Israel Says Syria Gave Missiles to Hezbollah

The New York Times (Link) - Ethan Bronner (April 14, 2010)

Israeli officials say that Syria has delivered accurate long-distance Scud missiles to the Lebanese group Hezbollah, placing cities deep in Israel�s heartland, including Tel Aviv, within range.

The officials added that the delivery of the missiles � strongly denied by Syria and yet to be confirmed by sources outside of Israel � would change the strategic balance in the area and increase the risk of war.

The issue was raised by President Shimon Peres, who during a visit to Paris told journalists earlier this week, �Syria claims that it wants peace, while simultaneously delivering Scud missiles to Hezbollah, which is constantly threatening the security of the State of Israel.� He added, after meeting with the French prime minister, Fran�ois Fillon, that Syria was playing �a double game.� Mr. Fillon, who was recently in the Syrian capital, Damascus, had told Mr. Peres that the government of President Bashar al-Assad wanted peace with Israel.

Mr. Peres did not specify which type of Scud missiles had been delivered. However, aides accompanying him and officials in Jerusalem said that the missiles in question were of a ballistic nature normally used only by state armies. One official said they were Scud D�s, the most accurate and long range.

�This creates a new situation,� another Israeli official said, insisting on anonymity because there were continuing diplomatic efforts to deal with the concern. �These are more accurate and far more dangerous.�

American and French officials have both said that they were aware of the Israeli concerns but did not know whether the missiles had actually been delivered. �If such an action has been taken, and we continue to analyze this issue,� the State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said on Wednesday, �clearly it potentially puts Lebanon at significant risk.�

Israel has long charged that Syria permitted and facilitated the arming of Hezbollah, which would make Lebanon a theater for clashes between Israel and Syria or Hezbollah.

Other Israeli officials speaking publicly have made somewhat more veiled charges than did Mr. Peres, indicating a concern over the possibility of new weapons deliveries.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Tuesday, for example, that Israel had no aggressive intentions toward Lebanon. But he noted that Hezbollah continued to build up its weapons supply, and that �introducing systems which change the strategic balance endangers the stability and calm here.� He did not say whether the systems had been introduced.

Israel fought a monthlong war against Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, in which the Shiite militia fired hundreds of mostly short-range rockets at Israel�s north. Since then, Israeli military officials have repeatedly said that Hezbollah is building up a far larger and more lethal arsenal, storing up to 40,000 rockets in underground bunkers in southern Lebanon.

Israeli officials have often said that the arsenal includes small numbers of both medium- and longer-range rockets. But this appears to be the first time that they have gone public with their concern over Scud missiles.

In Washington, word of the possible transfer of such weapons may slow Senate confirmation of Robert Ford as the next ambassador to Syria. The United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in 2005 after the assassination in Lebanon of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which was said by many to be the work of Syrian or Syrian-backed agents.

Some Republican senators have indicated that they may delay the sending of Mr. Ford if the Scuds are shown to have been transferred.

In a news analysis in Wednesday�s left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, two military writers, Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, speculated that the Syrians were making the missile transfer because while they might want to trade the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights for peace, �they do not sense that there is a genuine Israeli partner with whom they can reach agreement.�

�Thus they prefer to bolster deterrence,� they wrote, �which will prevent Israel from once again striking their territory, as it did in September 2007.�

Israel struck what many believe was a nascent nuclear reactor in Syria then.

Hezbollah is heavily supported by Iran, which Israel and Washington fear is developing a nuclear weapon. Israeli analysts say that the Hezbollah arsenal may be there largely to serve as potential retaliation should Israel attack Iran�s nuclear facilities.