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Is Syria arming Hezbollah with Scuds?

Israel again stokes fear of armed conflict in the region, but is it warranted?

Lebanon's Hezbollah members take part in a ceremony marking the second anniversary of the assassination of military commander Imad Moughniyah in Beirut's suburbs, Feb. 16, 2010. (Khalil Hassan/Reuters)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Just over a month ago, Israeli President Shimon Peres created a new panic in the Middle East by asserting that Syria had sent Scud missiles to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

"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. He later said: "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."

[Israel on edge: Hezbollah's missile threat]

The Scuds, with a range of 430 miles, would “sharply shift the military balance in the region,” reported the Washington Post on April 14. “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.”

The allegations came at a particularly sensitive time. U.S.-Israel relations were strained over the continued building of settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The U.S. has moved toward better relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. The appointment of Robert Ford as the first U.S. ambassador to Damascus since 2005, when the last envoy was recalled, was being cleared by the Senate.

The U.S. State Department at first seemed to back up the allegations. It summoned the Syrian deputy chief of mission in Washington, then issued a statement condemning the “transfer of any arms, and especially ballistic missile systems such as the Scud, from Syria to Hezbollah.”

The next day, the State Department’s message was suddenly watered down.

"We are still looking into it,” Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley told reporters on April 20. “We haven't [made] any particular judgment at this point as to whether any transfer has taken place but ... this is something that we have great concern about.”

The same day, April 20, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri compared the claims to the allegations, later proved false, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion.

Hezbollah, in typical fashion, has neither denied nor confirmed that the group possesses Scuds, but the group’s deputy leader, Naim Qassem, said Israel was using the issue to divert attention from other issues, and hinted that it was possibly trying to sabotage America’s warming relations with Syria.

Qassem told London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat in April that the Scud controversy is "an inseparable part of Israel and the United States' attempt to divert attention from the difficult chapter in the ties between the two, and is also an attempt to divert attention from the existence of Israeli nuclear weapons, from the aggressive activity carried out in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and from the internal crisis which projects on Israel's image in the world."

“Raising the issue at this time stems from a political need unrelated to its content,” he added.

Earlier this month, the commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) said he had not seen any evidence of Scuds in his area of operations, which covers the entire south of Lebanon along the border with Israel.

“We have around 12,000 soldiers and three Lebanese army brigades in a small area. We haven’t seen a thing,” UNIFIL commander Maj. Gen. Alberto Asarta Cuevas told the Lebanese daily An Nahar newspaper on May 5. “We have no evidence of any Scud missiles in UNIFIL’s area of operations.”

“Scud missiles are big,” he added. “I’m sure there are no Scuds because it is very difficult to hide them.”

Lebanon watchers were quick to add their skepticism on the cacophony of media reports, congressional statements and regional analysts hawking the Scud “revelations.”