by Michael Rubin
2nd part of 2
Is Syria Still Important?
Syria enabled Hezbollah's rise. It became the transit point for Iranian arms. In addition, Syria provided crucial safe haven for offices, personnel, and organization, not only for Hezbollah, but also for Palestinian terror groups and, since 2003, Islamist terrorists operating in Iraq. Through it all, Iranian support has been key.
In a 1996 speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, then-secretary of state Warren Christopher noted that Iran provides significant financial assistance to many terrorist groups that maintain offices in Lebanon. "Iran has not stopped at rhetoric. It meets frequently with all the major terrorist groups--including Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the PFLP-GC [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command]. . . . It provides them with money--up to several million dollars a year in the case of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and others, and up to $100 million a year for Hezbollah alone. Iran also supplies them with arms and material support, training, and--in some cases--operational guidance." More recently, Western diplomats in Lebanon estimate that Iranian assistance to Hezbollah is closer to $200 million annually.
The arms trade continues through Syria. As the German military prepared to enforce the prohibition on Hezbollah resupply under terms of its UNIFIL mandate, the German news magazine Focus reported on October 9, 2006, that Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst, BND) had concluded that the Islamic Republic had already resupplied missiles to Hezbollah in the aftermath of the war. The BND reported that the resupply had occurred over land through Syria. In 2008, Akhtari estimated that the volume of total trade ranged from $2.5 to $3 billion. While illegal arms are but a tiny fraction of that figure, such trade traditionally provides cover for arms transfers. On May 29, 2007, for example, a Turkish train carrying construction supplies from Iran to Syria hit a mine allegedly laid by a Kurdish terrorist group and derailed. Police discovered an undeclared cache of Iranian arms, including rocket launchers and rifles. The Turkish route into Syria may become more important as Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoˇgan tightens relations with both Tehran and Damascus. Regardless, Iranian cargo planes land frequently at Damascus International Airport. Suspicion over their role in the illicit weapons trade led the European Union to sanction Iran Air Cargo.
Hezbollah is not the only recipient of Iranian largesse on Syrian territory. Matthew Levitt, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) terror and financial analyst, noted in congressional testimony that estimates of Iranian assistance to Hamas ranged between $20 million and $50 million each year through the 1990s. Much of this money was and still is channeled through Hezbollah. Upon Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's death in 2004, for example, Iranian intelligence reportedly channeled $22 million through Hezbollah to fund Palestinian terrorist groups more sympathetic to the Iranian line.
The assassination of Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus highlights the crucial role Syria plays in international terrorism, regardless of its diplomatic posturing. On February 12, 2008, a car bomb in Damascus killed Mughniyeh, a fixture on the FBI's most-wanted list until his death. In the wake of Mughniyeh's death, Akhtari's comments highlighted the importance of Syria in the terror nexus. "We trust Syria," the Iranian ambassador explained. "It is their concern more than ours because Mughniyeh was their guest in Damascus and, of course, because of the close relations between Hezbollah and Syria." Indeed, Hezbollah agents may do Syria and Iran's dirty work, not only against Israel and Western forces in Iraq, but also against Lebanon itself. A lengthy UN investigation of the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri appears ready to finger Hezbollah as the trigger party.
Syria Remains Pivotal
Desire to make progress on the Middle East peace process, unravel the Syria-Iran axis, and end Syrian support for terrorism motivates the Obama administration's efforts to flip Syria diplomatically from its role as a rejectionist state into the more moderate camp populated by countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Jordan, which may not always be pro-American in the expression of their foreign policy, but at least keep their support for terrorism indirect and do not countenance Iranian influence.
There is no evidence, however, that the State Department's engagement policy has worked. Syrian concessions--allowing the American Cultural Center to reopen, for example--have been halfhearted and more than offset by revelations of continued Syrian proliferation efforts and its facilitation of terror. Nor does it appear that Tehran and Damascus have loosened their relations. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has met Syrian president Bashar Assad repeatedly, most recently last month in Turkey.
Welcoming Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Muallim to Tehran on November 5, 2009, Ahmadinejad said, "Comprehensive Tehran-Damascus relations keep getting deeper, wiser, and stronger with the passage of each new day, and such relations are not easily subjected to other developments."
