By Glenn Kessler and Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; A08
Israeli President Shimon Peres on Tuesday accused Syria of transferring long-range Scud missiles to the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, appearing to confirm rumors that have swirled in the region in recent weeks. Syria denied the charge, calling it a bid by Israel to divert attention from its policies in the Palestinian territories.
A transfer of Scud missiles, which have a range of 430 miles, would sharply shift the military balance in the region. Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006, has been able to strike cities and towns in northern Israel only with short-range missiles, but Scuds would allow it to attack Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Reports of the transfer have also begun to complicate the Obama administration's plans to appoint an ambassador to Damascus, Syria, for the first time in five years.
"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 told Israel Radio before leaving for meetings in France. He repeated the allegation in a meeting with French Prime Minister François Fillon, saying: "Syria is playing a double game. On the one hand it talks peace, yet at the same time it hands over accurate Scud missiles to Hezbollah so that it can threaten Israel."
U.S. officials acknowledge they are worried about weapons transfers from Syria to Lebanon but say they do not have a clear picture of what has actually taken place.
"We are increasingly concerned about the sophistication of the weaponry being transferred and have continued to reiterate our strong concerns to the Syrian and Lebanese authorities and made clear they need to be taking steps that reduce the risk and danger of conflict, not steps that increase it," said National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer.
Asked whether U.S. intelligence agencies think Scud missiles have been moved into Lebanon, a U.S. official briefed on the matter said, "I don't think we know whether they've gone over or not." But he said that "there has been significant concern in the intelligence community" that Syria had provided missiles to Hezbollah or was poised to do so.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Lebanon and Syria two weeks ago and raised the issue of weapons transfers with President Bashar al-Assad. Kerry spokesman Frederick Jones said that the specifics of what the senator learned before he left for Syria were classified but that Kerry "recognizes that the flow of weapons to Hezbollah raises very legitimate concerns in Israel and with all parties seeking peace in the region."
The Foreign Relations Committee approved on a voice vote Tuesday the nomination of Robert Ford as the new ambassador, but three GOP senators noted their objection and congressional aides said a floor vote may face delays unless the administration can provide answers on the Israeli allegations.
Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha denounced the reports as a "ridiculous story" created by Israel and its allies to spoil the possibility of a rapprochement with the United States. He said no U.S. official has raised the issue with him.