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Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2003/ 9 Adar I, 5763

Richard Z. Chesnoff

Richard Z. Chesnoff
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Syria's charade: America's 'ally' promoting terrorism |
Syria's efforts to portray itself as American ally in the War on Terrorism must be regarded as nothing more than an elaborate charade. Bashar al-Assad, the dictator in Damascus, is busily undermining U.S. interests through his generous support for and open hospitality toward a long list of terrorist organizations. What's more, as the United States prepares for possible military action to secure regime change in Iraq, Syria is shipping arms to Baghdad and illegally pumping Iraqi oil through Syrian ports. Those who predicted that -- post 9/11 -- Syria would move toward moderation have been proven wrong. Syria remains a serious foreign policy problem, one that Washington will have to address in the not-too-distant future.

Syria's vaunted decision to vote in favor of the recent U.S. and British sponsored Security Council motion on Iraqi disarmament may have provided an important propaganda boost for diplomatic unity. But Syria's "yes" was arguably the most duplicitous vote in recent United Nations history. The delegate from Damascus had barely lowered his arm when other Syrian spokesmen made it eminently clear that even if Saddam Hussein fails to heed the UN decision, Syria will not join in any allied military effort to force him to do so.

If anything, the contrary is more likely. Syrian armed forces played a mere token role in the 1991 rainbow coalition that ousted Iraq from Kuwait. Since then, say Middle East diplomatic sources, Syria has brushed aside historic Baathist party rivalries with Iraq and instituted a flow of intelligence information to its counterparts in Baghdad. Moreover, despite Syria's current rotating membership of the Security Council, the Damascus government has steadily violated the Council's own embargo on Iraq by pumping and globally marketing an average of 150,000 barrels per day of illicit Iraqi oil.

Arab nationalist unity is not the only factor at play; financially strapped Syria earns substantial commissions from its role as Saddam Hussein's middle man. And though the government of President Bashar al Assad has claimed that Syria is putting Iraq's share of the profits on freeze, senior intelligence sources in both the Middle East and the West have evidence that the contraband funds have already been made available to Baghdad at a staggering rate of approximately one billion dollars a year. Worse yet, these illegal monies have been used by Iraq to procure both weapons and desperately needed military spare parts for its armed forces - another primary violation of the UN embargo. By mid-2002, say intelligence sources, this Syrian organized contraband oil trade had increased at times to 180,000 barrels a day with a coefficient rise in the funds available for the Iraqi purchase of arms.

Much of this illegal arms trading is done through Syrian middle men. Senior Middle East intelligence sources believe that one of Iraq's most important contraband procurers is Ibrahim Makhluf, a former Chief of the Syrian Army's Supply Bureau and a cousin of the Syrian president on his mother's side.

The sources, who have been tracking Maklouf's activities for two years now, say he uses his own extensive professional ties with international companies and manufacturers, especially Russian, to fill order lists from Iraq's Military Transportation Directorate for truck spare parts, engines, batteries, tires and fuel tanks. The sources claim that a Damascus-based Iraqi government straw company called Matisco handles the millions in payments that go to Makhlouf. One enormous order of Russian supplies reportedly reached the Syrian port of Tartus late last summer, where it was stored in a warehouse rented by the Iraq Chamber of Commerce, then smuggled into Iraq in September.

And on the eve of a visit to London by Syrian President Assad, London's Sunday Telegraph reported that Western intelligence officials have discovered that at least 52 crates containing new air-defense systems and spare parts have just been smuggled into Iraq from Syria. The Russian-made equipment, which was purchased through a Belorussian middleman, was reportedly transported to Iraq via the al-Walid border crossing in early December.

Nor is Syria's participation in the War on Terrorism any more impressive than its participation in the UN embargo on Iraq. Despite President Assad's loud promise that his government would heed President George W. Bush's post-9/11 call for a united global struggle against terrorism, the Syrians have done nothing to change their long-standing policy of generous state support and open hospitality for terrorist organizations.

Ten of the worst Palestinian extremist groups remain headquartered in Damascus and receive regular Syrian government backing and funds. These include the military wing of Hamas, the leading Islamic terrorist organization in Gaza and the West Bank; Ahmad Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, whose guerilla camps south of Damascus are used to train terrorists from a mixed bag of Palestinian terrorist organizations that include the Al Aqsa Brigades, the terrorist branch of Yasser Arafat's Al Fatah, and Islamic Jihad, one of the primary fundamentalist gangs behind the recent rash of Palestinian suicide bombings and attacks on Israeli civilians.

It was Islamic Jihad 's Damascus-based leader, Ramadan Shallah, who is believed to have orchestrated the recent Hebron ambush in which 12 Israelis were killed on their way from Sabbath prayers.

Like the terrorist groups he helps sponsor, Assad takes an unambiguously pro- terrorists position, that is to say he explicitly supports the targeting of non- combatants, including even women and children. Assad has been quoted as explaining it thusly: "Since all Israelis are potential soldiers, all Israelis are potential and legitimate targets." His regime has refused numerous American requests that it forbid Palestinian terrorist activities and training on Syrian soil. And recently it reiterated that refusal by publicly rejecting a U.S. demand that it shut down the Damascus office of Islamic Jihad and expel Shallah. The Assad government's argument: The terrorist organization's presence merely reflects "freedom of speech" - a bizarre claim for a nation with one of the region's worst records on human rights and dissent.

Damascus, which has hosted a number of members of Osama bin-Laden's family, also has its own links to Al Qaeda. US government intelligence officials recently re-confirmed information that this reporter first published last March indicating that Al Qaeda operatives who'd fled into Iran from Afghanistan were being quietly transported by air from Teheran to Damascus via regularly scheduled civilian flights and then being transferred overland to Lebanon - which is heavily occupied by Syrian forces and where little if anything takes place without Damascus's knowledge and permission. (Bowing to US pressure, the Lebanese government subsequently announced that it had expelled many of the Al Qaeda fugitives. But intelligence sources in Beirut believe that groups of Bin- Laden's senior underlings are still hidden in the sprawling Palestinian refugee camp of Ein al Hilweh in southern Lebanon.)

Lebanon is also the site of what is potentially the most explosive of all Syrian involvements in terrorism: the Assad regime's longstanding support for Hezbollah, the Shiite terrorist army that holds sway over much of southern Lebanon. Though financed and trained largely by Iran, Syria openly provides a funnel for Iranian supplies to Hezbollah forces in the regions of Lebanon where the terrorist organization has displaced the Lebanese army - areas from which it systematically bombards civilian settlements in northern Israel with its arsenal of Katyusha rockets. It is clear that Syria's strategic position allows it to control Hezbollah's triggers - and in many instances, to literally call the shots.

Political ties with the terror groups are managed by Syrian vice president Abd el-Halim Khadam. But Western anti-terrorist sources believe it is two of Syria's most senior intelligence officials who are charged with coordinating the actual activities of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. They are Rustom Ghazale, the recently name new head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, and Aasef Shawkat, one of the leading figures in Syrian intelligence and a brother-in-law of President Bashar al Assad.

Israeli military strategists are convinced that Hezbollah -- with Syrian encouragement -- is preparing to exploit any US led military assault on Iraq by launching major missile attacks on targets in northern Israel. According to the latest reports, Hezbollah forces have an arsenal of more than 8,000 Katyusha rockets, including some long range missiles capable of reaching the port city of Haifa and SAM 7 shoulder-fired missile launchers -- the same kind used in the aborted attempt to down an Israeli civilian jet in Kenya last month. An Israeli response -- exactly what the Bush Administration does not want in the midst of its war against Saddam Hussein - has to be seen as likely.

Hezbollah already possesses anti aircraft missiles. With Iranian help, Hezbollah recently attempted to increase this arsenal of shoulder-fired and anti-aircraft missiles by obtaining supplies from Chechen guerilla and Chinese commercial sources. Syria itself has already supplied Hezbollah with 220 millimeter missiles developed for the Syrian army by the Cers Institute . The missiles have a range of 75 kilometers - more than enough to hit Israeli heartlands..

Even more ominous: according to Jane's Defense Weekly, Syria is preparing to begin serial production of an extended range version of its "Scud-C' short range ballistic missile. Quoting US and Israeli defense officials, Jane's said "the Missile has a range of 700 KM, uses a motor similar to the Scud-C but has an increased diameter fuselage, allowing it to carry more fuel and thus achieve a greater range."

The same sources say the missiles' warheads have been designed to contain biological and chemical weapons; Syria is known to produce the latter.

The United States State Department has listed Syria as an active supporter of terrorism for more than 20 years. That notwithstanding, one American administration after another has treated Syria with kid gloves in hopes that the Assad regime could be convinced and cajoled into changing its ways. That policy has clearly failed.

As a result, and notwithstanding its "yes" vote in the U.N., Syria poses a serious threat to current American-allied military and political strategy in the Middle East. With the US and its allies perched to launch a massive strike against Saddam Hussein, it is imperative that the Bush Administration convey to Assad in no uncertain terms the gravity of the decision he has taken to side against America in the War on Terrorism.

Through high-level diplomatic channels, Assad should be warned that unless he immediately ceases all assistance to all terrorist groups, his regime will be regarded as a terrorist-sponsor and as an active enemy of the United States. Assad should be further instructed that the consequences of such a designation will be severe. If he is any doubt as to what that means, he need only watch what happens to the anti-American regime on his eastern border.

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JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report, a columnist at the NY Daily News and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Demoracies. A two-time winner of the Overseas Press Club Award and a recipient of the National Press Club Award, he was formerly executive editor of Newsweek International. His latest book, recently updated, is Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History.

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