Syrian missile row 'reinforces need for US ambassador'

The top US diplomat for the Middle East vigorously defended the Obama administration's efforts to restore a US ambassador to Damascus.

WASHINGTON // The top US diplomat for the Middle East vigorously defended the Obama administration's efforts to restore a US ambassador to Damascus even as he acknowledged on Wednesday a growing concern over reports that Syria was transferring ballistic missiles to Hizbollah in Lebanon. In a sometimes tense hearing, Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, told sceptical legislators on a House foreign affairs committee panel that re-establishing diplomatic relations with Syria would serve US interests in the region, both in helping to secure a comprehensive peace with Israel and countering the influence of Iran.

"We have no choice but to use all the tools of statecraft at our disposal," Mr Feltman, a former US ambassador to Lebanon, said. His testimony comes one week after the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, publicly accused Syria of supplying ballistic Scud missiles to Hizbollah's military wing, a charge that Syria has denied. The acquisition of such weapons would enable Hizbollah to strike deep inside Israel and could alter the balance of power between two adversaries who waged a war in 2006.

Mr Feltman called the potential transfer of weapons an "incendiary, provocative action" and a "grave concern" for the White House. He declined to say whether the United States had independently confirmed the weapons transfers, but said he had personally raised the issue with Syrian officials. The alleged weapons transfers have increasingly become a matter of concern on Capitol Hill. A Pentagon report sent to legislators this week claimed that Hizbollah, with the help of Iran, had re-armed beyond its 2006 levels.

Separately, Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic senator from California and the chairwoman of the Senate select committee on intelligence, told Agence France-Presse on Tuesday that there was a "high likelihood" that Hizbollah had acquired Scud missiles. "The rockets and missiles in Lebanon are substantially increased and better technologically than they were and this is a real point of danger for Israel," she said.

Meanwhile, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Zouheir Jabbour, was summoned this week to the State Department to discuss the matter, the fourth time the issue was raised with him this year and the clearest indication yet of the extent of US concern. The appointment of Robert Ford, a veteran diplomat, to become the new US ambassador to Syria was approved this month by the Senate foreign relations committee, but it remains unclear whether it will come before the full Senate for a vote. Some suspect that Republican legislators have placed a "hold" on the nomination amid concerns about the lack of civil liberties in Syria and the behaviour of the president, Bashar Assad.

Mr Feltman, for his part, told the House panel that the alleged weapons transfers only reinforced the need to install an ambassador in Damascus. "When we have an issue of this urgency, we need to be having access to the leadership in Syria to express our concerns," he said. "When President Assad is making decisions that could affect war and peace in his region, he needs to have a clear understanding of what the implications are, what the US positions are, what the red lines are," he said.

But some legislators sharply criticised that approach, reflecting what may be much broader bipartisan opposition in Congress. Dan Burton, a Republican congressman from Indiana, called the administration's approach "a dangerous course of action" that has involved "one concession after another". "Engagement with rogue regimes like those of Syria and Iran does not work and undermines every US and international effort for peace and stability in the Middle East," he said. "The United States and other nations must hold the Assad regime accountable for its continued support of terrorists."

Eliot Engel, a New York Democratic representative and staunch supporter of Israel, likewise questioned the logic of engaging Syria. "Leopards don't change their spots," said Mr Engel, who co-wrote the 2003 Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, which serves as the basis for existing US sanctions against Syria. "I don't know why we are sending an ambassador at this time." The Obama administration so far has taken an incremental approach to relaunching diplomatic relations, holding nine high-level talks over the past year, including a visit to Damascus in February by the undersecretary for political affairs, William Burns.

Mr Feltman said the efforts had borne fruit, including helping to stem the flow of foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq. But critics point out that there has been little noticeable change in the policies of the Syrian government. A week after Mr Burns's visit, Mr Assad hosted the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hizbollah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, a meeting that some here interpreted as an insult to the administration at a time when its hand was outstretched.

Mr Feltman said the White House planned to move forward with the re-engagement plan, but harboured "no illusions" about the complexity of repairing the strained US-Syrian relationship. Syria remains one of the four countries designated by the United States as "state sponsors of terrorism". "We are moving cautiously," Mr Feltman said. "It's not going to be like a light switch. It's not going from one side to the other overnight."