WASHINGTON -- The State Department summoned the senior Syrian diplomat in Washington on Monday to accuse his government of "provocative behavior" in supplying arms to the Iranian-aligned militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon.
A department statement announcing the complaint was imprecise about the alleged arms deals by the Syrians. It alluded to the transfer to Hezbollah of Scud ballistic missiles but did not say explicitly that Syria was behind such a deal.
Israel's President Shimon Peres last week directly accused Damascus of providing the missiles, which can carry a warhead of up to one ton, making them far larger than the biggest rockets previously in Hezbollah's arsenal. They are also more accurate.
The State Department said deputy chief of mission Zouheir Jabbour was called in to "review Syria's provocative behavior concerning the potential transfer of arms to Hezbollah." It went on to say that providing Hezbollah with Scud missiles risked escalating tensions in the volatile region.
"The United States condemns in the strongest terms the transfer of any arms, and especially ballistic missile systems such as the Scud, from Syria to Hezbollah," the statement said. "The transfer of these arms can only have a destabilizing effect on the region, and would pose an immediate threat to both the security of Israel and the sovereignty of Lebanon."
Gordon Duguid, a State Department spokesman in whose name the statement was issued, said in a telephone interview that the department was not confirming that a Scud transfer to Hezbollah had taken place. He said the meeting with the Syrian diplomat was conducted to seek answers about Syrian arms deals and to reiterate U.S. concerns.
The statement said Monday's meeting was the fourth time in recent months that U.S. concerns had been raised with officials at the Syrian Embassy, and was "intended to further amplify our messages communicated to the Syrian government."
Last week White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that U.S. concern about reports of Syrian Scud missile transfers to Hezbollah had been raised at the highest levels of the Syrian government.
On April 1, during a visit to Damascus, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, reiterated U.S. concern about the flow of weapons through Syria to Hezbollah and told reporters the U.S. view is that this is "something that must stop" for there to be peace.
Syria is a strong supporter of militant groups such as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas, whose exiled leadership is based in Damascus.
The State Department statement linked the issue of Syrian arms provisions for Hezbollah to the broader Middle East conflict.
"The risk of miscalculation that could result from this type of escalation should make Syria reverse the ill-conceived policy it has pursued in providing arms to Hezbollah," it said. "Additionally, the heightened tension and increased potential for conflict this policy produces is an impediment to ongoing efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace in the Middle East.