Meanwhile, successful U.S. and Israeli interdiction efforts of Iranian arms at high sea, while embarrassing to Iran, have made Syria's role as a route for weapons delivery more important. The last decade has witnessed several high-profile interceptions of weapons:
ON JANUARY 29, 2001, THE ISRAELI NAVY SEIZED TWO CONTAINERS OF WEAPONS, REPORTEDLY OFFLOADED IN WATERTIGHT CONTAINERS BY THE CALYPSO, A LEBANESE ARMS-SMUGGLING SHIP.
ON MAY 7, 2001, THE ISRAELI NAVY SEIZED THE SANTORINI WHILE IT WAS ON ITS FOURTH ARMS-SMUGGLING MISSION. THIS SHIP CARRIED 107MM ROCKETS, MORTARS, ROCKET-PROPELLED GRENADES, ANTIAIRCRAFT MISSILES, AND ANTITANK WEAPONRY.
ON JANUARY 3, 2002, THE ISRAELI NAVY INTERCEPTED THE KARINE-A, A GAZA-BOUND FREIGHTER, WHILE IT WAS ON THE RED SEA. ONBOARD, NAVAL COMMANDOS FOUND FIFTY TONS OF SOPHISTICATED IRANIAN WEAPONRY.
ON MAY 20, 2003, THE ISRAELI NAVY INTERCEPTED THE ABU HASSAN, A FISHING VESSEL CARRYING WEAPONS, EXPLOSIVES, AND DETONATORS.
ON JANUARY 19-20, 2009, THE U.S. NAVY INTERCEPTED THE MONCHEGORSK, AN IRANIAN FREIGHTER CARRYING MILITARY SUPPLIES TO SYRIA IN VIOLATION OF UN SECURITY COUNCIL RESOLUTION 1559.
ON NOVEMBER 4, 2009, THE ISRAELI NAVY INTERCEPTED THE FRANCOP, AN ANTIGUA-FLAGGED VESSEL THAT WAS ALLEGEDLY CARRYING THREE HUNDRED TONS OF IRANIAN WEAPONRY TO HEZBOLLAH.
The importance of Syria grows as authorities in Tehran make clear their commitment to support Hezbollah and Palestinian groups, which the United States considers terrorists. When Ahmadinejad visited Damascus last spring, he met with the leaders of Damascus-based terrorist groups and promised them continued support. Less than three weeks later, Ali Larijani, the speaker of the parliament whom some American journalists dub a pragmatist, declared, "We are proud to defend Hamas and Hezbollah. We are not trying to hide it. They are fighters in the path of God, and you can call them whatever you like," adding that the idea that Tehran would ever abandon the two groups was a "U.S. dream."
The Danger of Syria's Safe Haven
Syria's continued support for terrorists and other foreign fighters undermines any diplomatic gains the United States achieves. Because of Syria, UN Security Council Resolution 1701 has failed to prevent Hezbollah's rearmament. Meanwhile, the IRGC has more political power now than at any previous point in its history. As such, statements by its commander that "in the near future, we will witness the destruction of Israel, the aggressor, this cancerous microbe Israel, at the able hands of the soldiers of the community of Hezbollah," should raise concerns in Washington and European capitals about the possibility of a regional conflagration.
Recent reports that Iran transshipped gas masks and chemical weapons through Syria to Hezbollah should only heighten concern as the Islamic Republic increases its defiance in international discussions about its nuclear activities. Across the U.S. political spectrum, analysts agree that, should Israel, the United States, or any other power strike at Iran's nuclear facilities, the Islamic Republic would respond, at least in part, by activating its proxy terrorist networks. Palestinian groups in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and foreign fighters in Iraq all have Syrian support in common. Not only Hezbollah's rhetoric but also its track record suggest a willingness to attack Western targets, should war against Iran erupt.
Given both the circumstances and the stakes, it is ironic that U.S. officials continue to accept the fiction of Syrian sincerity. As difficult as stopping terrorist supplies may be, the likelihood that proxy groups will voluntarily forfeit their capability is low, and the cost of allowing terrorists to use such arms is high.
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.
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