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Alleged Weapons Transfer Threatens U.S. Mideast Efforts

Inter Press Service

Israeli President Shimon Peres recent accusation that Syria is arming Lebanon’s Hezbollah with long-range Scud missiles possibly altered the current political and military dynamics of the region and effected U.S. interests.

“Syria claims that it wants peace, while simultaneously delivering Scud missiles to Hezbollah, which is constantly threatening the security of the State of Israel,” Peres said in an interview with Israeli radio on Tuesday.

Recently, the U.S. has made a concerted effort to woo Syria away from its regional alliance with Iran and Hezbollah through renewed diplomatic engagement.

Syria issued a strongly worded denial of the allegations on, characterising them as an “attempt by Israel to raise tensions in the region”.

“Israel is seeking to create a climate that will pave the way for an eventual Israeli aggression to avoid responding to the requirements of a just and comprehensive peace,” said the statement, carried by the government-administered Syrian Arab News Agency.

Syria and Israel have remained technically at war for decades, although ceasefire agreements, numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions, the institution of a buffer zone and establishment of a U.N. peacekeeping mission have facilitated a cold truce between the two.

Both CBS News and the Wall Street Journal quoted unnamed U.S intelligence officials as confirming Peres’s claims, saying that Syria had in fact transferred Scuds to Hezbollah, but no further details were provided.

But State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters that U.S. officials could not verify Israel’s reports and “that we’ve raised the issue with the Syrian government and continue to study the issue. But obviously, it’s something of great concern to us.”

Though Israel has made similar claims since January, Peres’s comments come in the wake of a report by the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai, which cited sources within Hezbollah confirming receipt of the missiles from Syria. Officially, Hezbollah has remained ambiguous on the subject.

“What we have is not their business,” Minister Hussein Haj Hassan told Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV on Friday, according to the Associated Press. “It’s only natural for Lebanon to have the means to defend itself against an Israeli attack.”

Israel and Hezbollah fought a 34-day war in the summer of 2006, during which Hezbollah primarily used Katyusha rockets that had a limited range of 20-40 kms, leaving most of Israel’s largest population centres out of range.

However, all versions of the Scud missile – originally known as the R-11 when it was developed in the Soviet Union – have a range exceeding 150 kms, which would place Israel’s largest city of Tel Aviv within striking distance in any future conflict.

Israel’s allegations come as the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee moves to confirm Robert Ford, who was appointed by the Obama Barack administration as the U.S.’s first ambassador to Syria in five years.

Earlier this month, Senator John Kerry visited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. A major goal of Kerry’s visit was reportedly to make clear Washington’s longstanding concerns about Syria’s alleged efforts to arm Hezbollah.

Kerry, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, added in a statement upon his return from Syria that the U.S. and Syria shared “a mutual interest in having a very frank exchange on any differences that may exist, but also on the many, many agreements that we have about the possibilities of peace in this region.”

The U.S. has slowly taken steps towards normalising diplomatic relations with Syria, which were effectively broken off in 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, for which former President George W. Bush held Damascus responsible.

“If anything, we need (an ambassador) in Damascus full time just to ensure that reality gets its day in court now and then,” the Wall Street Journal quoted a senior administration official as saying.

But in February of this year, President Assad drew the ire of Washington when he hosted a dinner for both Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah.

Some analysts believe this can all be traced back to the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory conquered by Israel during the 1967 war. Many analysts believe that Syria will end its support for Hezbollah only as part of a peace deal for the disputed land.

“Syria says it will no longer have any reason to arm Hezbollah once it gets the Golan back and can sign a peace agreement with Israel,” wrote Syria analyst Joshua Landis Thursday on foreignpolicy.com’s the Middle East Channel.

“Syria understands that the reason Israel will not return the Golan Heights is because of the terrible imbalance in power between the two countries. So long as there is no peace, Syria will feel compelled to arm itself and its allies,” Landis added.

CBS News quoted an intelligence analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity as saying that if Syria was in fact transferring such advanced weapons to Hezbollah, “this would put pressure on Washington to move fast and bring Israel and Syria back to direct peace talks, frozen since 2000.”

Jordan’s King Abdullah II reportedly characterised another round of conflict between Israel and Hezbollah as “imminent” during a meeting of the Congressional Friends of Jordan Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Both Israel and Lebanon have repeatedly accused each other of violating U.N. Security Council resolution 1701, the resolution adopted in order to end the 2006 war.

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