U.S. Warns Syria: Stop Arming Hezbollah Immediately

Assad denies American claims that his regime is providing military aid to Hezbollah and Palestinian groups.

The U.S. administration has asked Syrian President Bashar Assad to immediately stop transferring arms to Hezbollah. American officials made the request during a meeting Friday with the Syrian ambassador to Washington.

Meanwhile, the United States asked both Syria and Israel to lower the temperature and avoid an escalation in the region.

The decision to call Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha to the State Department was relatively unusual. In a statement, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman asked the Syrian ambassador to meet.

The move was described as an opportunity to discuss the next steps following the visit to Damascus by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns on February 17.

The administration also said the meeting was part of its efforts to achieve a direct dialogue with Syria on issues of interest to both sides.

Haaretz has learned that Burns' visit to Damascus ended unsatisfactorily for the U.S. administration. During Burns' meeting with Assad, the Syrian leader denied all American claims that his regime was providing military aid to terrorists in Iraq, or to Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups.

Assad essentially told Burns that he had no idea what the American was talking about.

A senior diplomatic source who was briefed on the meeting with the Syrian ambassador said that one goal was to calm tensions between Syria and Israel.

The meeting with the ambassador was preceded by meetings in Washington between U.S. officials and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. On Thursday, U.S. officials met with their Israeli counterparts at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.

The diplomatic source noted that Barak's meetings in Washington focused on arms transfers from Syria to Hezbollah.

"Barak stressed that the quantities of arms smuggled have increased, and there have also been significant upgrades in the quality of weapons," the source told Haaretz.

The source said the meeting with the Syrian ambassador dealt with the arms transfers to Hezbollah and the recent meeting in Damascus between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah.

In its message to Assad, the United States asked that Syrian cooperation with Hezbollah cease and that arms transfers to the radical Lebanese Shi'ite group end immediately.

At the Foreign Ministry on Thursday, U.S. and Israeli officials discussed the tension along the northern border. The Israeli team was headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and the Americans were headed by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg.

A senior Israeli official said the Americans warned against a further deterioration on the border that could lead to a conflagration because of a miscalculation by either side.

Israeli officials asked the Americans to tell the Syrians that Israel had no plans to attack and wanted to calm the situation.

The Israeli officials insisted that Iran was behind the tensions and blamed Tehran for inciting Syria and Assad, as well as claiming that Israel had plans to go on the offensive.

Meanwhile, Barak, speaking in Washington on U.S.-Israeli ties, said he understood the "differences in perspective" between the two countries, adding that "I do not think that we need to coordinate each step."

"I understand that we are not the United States, and the U.S., I believe, recognizes that they are not in our situation," he said. "I do not want to talk in terms of time limits, but I do not think that any development in the region can put the existence of Israel into question. I do not accept any such assessments."

Barak also commented on the possibility of peace with Syria, describing it as "a strategic interest of Israel. And we all know what is on the table and what decisions each side must make."

The defense minister said that "if we navigate carefully, I consider this to be more an opportunity than a threat. However, we are powerful enough to deal with any deterioration along our northern border if this happens. We are not interested in this and we will not initiate it, but we follow what is happening in Lebanon, and the time has come to deal with it with greater determination."

Referring to Lebanon, Barak said that "it is a bizarre anomaly that it is a member of the United Nations but has a militia, with members of parliament and ministers, and an arsenal of 45,000 missiles and rockets that can hit all of Israel," he said.

"And they say they are ready to deploy it like in the past. We cannot accept this, we do not intend to chase down every individual terrorist, but we will consider the government of Lebanon, the country's infrastructure, as part of the equation with which we are confronted."

Also on Thursday, Ahmadinejad met with Nasrallah at the Syrian presidential palace. According to Hezbollah station Al-Manar, senior aides on both sides were present.

According to the report, the two leaders discussed the developments in the region and "the repeated threats of the Zionists against Syria and Lebanon."

The report did not indicate whether a meeting was held between the Iranian president, Nasrallah and Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshal, who is based in Syria.