Insight on the News - World

Issue: 06/10/03




Sending a Serious Message to Syria

By Kenneth R. Timmerman

The May 3 meeting in the presidential palace on the hilltopoverlooking Damascus was short and to the point. Secretary of StateColin Powell, flanked by State Department Arabists, told Syriandictator Bashar Assad that the U.S. victory in Iraq had changed theway America plans to do business in the Middle East. The days of thecozy deals and of winking and nodding at Syrian support for terrorismwere ended. He then presented Assad with a list of U.S. demands thatwas nothing short of breathtaking.


Powell told the Syrian president that the United States requireshim to help in the search for hidden Iraqi weapons. The United Statesbelieves the weapons were taken in convoys of tanker trucks to Syrialast fall, along with key production equipment, and buried in theSyrian desert shortly before U.N. arms inspectors returned to Iraq.Powell demanded that Syria locate and turn over Iraqi weaponsscientists and top-ranking Ba'ath Party officials who had beengranted sanctuary by Syria once Gulf War II began. He also summonedAssad to close terrorist offices in Damascus and to shut downterrorist training camps in Lebanon.


Even more chilling for Assad: Powell informed him, and repeatedthis demand in public in Beirut, that the United States expectedSyria to end its 27-year military occupation of Lebanon, where itcontinues to control all prime ministers and puppet presidents inutter defiance of the popular will.


For Syria's power elite Lebanon has been a cash cow, feedingluxurious lifestyles with an orgy of illicit drugs, counterfeit U.S.dollars and assorted contraband. Many observers believe that forAssad to abandon the occupation of Lebanon begun in 1976 would meanthe end of Alaouite rule in Syria. And yet, that's what Powell wasinsisting he do. "The United States supports an independent andprosperous Lebanon, free of all - all - foreign forces," Powell saidbefore the cameras in Beirut. This was the language Lebanese patriotshave been asking the U.S. government to utter for years.


The only fig leaf left to disguise the hard ultimatum in Powell'spresentation to Assad was his failure to use the words "or else."That was the one concession the State Department Arabists managed toconvince him to adopt.


Just hours after Powell left Damascus, the Syrian leader phonedhim in Beirut as he was about to walk into a meeting with Lebanon'sSyrian-appointed president, Emile Lahoud. Assad told Powell that hehad ordered close the offices of Palestinian and Lebanese terrorgroups headquartered in Damascus.


It looked like a victory, but Powell was circumspect. "They didsome closures. I expect them to do more ... and I expect to hear backfrom them in the future," he told reporters.


Powell's diplomatic dance with the younger Assad, who succeededhis dictator father, Hafez, when the latter died in June 2000, waspart of a careful U.S. effort to ratchet up the pressure on Syriathat has been going on for several weeks. President George W. Bushhad warned Syria on April 14 that the United States knew it washiding Iraqi weapons and "we expect cooperation." Secretary ofDefense Donald Rumsfeld had accused Syria during the war ofresupplying Iraqi forces with weapons, including night-visiongoggles, and revealed that Syria had conducted chemical-weapons testslast year. Rumsfeld was alluding to an August 2002 test flight of anextended-range Scud missile equipped with a chemical warhead thatIraq had provided.


With 150,000 U.S. troops taking a breather after their victory inneighboring Iraq, Powell's series of demands was nothing less than atarget list. His message was simple: We know where you are hiding theweapons, the scientists and the terrorist bases. Give them up, or wewill go get them ourselves.


Powell heard back from the Syrian leader just a few days later.But Assad dared not reply directly this time. Instead, he chose ashis messenger Newsweek senior correspondent Lally Weymouth, who hadgone to Damascus to get Assad's reaction to the U.S. ultimatum.


"These are not offices, really," Assad said, referring to theDamascus headquarters of terrorist groups Hamas, Palestinian IslamicJihad (PIJ) and Hezbollah. "They are houses where these groups domedia activities, and I talked with Mr. Powell about stopping'activities,' not closures." Using the cute double-talk for which hisfather was famous, he added: "No one in our area calls it terrorism.They are talking about freedom." As for the allegations that Syriawas hiding Iraqi weapons, he just shrugged. "Why would Syria let themput these weapons in this country? There's no benefit for Syria."


On May 12, Powell returned to the region, where he delivered morestraight talk. Speaking to an Israeli television interviewer, Powellacknowledged Assad's lies: "He did mislead me once before. If hechooses not to respond, if he chooses to dissemble, if he chooses tofind excuses, then he will find that he is on the wrong side ofhistory. He will find that he will not have better relations with theUnited States, and he can take his choice. Does he want to have goodrelations with the United States, or does he want to have goodrelations with Hamas? His choice."


Powell's blunt words were just the leading edge of what one senioradministration official described as "seething anger" over thebehavior of the young Syrian dictator. "At one point toward the endof the conflict, the Syrians thought we were coming," the officialsaid. While Powell made clear that was not then the case,administration officials point to the sobering presence of 150,000U.S. troops just across the border in Iraq as an inducement to getAssad to change his ways.


