A Scud missile crisis is causing diplomatic tensions in the Middle East, already wracked by threats of war.
Israeli and Arab press reports today spoke of mounting tension between Israel and Syria over a reported shipment of long range Scud missiles to the militant Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.
The reports first surfaced in the Kuwaiti daily Al Rai, which said the U.S. administration has delayed the appointment of its new ambassador to Damascus in response to the weapons' shipment. It also said Syria's ambassador in Washington Imad Moustapha, was called in by State Department officials who expressed U.S. displeasure at the latest development. The controversial arms shipment was also discussed by Sen. John Kerry during his recent visit to the Syrian capital.
The Kuwaiti press reports quote unnamed U.S. sources which claim that in recent months, truckloads of medium and long range Scud missiles were shipped into Lebanon and delivered to Hezbollah. The reports say anti-aircraft weapons were also transferred.
The shipments have fueled the recent escalation in tension on Israel's northern border. Israel was apparently aware of the plan and sent warning messages to President Assad through Turkish and Qatari mediators. They also urged the U.S. to help stop the shipment.
On Tuesday Israeli President Shimon Peres cited the missiles, telling Israel Radio, "Syria claims it wants peace while at the same time it delivers Scuds to Hezbollah whose only goal is to threaten the state of Israel."
Since its conflict with Israel in 2006 Hezbollah has reportedly rearmed and now holds a massive arsenal of 40,000 missiles. The latest shipment will not, according to veteran Israeli defense reporter Ron Ben-Yishai, significantly add to its capabilities.
"The Scud shipment has not changed the military balance as Hezbollah already possesses long and medium range missiles and rockets which could go as far as Beersheba (in southern Irsael). However the transfer bears a symbolic significance," he said.
In recent months Israel, Hezbollah and Syria have all warned of a coming conflict. Each party has made clear threats of hitting targets deep inside the others' territory if war breaks out.
Last year the Obama administration signalled its intention to reappoint an ambassador to Damascus, the first since 2005 when President Bush scaled back diplomatic representation in retaliation for the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Harriri. His killing, in a massive car bomb attack in Beirut, was widely assumed to be the work of the Syrian regime, an accusation Assad has always denied.
A condition for re-engagement with Syria has always been that it cuts its close ties with Hezbollah and its principal ideological backer Iran. Syria has always played an important role in supplying Hezbollah with weapons and training.
UN Security Council Resolution 1701 which ended the fighting of 2006 prohibits the rearming of Hezbollah and prevents the group's deployment near the Israeli border. The almost continuous flouting of this resolution has been of growing concern to Israel.