Clinton Warns Syria on Sending Arms to Hezbollah

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Syria Thursday night that its policy of sending weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon is pushing the region toward war.

Speaking to the American Jewish Committee in Washington, D.C., Clinton responded to Israeli assertions that Damascus recently transferred long- range Scud missiles to the Iranian-backed political and paramilitary organization. Although the United States has expressed its fears of Hezbollah's growing strength, Washington has yet to confirm Israel's latest accusation.

"We have spoken out forcefully about the grave dangers of Syria's transfer of weapons to Hezbollah," Clinton said. "Transferring weapons to these terrorists, especially longer-range missiles, would pose a serious threat to the security of Israel. It would have a destabilizing effect on the region."

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Her pro-Israel audience notwithstanding, there is real concern about Hezbollah's formidable arsenal of missiles.

The group fought a deadly war with Israel in the summer of 2006, using short-range Katyusha rockets to pin down large parts of northern Israel. U.N. Security Resolution 1701 ended the conflict and sought to prevent Hezbollah's rearmament.

But with Syrian help, it is now thought to have rebuilt its stockpile and boasts longer-range missiles thought capable of reaching targets deep within Israel. The latter is concerned that Hezbollah's rearming may alter the delicate military balance in the region.

Clinton's comments came as the United States is preparing to send an ambassador back to Damascus, the first since 2005 when the Bush administration downgraded relations in protest of the assassination of Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri.

Clinton stressed that diplomatic re-engagement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should not be seen as a reward.

"The United States is not re-engaging as a reward or concession," she said. "Engagement is a tool that can give us added leverage and insight and a greater ability to convey strong and clear messages aimed at changing Syria's behavior," she said.

Analysts See Way to Keep Iran in Check

Syria is seen as a bridge between Iran and its Shiite allies in Lebanon. Damascus also plays host to radical Palestinian factions including Hamas. Some analysts recommend peace between Israel and Syria as a way to significantly reduce Iranian influence.

Indirect talks between Assad's regime and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government, using Turkish mediation, made some progress in 2008. But those talks were abruptly halted when Israel launched its military campaign against Hamas in Gaza in December of the same year.

Iran's alliance with Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas is seen as a potential defense of possible Israeli strikes against its secretive nuclear program. Israel fears an attack will provoke widespread retaliation.

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