Cables reveal US efforts to curb arms flow in Middle East

Syria warned on shipments to Hezbollah; Buildup increases potential for war

SOUGHT GESTURE John Kerry prodded Syrian President Bashar Assad for a gesture of good will. SOUGHT GESTURE
John Kerry prodded Syrian President Bashar Assad for a gesture of good will.
By Michael R. Gordon and Andrew W. Lehren
New York Times / December 7, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Just a week after President Bashar Assad of Syria assured a top State Department official his government was not sending sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah, the Obama administration lodged a confidential protest accusing Syria of doing precisely what it had denied doing.

“In our meetings last week it was stated that Syria is not transferring any ‘new’ missiles to Lebanese Hizballah,’’ noted a cable sent by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in February, using an alternative spelling for the militant group. “We are aware, however, of current Syrian efforts to supply Hizballah 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.’’

A senior Syrian Foreign Ministry official denied the allegation, a cable from the US embassy in Damascus said. But nine months later, administration officials assert, the flow of arms had continued to Hezbollah.

According to a Pentagon official, Hezbollah’s arsenal now includes up to 50,000 rockets and missiles, including some 40 to 50 Fateh-110 missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv and most of Israel, and 10 Scud-D missiles. The newly fortified Hezbollah has raised fears that any future conflict with Israel could erupt into a full-scale regional war.

The Syrian episode offers a glimpse of US efforts to prevent buildups of arms — including Scud missiles, Soviet-era tanks and antiaircraft weapons — in some of the world’s tensest regions.

Wielding surveillance photos and sales contracts, US diplomats have confronted foreign governments about shadowy front companies, secretive banks, and shippers around the globe, according to secret State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to several news organizations.

US officials have tried to block a Serbian black marketer from selling sniper rifles to Yemen. They have sought to disrupt the sale of Chinese missile technology to Pakistan, the cables show, and questioned Indian officials about chemical industry exports that could be used to make poison gas.

But while US officials can claim some successes — Russia appears to have deferred delivery of the S-300 air defense system to Iran — the diplomats’ dispatches underscore how often their efforts have been frustrated in trying to choke off trade by Syria and others, including Iran and North Korea.

The United States is the world’s largest arms supplier, and with Russia, dominates trade in the developing world. Its role as a purveyor of weapons to certain allies — including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf states — has drawn criticism it has fueled an arms race. But it has also taken on a leading role as traffic cop in trying to halt deliveries of advanced weapons and other arms to militants and adversaries.

It is the arms transactions involving Syria and Hezbollah, however, that appear to be among the administration’s gravest concerns. President Obama came into office pledging to engage with Syria, arguing the Bush administration’s efforts to isolate Syria had done nothing to wean it from Iran or encourage Middle East peace efforts.

Even before US diplomats began talks with the Assad government, Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, prodded Assad in a February 2009 meeting in Damascus to make a gesture that he could take back to the Obama administration as “an indicator of Assad’s good will.’’

Kerry told Assad that Obama intended to withdraw US troops from Iraq “as soon as possible’’ and also hinted to a senior Syrian official the administration intended to take a firm line against the establishment of new Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

In March 2009, a delegation of State Department and National Security Council officials traveled to Damascus for the first discussions, and in the next several months, each side made some modest gestures.

The United States provided information “regarding a potential threat to a Syrian official’’ through Syria’s Washington ambassador and allowed a senior aide to George Mitchell, the US Middle East negotiator, to attend a Syrian holiday event at the Syrian embassy, a cable reported. Syria, for its part, allowed the Americans to reopen an English-language school and hosted a team of US military officials to discuss how to better regulate the Syria-Iraq border.

Each side, however, wanted the other to take the first major initiative. Syria kept pressing for the lifting of economic sanctions, which had crippled its aviation industry, and the Americans urged Syria to curtail its support for Hezbollah and Hamas.

“The US had publicly recognized its mistakes, e.g. use of torture methods, and would continue to take steps,’’ Daniel Shapiro, a senior official on the National Security Council, told the Syrians in the meeting, according to a May 2009 cable. “But others needed to reciprocate to ensure that the opportunity did not pass.’’

By the fall, however, officials at the US embassy in Damascus appeared concerned that military developments were outpacing the incremental diplomacy.

“Syria’s determined support of Hizballah’s military buildup, particularly the steady supply of longer-range rockets and the introduction of guided missiles, could change the military balance and produce a scenario significantly more destructive than the July-August 2006 war,’’ said a November 2009 cable from the US charge d’affaires in Damascus.

A major worry was that Syria or Iran had provided Hezbollah with Fateh-110 missiles, with the range to strike Tel Aviv. Israeli officials told US officials in November 2009 that if war broke out, they assumed that Hezbollah would try to launch 400 to 600 rockets a day and sustain the attacks for at least 2 months, the cables note. top stories on Twitter

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