resulting in substantial casualties.”

For obvious reasons the situation is combustible and extremely dangerous for all parties concerned.  Solutions to the problem are unclear, particularly given the complex politics and international dynamics involved.  But even if nothing else is evident, there is one obvious resolution.  Hezbollah must not acquire an arsenal of powerful weapons capable of securing more military power in the region and of intimidating Israel with the threat of extreme violent force.  Such a result would have devastating effects politically, and perhaps eventually, in lives.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Victor Bout, a former Soviet air force pilot nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” for his role in funneling weapons to terrorists, including the Taliban and Al Qaeda; trans-national criminals; and armed combatants locked in some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, including Angola, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.  While individuals like this play a dangerous role in arming conflicts worldwide, it is actually major governments which are most responsible for the global increases in stocks of weapons.

Israel has repeatedly claimed that Syria is supplying Hezbollah with arms, including Scud missiles, and a Kuwaiti newspaper, Al-Rai Al-Aam, has also reported these claims are true.  And now, thanks to WikiLeaks, we know that the U.S. Department of State also believes the allegations.  In February, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton wrote in a classified cable to Syria that read: “In our meetings last week it was stated that Syria is not transferring any ‘new’ missiles to Lebanese Hizballah.  We are aware, however, of current Syrian efforts to supply Hizballah with ballistic missiles. I must stress that this activity is of deep concern to my government, and we strongly caution you against such a serious escalation.”

According to a Pentagon official, “Hezbollah’s arsenal now includes up to 50,000 rockets and missiles, including some 40 to 50 Fateh-110 missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv and most of Israel, and 10 Scud-D missiles.”  While these statements make it apparent that much damage has already been done, the State Department has specifically noted a variety of ways to combat these illicit flows of arms, including confronting “foreign governments about shadowy front companies, secretive banks, and shippers around the globe.”  This is a productive approach.

But as I mentioned earlier, the largest suppliers of weapons worldwide are state actors and the United States and the rest of the G7 are not absolved of guilt.  In fact, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States, along with France, Germany, and Britain, is the largest supplier of weapons to the Middle East.  Just as it is important to reduce transnational arms dealing by individuals like Victor Bout and rouge nations like Syria and Iran, it is also destabilizing for G7 nations to contribute to arms races in the Middle East.  Actions by these countries are not automatically legitimate.  The arms trade must stop on both sides of the equation.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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