US President Barack Obama’s outreach to Syria came under fire yesterday as a congressional panel questioned the rapprochement amid charges that Damascus has sought to arm Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas with Scud missiles.
Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee grilled the Obama administration’s top diplomat for the Middle East, saying Syria’s threatening behaviour threw doubt over efforts to put relations on a better track.
“Do we actually have a policy towards Syria, and is it in our best interest? What are we doing?” Democratic Representative Eliot Engel asked, urging a tougher US stance against Syrian President Basher al-Assad over weapons transfers and other issues.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said the United States was seeking answers on the missile charges and took the issue extremely seriously.
“All options are going to be on the table looking at this,” he said — while repeating the need to expand diplomatic dialogue with Damascus.
Israeli President Shimon Peres has publicly accused neighbouring Syria of sending Scuds to Hezbollah, a Lebanese Islamist militant group. Syria has denied the charge and said Israel might be using the accusation as a pretext for a military strike.
Feltman declined to say whether the United States had confirmed that any transfers had taken place, saying he was unable to address these concerns in a public hearing.
But he said the United States had repeatedly warned Syria about transferring ballistic missiles and was pushing hard to stop any such shipments from taking place.
“If these reports turn out to be true we’re going to have to review the full range of tools available to us in order to make Syria reverse what would be an incendiary, provocative action,” he said.
Some US officials have expressed doubt that any Scuds were actually handed over in full to the guerrilla group, although they believe Syria might have made a partial transfer of weapons parts, documents or funding.
“Spit in our face”
The missile allegations have complicated Obama’s efforts to forge a rapprochement with Syria, which his administration sees as crucial to Middle East peace efforts and to stabilise the nascent democracy in neighbouring Iraq.
The United States has agreed to return an ambassador to Damascus after a five-year absence. But the designated envoy, Robert Ford, still awaits confirmation by the full Senate and Feltman conceded some senators may feel reluctant to move forward given doubts about Syria’s intentions.
“It’s like they just spit right in our face,” said Republican Representative Dan Burton, citing a raft of moves by Syria that he said were inimical to the interests of the United States and allies including Israel.
Feltman insisted it was time to return the ambassador, saying Washington needed a direct line to Syria’s leadership as it makes decisions that could have serious regional implications.
“Syria has made mistakes before,” Feltman said. “We need to be making our message to him loud and clear and directly.”
Hezbollah, a Syrian- and Iranian-backed Shi’ite Islamist group, is on the US terrorism blacklist but is part of Lebanon’s unity government. The group fought a war with Israel in 2006 and has strong support in mainly Shi’ite south Lebanon.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri yesterday denied that Hezbollah had received long-range Scuds from Syria.
Feltman said the United States had significant leverage with Damascus, including the current inclusion of Syria on the US “state sponsors of terrorism” list and continued US sanctions against the country.
“They don’t like any of that. But frankly the ball is in their court,” Feltman said. “They would like to see us move away from those things. Well, for that to happen they’ve got to take some actions that correct the troubling behaviour.”
Pic: US President- Barack Obama