The US caught Syria lying about supplying Hizbullah with ballistic missiles earlier this year, and both protested forcefully to Damascus and turned to a number of other countries to make their concerns known, according to a US cable released late Monday by WikiLeaks.
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A cable sent from Washington to the US embassy in Damascus on February 25, written by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, directed the embassy to file a demarche, or diplomatic protest, with Syria regarding the transfer of ballistic missiles to Hizbullah.
“The Government of Israel (GOI) is concerned that Syria intends to imminently transfer SCUD-D missiles to Hizbullah in Lebanon. We share this concern. The transfer of such weapons would constitute a significant escalation of a potentially volatile situation that could threaten regional stability,” the cable read.
Among the points that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wanted in the demarche were that “In our meetings last week it was stated that Syria is not transferring any ‘new’ missiles to Lebanese Hizbullah. We are aware, however, of current Syrian efforts to supply Hizbullah with ballistic missiles. I must stress that this activity is of deep concern to my government, and we strongly caution you against such a serious escalation.”
The demarche – while recognizing that Syria’s influence over Hizbullah’s operational decision making may be limited – urged Damascus to influence Hizbullah not to carry out an operation to avenge the death of archterrorist Imad Mughnieyh, killed by a car bomb in Syria in February 2008.
The cable said Syrians should be told that Iran and Hizbullah both have interests that are not in Syria’s strategic interest and that Damascus’s “operational support for Hizbullah is a strategic miscalculation” that is damaging the country’s long term national interests.
Israel’s main concern regarding the weaponry transferred by Syria to Hizbullah focuses on the M600 missile, which is a clone of Iran’s Fateh-110, is manufactured in Syria, has a range of 250 kilometers and can carry a 500-kilogram warhead. What makes the M600 particularly lethal is its superior accuracy. According to the cables, Hizbullah is believed to have several dozen of them although Israel has assessed that the number might be in the hundreds.
A top Pentagon official told The New York Times
that Hizbullah’s arsenal included 10 Scud-D missiles, Syria’s largest and most advanced missile. It is unclear if the missiles have transferred to Lebanon or if they are being stored in Syria on behalf of Hizbullah as other reports have indicated in the past.
Unlike Hizbullah’s other missiles and rockets that it mostly stores in civilian buildings, the Scud-D is a truck mounted missile that can carry a payload of 700 kilograms and has a range of around 600 kilometers.
Another cable released by WikiLeaks and written on February 26 shows that the US turned to the governments of Britain, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar to convey a similar message.
According to that dispatch, Syria transferred advanced surface-to-surface and surface- to-air missiles to Hizbullah, something that could draw Syria into a future war between Israel and Hizbullah, and has “probably provided training on these systems to Hizbullah personnel.”
An earlier cable, from November 19, 2009, noted that Syria’s “determined support” of Hizbullah’s military buildup could change the Middle East regional balance and create a scenario much more destructive than what was seen in the Second Lebanon War.
The cable, written by Charles Hunter, the deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Damascus on November 19, 2009, said that Syria has provided Hizbullah with a “steady supply of longer-range rockets and the introduction of guided missiles.”
Although in a future conflict, if rockets would rain down on Tel Aviv – as they did on the north during the Second Lebanon War – Israel would have “powerful incentives” to keep Syria out of the conflict, it might “also face compelling reasons for targeting Hizbullah facilities in Syria, some of which are in and around populated areas.”
According to the dispatch, Syria’s “current strategic mindset appears to assume Syria could avoid involvement in a new conflict, based largely on its 2006 experience. Syrian leaders also appear convinced that arming Hizbullah will increase Syria’s leverage in bringing Israel to the negotiating table.”
The cable discussed the massive rearmament of Hizbullah since the Second Lebanon War, and said that public estimates put Hizbullah’s stockpiles as high as “40,000 rockets and missiles.”
“There is overwhelming evidence,” the cable read, “that shows Syria provided not just logistical and other support in moving the weapons, but was the main source of the weapons. Syria’s integration of Hizbullah into its military doctrine, moreover, means that Hizbullah operatives and facilities enjoy a growing footprint in Syria.”
Despite this, the cable read, Syrian officials – including President
Bashar Assad – emphasize their political link to Hizbullah and flatly
deny that Syria is arming the group. Assad, according to the dispatch,
suggested that the challenge of disarming Hizbullah would be solved
after Syria and Israel signed a peace treaty.
Syria, according to the cable, also hopes that its improved relations
with Turkey, France and Saudi Arabia would preclude an Israeli attack on
Syria in case of another conflagration in the North because of the hope
that those countries would object.