Posted by Joshua on Thursday, April 22nd, 2010
April 22 (Bloomberg) — A top State Department official defended the Obama administration’s policy of engaging with Syria against criticism from Congress following allegations that Syria transferred missiles to Hezbollah terrorists.
Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, faced questions yesterday at a House panel hearing from Democrats and Republicans who questioned the logic of President Barack Obama’s efforts to talk with a regime the U.S. accuses of weapons proliferation, links to terrorist groups and ties to Iran.
Representative Dan Burton of Indiana, ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee for the Middle East and South Asia, compared sending an ambassador to Damascus to appeasing Adolf Hitler before World War II. President George W. Bush withdrew the last U.S. ambassador in 2005, following Syria’s alleged involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
It’s “rewarding Syria for kicking the U.S. in the teeth,” Burton said, referring to the administration’s decision in February to name career diplomat Robert Ford as ambassador to Damascus, after a reported meeting between leaders of Syria, Iran and Hezbollah.
Feltman defended the decision, saying the Obama administration believes diplomacy can change Syria’s behavior. “An ambassador is not a reward; it’s a tool,” he said.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is already listening to the leaders of Iran and Hezbollah, Feltman said, and he “needs to listen to us, too.”
Ford hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate, and House members said they would share grave concerns with their Senate colleagues about the wisdom of sending an envoy to Damascus.
Feltman said that refusing to send Ford wouldn’t further U.S. goals; it would make influencing Syria harder.
Syria’s government “says it wants to live in peace in the region,” Feltman testified. A senior U.S. envoy in Damascus would in time have a chance to persuade Syria that “it’s in Syria’s interest” to seek peace with Israel, respect the sovereignty of neighboring Lebanon and uphold human rights of its people, he said.
Feltman declined to answer in open session whether the U.S. has evidence to confirm Israeli claims that Syria has been smuggling long-range missiles to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Israeli President Shimon Peres on April 13 accused the Arab country of supplying the militant group with Scuds, ground-to- ground missiles with a range of hundreds of miles.
‘Have to Review’
“If these reports turn out to be true, we have to review” the full range of efforts to reverse Syria’s actions, Feltman said.
Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, told Feltman he doesn’t “think your approach has any merit at all.”
Feltman said that, while a change isn’t possible overnight, the administration can send a strong message through diplomatic channels.
“It’s important to make the case to Syria why the path they’re on is so dangerous,” Feltman said. “Syria is not Iran,” he said, noting that Syria is a secular state and that the Obama administration doesn’t see the Syrian-Iran alliance as immutable.
Citing “growing rapprochement” between Syria and Saudi Arabia, Feltman said, “the Syrians try to hedge their bets.” It’s in the interests of U.S. allies, including Israel, Iraq and Lebanon, that the U.S. improves relations with Syria in an effort to change its behavior.
Also yesterday, Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, and Representative Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, introduced a resolution in Congress calling for tightening restrictions against Syria, strict enforcement of sanctions related to the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah and a reevaluation of the decision to send an ambassador to Damascus.
Obama Syria outreach under fire amid Scud reports
By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama’s outreach to Syria came under fire on Wednesday as a congressional panel questioned the rapprochement amid charges that Damascus has sought to arm Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas with Scud missiles….
“Do we actually have a policy toward Syria, and is it in our best interest? What are we doing?” Democratic Representative Eliot Engel asked, urging a tougher U.S. stance against Syrian President Basher al-Assad over weapons transfers and other issues.
U.S. 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 neighboring 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 U.S. 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 stabilize the nascent democracy in neighboring 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 U.S. 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 on Wednesday 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 U.S. “state sponsors of terrorism” list and continued U.S. 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 behavior.”
US says Syrian missile transfers to Hezbollah could lead to war in the Mideast
By MATTHEW LEE, 21 April 2010, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) – The Obama administration’s top diplomat for the Middle East says the U.S. has warned Syria numerous times in recent weeks that transferring ballistic missiles to Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia could lead to war in the region….
Feltman told a congressional committee that Syria’s leadership needs to understand the risks of arming Hezbollah, which he said “could affect war and peace in the region.”
Amid recent reports that Syria intended to transfer Scud missiles to the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah, U.S. officials to date have been careful to say they do not know for a fact that the missiles were actually transferred to Lebanon, while Israeli officials have said they believe that they were.
U.S. reticence on the matter may be both because it doesn’t know where the missiles are, and to avoid giving pretext for any possible Israeli military attack on Lebanon.
But today, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.), chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, says she thinks there is a “high likelihood” the missiles were sent to Hezbollah in Lebanon. “I believe there is a likelihood that there are Scuds that Hezbollah has in Lebanon. A high likelihood,” Feinstein told the AFP.
“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 continued.
Her remarks come as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeff Feltman, a former U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon, is due to testify on U.S. policy to Syria before the Middle East subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Committee this afternoon. …
Kerry today said the intelligence on what Syria transferred and where it is is still incomplete. “I think it’s safe to say we’re inquiring and trying to get more information about it. I wouldn’t comment on what it is, or isn’t, at this point in time,” Kerry told the AFP. “There are concerns about rocketry in general, and clearly Hezbollah has been rearmed, but I don’t think there’s clarity as to which weapons yet, with specificity, and where. Where is very important in this question.”…..
43 percent are for 2SS but binational state sentiment is growing, at 34 percent, up from 20 percent less than a year ago, and 30 percent say peace process is dead.