But if he does not, the United States has a well-developed targetlist. It begins with the obvious: the terrorist training camps inLebanon's Bekáa Valley run by radical Palestinian groups,Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. Some of these camps have been used to stagecross-border attacks into Israel. Others have been used as halfwayhouses for terrorists on the run from their former bases inAfghanistan and Iraq. Located in farmhouses surrounded by lushhashish fields, most will make easy targets for U.S. warplanes basedin western Iraq or flying off U.S. aircraft carriers.


Next come the terrorist offices in Damascus itself. U.S. andIsraeli intelligence officials say these offices are not just mediacenters but operations bases used to funnel funds and weapons toterrorists on the ground inside Israel and elsewhere. Iranian-backedterrorists are believed to have used Syria as a staging area for theattack on the Khobar barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in 1996 inwhich 19 U.S. servicemen were killed. On quiet days, terror"spokesmen" creep out from under the rocks to deliver soliloquies tothe press. But when they come under scrutiny for their involvement interrorist operations, spokesmen of Hamas, PIJ and Hezbollah regularlygo to ground, as this reporter found during a trip to Damascus in the1990s.


Syria's network of weapons plants and dual-use chemical,pharmaceutical and industrial facilities provides another series oftargets for U.S. war planners, should they choose to use forceagainst Assad.


Neither the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency nor the Pentagonwould agree to Insight's requests to provide a background briefing onSyrian special-weapons capabilities - on the grounds that the subjectwas "too sensitive." However, the CIA regularly has acknowledgedSyrian efforts to develop and deploy an arsenal of weapons of massdestruction in biannual reports to Congress.


In its most recent Report to Congress on the Acquisition ofTechnology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and AdvancedConventional Munitions, the CIA noted that Syria "already held astockpile of the nerve agent sarin, but apparently is trying todevelop more toxic and persistent nerve agents." In addition, thereport stated, "it is highly probable that Syria also is continuingto develop an offensive BW [biological-weapons] capability."Since 1997, the CIA has reported publicly on Syria's efforts toacquire solid-fuel missiles and production facilities from Russia,China, North Korea and Iran.


A more voluminous Pentagon report, Proliferation: Threat andResponse, states that Syria has "several hundred Scud-B, Scud-C andSS-21 SRBMs [short-range ballistic missiles]. Syria isbelieved to have chemical warheads available for a portion of itsScud missile force." The report also notes that Syria has received"considerable North Korean help in producing Scud-Cs," missiles thatallow Syria to reach all of Israel and most of Turkey.


Behind the dry language, however, lies a vast network of weaponsplants, missile bases and extensive relationships with foreigntechnology suppliers, not just in North Korea and China, but also inFrance and in Germany. In fact, it was the French who helped Syriabuild its scientific establishment, under a 1969 agreement with theFrench state-run Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique. Eventoday, the Syrian Scientific Research Center more commonly is knownby its French acronym, CERS (Centre d'Etudes et de RecherchesScientifiques), and has maintained its government-to-governmentrelationship with France and French state-owned weaponscompanies.


Intelligence analysts in the United States, Israel and WesternEurope agree that CERS is the lead agency in Syria that handlesresearch and development of both conventional and unconventionalweapons. So critical is the role of CERS in the procurement oftechnology and materials for Syria's special-weapons programs thatthe U.S. and German governments have blacklisted it as a warning toexporters who might otherwise seek its business. CERS is funded andreports directly to the Office of the President of the Syrian ArabRepublic. During the 1980s and 1990s, it focused extensively onmilitary research involving radar, missile-telemetry systems,telecommunications, plastics, high-performance lubricants andartificial intelligence, with teams of buyers scouring Europe fordual-use technologies likely to further chemical-, biological- andnuclear-weapons programs.


Today, CERS is in charge of procurement for Syria'sstrategic-weapons programs. In 1999, it purchased 10 tons of powderedaluminum from Communist China for use as a solid-fuel propellant,according to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the MontereyInstitute of International Studies.


In February 2001, the French Atomic Energy Agency sent a team ofphysicists to explore nuclear-cooperation projects at Syria's fourstate universities and at CERS subsidiary ISSAT, known in English asthe Higher Institute for Applied Science and Technology. It was setup with assistance from the French Embassy in Damascus in 1983 tofacilitate French technical assistance to Syria.


Syrian chemical-weapons plants have been operating for nearly 20years, and were first mentioned publicly in the United States bythen-director of the CIA, William Webster, in testimony before theSenate Committee on Governmental Affairs on Feb. 9, 1989. "Syriabegan producing chemical-warfare agents and munitions in themid-1980s, and currently has a chemical-warfare-production facility,"Webster said.


In 1991, Israeli chief of staff Ehud Barak (who later became primeminister) told an audience of leading industrialists in Tel Aviv thatSyria's chemical-weapons capability was "larger than Iraq's." Overthe years, chemical-weapons plants were identified just north ofDamascus, outside of Homs and near Hama, where Syria was believed tobe producing VX agents in addition to sarin and tabun. A fourthproduction facility near Cerin was believed to be manufacturingbiological-warfare agents.


Industrial facilities that could be potential targets include apharmaceuticals plant in Aleppo, a large urea and ammonia plant inHoms, and a superphosphates complex in the desert near Palmyra, whereIraqi technicians reportedly have transferred technology Iraq usedwith success to extract uranium from raw phosphates ore. Anotherdozen government-run pharmaceuticals plants are spread across thecountry, some of which were built by major French, Swiss and Germanfirms and could be used to produce biological-warfare agents.


Last year, the Israeli daily Yediot Aharanot identified a majorchemical-weapons plant and Scud-C missile base in northern Syria,near the village of As-Safirah, and published satellite photographsof the site that it had commissioned.


The photographs show an extensive industrial complex, severalmunitions-storage depots, a missile-silo complex and a separatecommand-and-control site with a large phased-array radar. The complexis protected by SAM-2 surface-to-air missiles. Three tunnel entrancesprotected by box-canyon walls give access to buried parts of thesite.


The As-Safirah complex, just west of Aleppo near Syria'sMediterranean coast, was built as part of a $500 million deal withNorth Korea signed in Damascus on March 29, 1990, by North KoreanVice President Yi Chong-Ok.


Bill Gertz, of Insight's sister daily, the Washington Times, firstreported on the delivery of Scud-C kits from North Korea to Syria inMarch 1991. Today, the Israelis believe Syria has assembled severalhundred Scud-Cs and is developing "multiple-warhead" clusters in aneffort to defeat Israel's Arrow antitactical ballistic-missilesystem, according to defense analyst Anthony H. Cordesman.


The United States repeatedly has imposed sanctions on Chinese andNorth Korean state-owned companies for selling Syria missile kits,production technology, guidance kits and solid-fuel components. ButU.S. officials acknowledge that the sanctions, which bar thosecompanies from competing for U.S. government contracts, essentiallyare meaningless.


"We need to take a new look at the proliferation problem," oneadministration official tells Insight. "We need to start thinkingabout active intervention, new tools and tactics, and methods ofpreventing the actual shipment of weapons and weaponstechnology." 


Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.


Read more about Syria's support of terrorism in "Not-So-SecretIraqi-Syrian Deals."




Insight on the News - World

Issue: 06/10/03




Not-So-Secret Iraqi-Syrian Deals

By Kenneth R. Timmerman

Middle East analysts will tell you that Syria and Iraq long havebeen enemies, citing their leaders' rival visions of Ba'ath Partydictatorship. And they were right until Hafez Assad died in June2000. Almost as soon as son Bashar took power, things began tochange.


In November 2000, the younger Assad agreed to reopen a 500-mileoil pipeline, which soon began hauling an estimated 150,000 to200,000 barrels per day from the Kirkuk oil fields of Iraq to Syria'sMediterranean export terminal at Banias. For Assad and SaddamHussein, it was a gold mine. The pipeline deal gave Saddam anestimated $1.5 billion to $2 billion per year on the black market,with hefty transit fees going to Assad in the bargain.


Just two months later, on Jan. 31, 2001, the two countries agreedto double their $500 million-per-year trade, and triple it by 2002.


Gary C. Gambill, writing in the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin,reported that Assad had dispatched his younger brother, Maher Assad,to Baghdad on a secret two-day visit shortly before the tradeagreement was inked to discuss military cooperation with QusayHussein. Following that visit, agreements were drafted to hide Iraqiweapons of mass destruction in Syria should U.N. inspections resume,and later, when the coalition attack became imminent, to providesanctuary to fleeing Iraqi leaders. According to published reports,Syria also served as a conduit for weapons and spare parts that Iraqpurchased on the black market in Russia, Ukraine, the Czech Republicand France, in defiance with the U.N. embargo.


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned in an interview withIsraeli television on Dec. 24, 2002, that Iraq already had truckedthe bulk of its weapons stockpiles to Syria earlier in the autumn,before the arrival of the U.N. inspectors.


After intense U.S. pressure, Bashar Assad has handed over severalkey Iraqi weapons scientists and intelligence officers, includingFarouk Hijazi, believed to be the key link between Iraq and al-Qaeda.But hundreds of other Iraqis are reported to have escaped throughSyria.


For now, Assad appears to be wedded to his lies. When asked byLally Weymouth of Newsweek about the escaping Iraqis, Assad insistedthat once the war began no one was allowed to come. "We allowedfamilies to come to Syria, women and children," Assad said. "But wewere suspicious of some of the relatives - that they had positions inthe past and were responsible for killings in Syria in theeighties."


Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight.


Read about the recent stern warning that Syria received from theUnited States in "Sending a Serious Message to Syria."