The Lebanese government on Tuesday angrily denounced Israeli claims that Syria has supplied Hezbollah militia with Scud ballistic missiles, comparing it with the misinformation about weapons of mass destruction in the lead up to the Iraq war.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was speaking after the US state department gave credence to the Israeli allegations by summoning a senior Syrian diplomat late on Monday to explain what it called “provocative behavior.”
Military analysts say if Hezbollah does possess Scud missiles, it would be able to target any part of Israel. The Shiite militia fired 4,000 Katyusha rockets into northern Israel during the 2006 war, but Scuds are more accurate.
“Threats that Lebanon now has huge missiles are similar to what they used to say about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” Hariri told Lebanese expatriates during a visit to Rome.
“These are weapons that they did not find and they are still searching for. They are trying to repeat the same scenario with Lebanon,” he added
The state department called in Syria’s deputy chief of mission in Washington, Zouheir Jabbour, to discuss the allegations, which were first made by Israeli President Shimon Peres during a visit to France last week.
“The United States condemns in the strongest terms the transfer of any arms, and especially ballistic missile systems such as the Scud, from Syria to Hezbollah,” US State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said.
“The transfer of these arms can only have a destabilizing effect on the region, and would pose an immediate threat to both the security of Israel and the sovereignty of Lebanon,” the statement added.
However, the statement stopped short of confirmation by the US that it believed such a transfer had taken place.
The Syrian embassy in Washington also denied supplying Hezbollah with Scud missiles and accused Israel of paving the way for another attack in the region.
“Syria denies this allegation of supplying Hezbollah with any weapons. In our opinion, the Israeli lies are aimed at raising the level of tension in the region and gives a pretext for a possible Israeli future offensive against a party in the region,” said Ahmed Salkini, a spokesman for the Syrian embassy in Washington. “We don’t know whose turn it is going to be next.”
The row comes at a time when US President Barack Obama’s administration is trying to improve ties between the US and Syria and is about to send a US ambassador back to Damascus for the first time in five years.
Syria has an ambiguous relationship with the US and Europe, at times seeking rapprochement and at others stressing its ties with Iran, which is Hezbollah’s main backer.
The Shiite militia, one of the most formidable fighting forces in the Middle East, beat off an Israeli offensive in 2006, mainly thanks to its use of a network of underground bunkers. During the war, it fired repeated salvoes of Katyusha missiles into northern Israel.
A Hezbollah spokesman, Hussein Hajj Hassan, said last week that the organization was always arming and preparing itself but “what we have is not their [Israel’s] business.”
Israeli press reports, citing Israeli security officials, have claimed that Syria gave Hezbollah Scud missiles in recent weeks, although without launchers.
Some experts have been skeptical. Uzi Rabin, an Israeli defense ministry consultant who has worked on anti-missile programs, said Hezbollah had no need for Scuds and possessed other solid-fuel rockets of similar range that were easier to handle and to hide.