WASHINGTON — Just a week after President Bashar Assad of Syria assured a top State Department official that his government was not sending sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah, the Obama administration lodged a confidential protest accusing Syria of doing precisely what it had denied doing.
“In our meetings last week it was stated that Syria is not transferring any ‘new’ missiles to Lebanese Hizballah,” noted a cable sent by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in February, using an alternative spelling for the militant group. “We are aware, however, of current Syrian efforts to supply Hizballah with ballistic missiles. I must stress that this activity is of deep concern to my government, and we strongly caution you against such a serious escalation.”
A senior Syrian Foreign Ministry official, a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus reported, flatly denied the allegation. But nine months later, administration officials assert, the flow of arms had continued to Hezbollah. According to a Pentagon official, Hezbollah’s arsenal now includes up to 50,000 rockets and missiles, including some 40 to 50 Fatah-110 missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv and most of Israel, and 10 Scud-D missiles. The newly fortified Hezbollah has raised fears any future conflict with Israel could erupt into a full-scale regional war.
The Syrian episode offers a glimpse of U.S. efforts to prevent buildups of arms — including Scud missiles, Soviet-era tanks and anti-aircraft weapons — in some of the world’s tensest regions. Wielding surveillance photos and sales contracts, U.S. diplomats have confronted foreign governments about shadowy front companies, secretive banks and shippers around the globe, according to secret State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to several news organizations.
U.S. officials have tried to block a Serbian black marketer from selling sniper rifles to Yemen. They have sought to disrupt the sale of Chinese missile technology to Pakistan, the cables show, and questioned Indian officials about chemical industry exports that could be used to make poison gas.
But while U.S. officials can claim some successes, the diplomats’ dispatches underscore how often their efforts have been frustrated in trying to choke off trade by Syria and others, including Iran and North Korea.
The United States is the world’s largest arms supplier and, with Russia, dominates trade in the developing world.