WASHINGTON - The United States does not believe Syria transferred long-range Scud missiles to Hezbollah, but has no doubt that Damascus had the intention to deliver missiles to the terror organization, US officials told the Reuters news agency on Saturday.
"We think the intent is there," a senior US official said. But the official and two others briefed on the case said it was unclear whether the missiles, which could hit deep inside Israel, were actually handed over in full to the group. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
"We believe a transfer of some kind occurred but it is unclear if the rockets themselves have changed hands," the senior official said.
A partial transfer could involve weapons parts, documents or funding, other officials said.
Another official said doubts were growing that Syria had delivered the Scuds in full and allowed them to transit to Lebanese territory: "We don't believe it happened."
"It's unclear at this point that a transfer has occurred ... and the United States has no indications that the rockets have moved across the border," a third US official said.
Such comments come in contrast with remarks made by White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs on Wednesday, who said the US administration was "deeply concerned" with the alleged weapons transfer, which he said could undermine stability in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said such a move could put Lebanon at risk.
Syria's President Assad (L) with Hezbollah head (Archive photo: AP)
Israel has relayed its protest over the alleged arms transfer to the US, and emphasized that these are "tie-breaking" missiles. It seems these transfer attempts were responsible for recent tensions on the northern border, as revealed by Ynet last month, when Israeli jets circled the Lebanese skies.
Recent events have awoken a concern in Washington that Israel may launch a pre-emptive strike following the reports of an arms transfer, and the administration summoned Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha for a meeting with the State Department, which relayed through him a message to Damascus not to deliver the missiles to their destination.
The ambassador in response conveyed, on behalf of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, Syria's sweeping denial of the reports. In addition, at a UN Security Council meeting on the Middle East, the Syrian envoy to the UN adamantly denied the reports.
Following the reports, Defense Minister Ehud Barak issued a warning to the Syrians, and President Shimon Peres expressed his concerns to French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, and said, "Syria is playing a double game. On the one hand, it is talking peace, and on the other hand, it is transferring precision Scud missiles to Hezbollah in order to threaten Israel."
According to Lebanon's official response, "This is an internal Lebanese matter". But US senators raised the issue during a session to confirm Robert Ford, who was appointed by the Obama administration as the US's first ambassador to Syria in five years.
During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee session, senators proposed postponing Ford's appointment. Ford himself argued that such matters demonstrate the importance of having an American ambassador in Damascus. Ultimately, the committee confirmed his appointment, which now awaits the approval of the Senate plenum.
Reuters contributed to this report