Defying Western pressure, Syria refuses to 'police' Hezbollah for Israel
Syrian FM: Why are arms forbidden to Arabs and allowed to Israel? Assad to visiting French FM: West must stop Israeli aggression in the Mideast.
Syria defied Western pressure on Sunday over its support for the militant group Hezbollah and said it would not act as a policeman for Israel to prevent weapons from reaching the Lebanese Shi'ite movement.
"Did Israel ever stop arming itself, did it stop instigating violence or making military maneuvers," Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said after meeting his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle. "Why are arms forbidden to Arabs and allowed to Israel?"
Citing Israeli occupation of Arab land and the technical state of war between Syria and Israel, Moualem said the Damascus government "will not be a policeman for Israel".
"Israel is beating the drum of war. In the absence of real peace every thing is possible," he added.
Syria, a country Washington says is critical for Middle East peace, has shown no signs of withdrawing backing for Hezbollah, which is also supported by Iran, although the issue has clouded rapprochement between Damascus and Washington.
The row intensified when President Shimon Peres last month accused Syria, which borders Lebanon, of sending long-range Scud missiles to Hezbollah.
Syria said it only gives Hezbollah political backing and that Israel may be using the accusation as a pretext for a military strike.
"A Scud missile is as big as this room. How could it be hidden and smuggled with Israeli planes and satellites all over the region?" Moallem asked, adding that cumbersome Scuds were not suited to Hezbollah's guerrilla tactics.
Syrian President Bashar Assad met with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in Damascus earlier Sunday and urged the West to "break its silence" in the face of Israeli "aggression" in the Middle East.
During their talks, Assad denounced "the ongoing Israeli threats to ignite wars and undermine the stability in the region."
"The region has changed and the West's policy in the area is no longer acceptable, keeping silent over Israeli violations is no longer acceptable," Assad told Kouchner, according to Syria's official news agency SANA.
"If the West wants security and stability to be established in the Middle East, [it] must start to play an effective role to contain Israel and put an end to its extremist policies," Assad said.
The Syrian president also told Kouchner that the Western countries pushing for harsh United Nations sanctions against Iran should understand that Tehran's contentious nuclear program was aimed at civilian and not military pursuits, according to SANA.
"The countries involved need to change their attitude to Iran's civil nuclear program, because this agreement is an important opportunity to reach a diplomatic solution and prevent a tragic dispute in the region and the world at large," said Assad.
For his part, Kouchner said that Syria and Lebanon must ease their tensions with Israel, telling journalists after his meeting with Assad: "We cannot be resigned to a constant state of tension, even if it is decreasing."
Kouchner also told Assad that France was concerned about reports of Hezbollah rearmament. Assad responded by saying that Syria, Iran and Hezbollah were not interested in beginning a new war with Israel, a French diplomatic source told AFP.
The official told AFP that Kouchner urged Assad to ensure that no weapons be transferred from Syria to Hezbollah.
AFP reported on Friday that Hezbollah has mobilized thousands of its militants in southern Lebanon ahead of the Israel Defense Forces drill which began this week.
"The Hezbollah fighters have [been instructed] to be completely ready to confront Israeli maneuvers on Sunday," Hezbollah official Nabil Qaouk told the French agency. "Thousands of our fighters will not go to the polls [for municipal elections Sunday] and will be prepared from today."
Qaouk declared that Hezbollah would not hesitate to respond should Israel launch a military offensive on Lebanon. "In the event of any new attack on Lebanon, the Israelis will not find anywhere in Palestine to hide," he told AFP.
Israel believes that Hezbollah has since built its cache to more than 40,000 rockets since the Second Lebanon War, and that the militant group has developed the capability to reach the center of the country with its weapons.
France had led Western moves to rehabilitate Syria, but Kouchner said on May 2 that Hezbollah's array of weapons made the situation "dangerous" and that France wants Syria to "guarantee the security" of the Syrian-Lebanese border.
Hezbollah used hundreds of shorter-range rockets against Israel during the Second Lebanon in 2006.
Israel said then Hezbollah's supplies were coming through Syria, but it chose not to widen the war. The United States has avoided giving a view on whether the Scud transfer happened.
But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said senior U.S. officials have raised the issue of the suspected transfer of more sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah with Assad who "was making decisions that could mean war or peace for the region."
A U.S. official said President Barack Obama is likely to raise U.S. concerns about Syria arming Hezbollah when he meets Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Monday.