Mideast Tensions Rise Over New Missile Claims

By Patrick Goodenough | April 16, 2010 | 4:49 AM EDT

The Obama administration is seeking better ties with Syrian President Bashar Assad, seen here with visiting U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell in Damascus on July 26, 2009. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)

(CNSNews.com) – Allegations that Syria is providing Lebanon’s Hezbollah with Scud missiles capable of hitting targets far inside Israeli territory are prompting warnings of new conflict in the volatile region.
Syria’s foreign ministry Thursday denied the claims – which originated in Arab media and cited U.S. intelligence sources – accusing Israel of using them “to further strain the atmosphere in the region.”
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called for calm from all sides, but warned that the introduction of weapons “that disturb the balance” would endanger stability. Earlier, Israeli President Shimon Peres accused Syria of providing Scuds to the Shi’ite militia, even while claiming to want peace with Israel.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said that, if true, the alleged action “potentially puts Lebanon at significant risk,” a statement that appeared to acknowledge the possibility of retaliatory Israel military action.
He said the administration had been concerned enough about the issue to raise it during a regular meeting with the Syrian ambassador in Washington in recent weeks.
The foreign ministry of France, another Western country closely involved in Lebanon, called the reports “alarming,” and like Crowley cited U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701. The measure adopted in 2006 imposes an embargo on arms transfers to Lebanon, except for those authorized by the government or U.N. peacekeepers. It also requires “the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon, so that … there will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese state.”
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah boasted last year that his group had rockets that could hit any city or town in Israel. Two months ago, he said if Israel attacked an airport, port or oil refinery in Lebanon, Hezbollah would attack an airport, port or oil refinery in Israel.
During a month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, the Lebanese group fired several thousand shorter-range rockets into Israel, with the longest strike hitting a city some 50 miles south of the border. Most of Israel’s population centers lie well within 100 miles of the Lebanese border.
Hezbollah has never publicly confirmed possessing Scuds. Originally designed by the Soviet Union, variants of the surface-to-surface missiles – which vary in range and accuracy – have been deployed by numerous countries in the Middle East and beyond.
According to unclassified CIA reports to Congress over a number of years, Syria has accumulated one of the largest ballistic missile arsenals in the Middle East, with North Korean and Iranian help. Damascus reportedly obtained its first Scuds from North Korea in the 1990s.
The subject of Hezbollah’s weapons remains one of the most sensitive in Lebanon today. An ongoing “national dialogue” between members of the Western-backed majority in parliament and the Hezbollah-led minority is meant to be hammering out defense policy, but Hezbollah and its allies are refusing to discuss the militia’s disarmament, even threatening to withdraw from the talks over the issue.
Michel Aoun, a former army chief and political faction leader now allied to Hezbollah told the an Nahar newspaper on Thursday that Lebanon’s army alone was not capable of defending the country against Israeli aggression, implying that there was no alternative but to depend on Hezbollah’s weapons.
For its part, the Syrian government has rejected out of hand appeals by the Obama administration, which is in the process of restoring diplomatic ties with Damascus, to play a more constructive regional role by ending its decades-long alliance with both Hezbollah and Hezbollah’s main patron, Iran.
President Bashir Assad responded to Washington’s request earlier this year with defiance, hosting a three-way solidarity meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday approved the nomination of Robert Ford as Washington’s new ambassador to Syria, almost two weeks after committee chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) met with Assad in Damascus.
Ford, a veteran diplomat, told the committee at his earlier nomination hearing that as ambassador he would deliver “straight talk” to the Syrians over issues of U.S. concern, including Syria’s shipment of weapons to Hezbollah.
“It is destabilizing if Hezbollah has rockets that can hit farther into Israel,” he told the panel. “It complicates everyone’s calculations and raises the risk of miscalculations and the risk of conflict.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow