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 Scud "D" missiles 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 officials called Scud missiles "game-changing" armaments that mark a new escalation. 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 Scuds built with either North Korean or Russian technology. Rumors had been swirling around Jerusalem and Washington for days, 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 Tuesday 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. Obama aides said these measures 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. But in recent months, Israeli and Syrian officials have publicly charged each other with preparing for war. Fears of a new military conflict in the region have risen.
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, and Israeli officials have publicly told Mr. Assad that they don't seek a conflict.
Israel bombed an alleged Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, but defense minister Ehud Barak told Israeli air force soldiers on Tuesday, "We have no plans to attack Lebanon, and we recommend and hope that everyone will preserve the quiet."
Syrian officials also have voiced frustration with the pace of the U.S. rapprochement. Some have said sanctions could be removed quicker. They also said Washington appeared unable to extract from Israel a meaningful commitment to negotiations to revert the Golan Heights region to Syrian sovereignty.
Meanwhile, U.S. efforts such as dispatching its No. 3 diplomat, William Burns, to Damascus seemed to spur further public defiance.
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.
The Iranian and Syrian leaders also joked publicly about U.S. calls for Syria to distance itself, with Mr. Assad saying comments by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must have been badly translated.
A spokesman for Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, who went to Damascus on April 1, said he couldn't comment on classified matters but that the Massachusetts senator raised long-running concerns about Syria helping to arm Hezbollah directly with Mr. Assad.(Continues here)