Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Syria Gave Scuds to Hezbollah, U.S. Says
By CHARLES LEVINSON and JAY SOLOMON JERUSALEM—Syria has transferred long-range Scud missiles to the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, Israeli and U.S. officials alleged, in a move that threatens to alter the Middle East's military balance and sets back a major diplomatic outreach effort to Damascus by the Obama administration. Israeli President Shimon Peres on Tuesday publicly charged President Bashar Assad's government with transferring Scud missiles to Hezbollah's forces inside Lebanon. Syria and Hezbollah both denied the charges. But the allegations already are affecting U.S. foreign policy: Republicans pressed on Capitol Hill to block the appointment of a new American ambassador to Damascus, according to congressional officials. The White House said it was pressing ahead. The Scuds are believed to have a range of more than 435 miles—placing Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Israel's nuclear installations all within range of Hezbollah's military forces. During a monthlong war with Israel in 2006, Hezbollah used rockets with ranges of 20 to 60 miles. Israeli President Shimon Peres, shown in Paris Tuesday, claimed Syria gave Scud missiles to Hezbollah Israeli officials called Scud missiles "game-changing" armaments that mark a new escalation in the Mideast conflict. They alleged that Mr. Assad is increasingly linking Syria's military command with those of Hezbollah and Iran. Officials briefed on the intelligence said Israeli and American officials believe Syria transferred Scud missiles built with either North Korean or Russian technology. Rumors of the arms transfer had been swirling around Jerusalem and Washington for more than a week, but both Israeli and U.S. officials initially declined to confirm the reports. "Syria claims it wants peace while at the same time it delivers Scuds to Hezbollah, whose only goal is to threaten the state of Israel," Mr. Peres said in an interview with Israeli radio. President Barack Obama has made engaging Mr. Assad's government a cornerstone of his Mideast policy, hoping to woo Damascus into a regional peace process and lure it from a strategic alliance with Iran. The Bush administration had increased sanctions on Damascus and pushed a United Nations-backed investigation into the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri; Mr. Obama's aides said these measures just drove Syria closer to Iran. In addition to nominating an ambassador, Mr. Obama moved to ease, though not lift, sanctions targeting Syria's ability to import airplane parts and software. The U.S. has sought to increase military-to-military contacts with Damascus to better secure Syria's border with Iraq. A senior U.S. official involved in Mideast policy said Washington was uncertain why Mr. Assad would escalate tensions with Israel. But in recent months, Israeli and Syrian officials have publicly charged each other with preparing for war. The U.S. official said Syria's arms transfer could have been meant as a form of deterrence. The Israelis in recent weeks postponed war games in an effort to calm tensions with Damascus, however. And Israeli officials have publicly told Mr. Assad that the Jewish state doesn't seek a conflict. Many Israeli officials said they felt tensions were lessening ahead of the announcement of the alleged Scuds shipment. Syrian officials also have voiced frustration with the pace of the U.S. rapprochement. Some have said they believed sanctions could be removed quicker. They also said Washington appeared unable to extract from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a meaningful commitment to negotiations aimed at reverting the Golan Heights region to Syrian sovereignty. Fears of a new military conflict in the region have escalated in recent weeks among U.S., Israeli and Arab officials. In late February, Mr. Assad hosted a summit in Damascus with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. The three pledged to continue their "resistance" against the U.S.-Israeli alliance. A spokesman for Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, who went as an emissary to Damascus on April 1, said that he couldn't comment on classified matters but that the Massachusetts senator had raised long-running concerns about Syria helping to arm Hezbollah directly with President Assad. "These weapons transfers must stop in order to promote regional stability and security," said the spokesman, Frederick Jones. Detractors of the White House's policy of engagement with Damascus seized on the news Tuesday as evidence Mr. Assad has no intention of breaking Syria's strategic ties to Tehran and Hezbollah. View Full Image Agence France-Presse/Getty Images Scuds give the group the ability to strike from further away than rockets like these used in 2006 attacks. "It's increasingly hard to argue that the engagement track has worked," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a regional think tank with no party affiliation that some view as pro-Israel. White House supporters replied that the U.S. needs close engagement with Syria all the more because of provocations like the Scud surprise, in order to be better placed to sway Syria. "If anything, we need (an ambassador) in Damascus full time just to ensure that reality gets its day in court now and then," a senior administration official said. Israeli officials have been concerned that Syria could transfer antiaircraft missile systems and armor-piercing munitions to its Lebanese ally. AFP/Getty Images Syrian President Bashar Assad's government has transferred long-range Scud missiles to the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah. Hezbollah officials Tuesday in Lebanon dismissed the allegations as an Israeli attempt to divert attention from continued Jewish construction of homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Syrian embassy's spokesman in Washington charged Israel with trying to cover up its own regional military buildup. "It is ridiculous that Israel dictates the agenda of arms control in the region while stifling any discussion of its nuclear arsenal, along with the influx of top-caliber U.S. weaponry," said Ahmed Salkini. In February, President Obama nominated a career diplomat, Robert Ford, to be the first U.S. ambassador to Damascus since 2005. The Bush administration pulled its chief envoy after the assassination of Lebanon's Mr. Hariri, which was widely blamed on Syrian agents. Damascus has denied the allegations. Mr. Ford's appointment was part of a phased U.S. re-engagement with Syria to be tied to Damascus's cooperation in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, say U.S. officials. The State Department also recently dispatched its No. 3 diplomat, William Burns, to Damascus to talk with Mr. Assad. Congressional officials said Republicans were now seeking to place a hold on Mr. Ford's confirmation, which was passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a voice vote Tuesday with three Republicans dissenting. They expect the fight to continue on the Senate floor. U.S. officials stressed Tuesday that the White House wasn't second-guessing its strategy and was pushing ahead with Mr. Ford's nomination. "Sending an ambassador to Syria who can press the Syrian government in a firm and coordinated fashion...is part of our strategy to achieve comprehensive peace in the region," a White House statement said.