(CNN) -- A series of U.S. diplomatic cables from early this year directly accused Syria of supplying advanced weaponry, including SCUD ballistic missiles, to the Shiite militia Hezbollah in Lebanon.
U.S. protests to Damascus met with persistent denials, according to the cables, which were published by the WikiLeaks website.
At a meeting in February, according to one cable, a senior U.S. diplomat stressed Washington's concerns directly with Syrian President Bashar Asad, "who bluntly stated that he knew of no new weapons systems going to Hezbollah."
But just a week later, an urgent note from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus said the United States had learned of Syrian plans to supply Hezbollah with SCUD-D ballistic missiles, which would magnify its threat to Israel.
Clinton wrote: "I must stress that this activity is of deep concern to my government, and we strongly caution you (Syria) against such a serious escalation." To reinforce the point, the cable continues: "Your interest in avoiding war should require you to exert maximum restraint, including restraining Hezbollah and preventing the group's acquisition of such lethal, long-range weapons."
Within 24 hours, the senior U.S. diplomat in Damascus met with the vice foreign minister, Faisal al-Miqdad, to convey Clinton's message. The cables described him as "clearly surprised" by the allegations.
"Flatly denying any Syrian role in the supply of weapons to Hezbollah, Miqdad contended Damascus supported Lebanese independence," a cable says, quoting Miqdad as saying: "You may hear about weapons going to Hezbollah, but they are absolutely not coming through Syria."
Miqdad then went on the offensive, according to the cable, asking: "The most sophisticated weapons are coming to Israel, to be used against whom?"
But the U.S. diplomat in Damascus commented: "Even a seasoned diplomat like Miqdad could not restrain a raised eyebrow at our mention of the transfer of ballistic missiles to Hezbollah."
The following day another cable from the secretary of state's office asked U.S. diplomats to rally support from allies for Washington's position.
It said: "We want France, Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Qatar to make a renewed push to echo our concerns with Syria." Allies should be told that Washington believed "Syria has provided or will provide guided short-range ballistic missiles to Hezbollah that could target two-thirds of Israel, including Tel Aviv, from launch sites north of the Litani." The Litani is a river in southern Lebanon.
"Our information also indicates that Syria has made advanced surface-to-air missile systems available to Hezbollah and has probably provided training on these systems to Hezbollah personnel," the cable continued.
In April this year, Israeli officials alleged that the transfer of SCUD-D missiles had gone ahead. At the time, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said: "If such an action has been taken, and we continue to analyze this issue, clearly it potentially puts Lebanon at significant risk."
So why would Syria provide Hezbollah with weapons that could destabilize an already volatile region? Another cable tries to answer that question. "Syrian leaders appear convinced that arming Hezbollah will increase Syria's leverage in bringing Israel to the negotiating table," it says.
But the top U.S. diplomat in Damascus suggests in a cable that is misguided. "Syria's actions have created a situation in which miscalculation or provocative behavior by Hizballah could prove disastrous for Syria and the broader region," he writes.
The U.S. assessment is that Hezbollah is far better-armed than it was in 2006, when it fought a one-month cross-border war against Israel. Referring to its missile and rocket armories, a cable from November 2009 says: "This capability, if fully used, would represent a quantum leap over the damage and psychological terror Hezbollah rockets caused in northern Israel during the 2006 war."
Regional analysts believe that Hezbollah has some 40,000 rockets as well as up to a dozen SCUD-Ds from Syria.