Insight on the News - World
Sending a Serious Message to Syria
By Kenneth R. Timmerman
The May 3 meeting in the presidential palace on the hilltop
overlooking Damascus was short and to the point. Secretary of State
Colin Powell, flanked by State Department Arabists, told Syrian
dictator Bashar Assad that the U.S. victory in Iraq had changed the
way America plans to do business in the Middle East. The days of the
cozy deals and of winking and nodding at Syrian support for terrorism
were ended. He then presented Assad with a list of U.S. demands that
was nothing short of breathtaking.
Powell told the Syrian president that the United States requires
him to help in the search for hidden Iraqi weapons. The United States
believes the weapons were taken in convoys of tanker trucks to Syria
last fall, along with key production equipment, and buried in the
Syrian desert shortly before U.N. arms inspectors returned to Iraq.
Powell demanded that Syria locate and turn over Iraqi weapons
scientists and top-ranking Ba'ath Party officials who had been
granted sanctuary by Syria once Gulf War II began. He also summoned
Assad to close terrorist offices in Damascus and to shut down
terrorist training camps in Lebanon.
Even more chilling for Assad: Powell informed him, and repeated
this demand in public in Beirut, that the United States expected
Syria to end its 27-year military occupation of Lebanon, where it
continues to control all prime ministers and puppet presidents in
utter defiance of the popular will.
For Syria's power elite Lebanon has been a cash cow, feeding
luxurious lifestyles with an orgy of illicit drugs, counterfeit U.S.
dollars and assorted contraband. Many observers believe that for
Assad to abandon the occupation of Lebanon begun in 1976 would mean
the end of Alaouite rule in Syria. And yet, that's what Powell was
insisting he do. "The United States supports an independent and
prosperous Lebanon, free of all - all - foreign forces," Powell said
before the cameras in Beirut. This was the language Lebanese patriots
have been asking the U.S. government to utter for years.
The only fig leaf left to disguise the hard ultimatum in Powell's
presentation to Assad was his failure to use the words "or else."
That was the one concession the State Department Arabists managed to
convince him to adopt.
Just hours after Powell left Damascus, the Syrian leader phoned
him in Beirut as he was about to walk into a meeting with Lebanon's
Syrian-appointed president, Emile Lahoud. Assad told Powell that he
had ordered close the offices of Palestinian and Lebanese terror
groups headquartered in Damascus.
It looked like a victory, but Powell was circumspect. "They did
some closures. I expect them to do more ... and I expect to hear back
from them in the future," he told reporters.
Powell's diplomatic dance with the younger Assad, who succeeded
his dictator father, Hafez, when the latter died in June 2000, was
part of a careful U.S. effort to ratchet up the pressure on Syria
that has been going on for several weeks. President George W. Bush
had warned Syria on April 14 that the United States knew it was
hiding Iraqi weapons and "we expect cooperation." Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld had accused Syria during the war of
resupplying Iraqi forces with weapons, including night-vision
goggles, and revealed that Syria had conducted chemical-weapons tests
last year. Rumsfeld was alluding to an August 2002 test flight of an
extended-range Scud missile equipped with a chemical warhead that
Iraq had provided.
With 150,000 U.S. troops taking a breather after their victory in
neighboring Iraq, Powell's series of demands was nothing less than a
target list. His message was simple: We know where you are hiding the
weapons, the scientists and the terrorist bases. Give them up, or we
will 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 as
his messenger Newsweek senior correspondent Lally Weymouth, who had
gone to Damascus to get Assad's reaction to the U.S. ultimatum.
"These are not offices, really," Assad said, referring to the
Damascus headquarters of terrorist groups Hamas, Palestinian Islamic
Jihad (PIJ) and Hezbollah. "They are houses where these groups do
media activities, and I talked with Mr. Powell about stopping
'activities,' not closures." Using the cute double-talk for which his
father was famous, he added: "No one in our area calls it terrorism.
They are talking about freedom." As for the allegations that Syria
was hiding Iraqi weapons, he just shrugged. "Why would Syria let them
put these weapons in this country? There's no benefit for Syria."
On May 12, Powell returned to the region, where he delivered more
straight talk. Speaking to an Israeli television interviewer, Powell
acknowledged Assad's lies: "He did mislead me once before. If he
chooses not to respond, if he chooses to dissemble, if he chooses to
find excuses, then he will find that he is on the wrong side of
history. He will find that he will not have better relations with the
United States, and he can take his choice. Does he want to have good
relations with the United States, or does he want to have good
relations with Hamas? His choice."
Powell's blunt words were just the leading edge of what one senior
administration official described as "seething anger" over the
behavior of the young Syrian dictator. "At one point toward the end
of the conflict, the Syrians thought we were coming," the official
said. While Powell made clear that was not then the case,
administration officials point to the sobering presence of 150,000
U.S. troops just across the border in Iraq as an inducement to get
Assad to change his ways.
But if he does not, the United States has a well-developed target
list. It begins with the obvious: the terrorist training camps in
Lebanon's Bekáa Valley run by radical Palestinian groups,
Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. Some of these camps have been used to stage
cross-border attacks into Israel. Others have been used as halfway
houses for terrorists on the run from their former bases in
Afghanistan and Iraq. Located in farmhouses surrounded by lush
hashish fields, most will make easy targets for U.S. warplanes based
in western Iraq or flying off U.S. aircraft carriers.
Next come the terrorist offices in Damascus itself. U.S. and
Israeli intelligence officials say these offices are not just media
centers but operations bases used to funnel funds and weapons to
terrorists on the ground inside Israel and elsewhere. Iranian-backed
terrorists are believed to have used Syria as a staging area for the
attack on the Khobar barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in 1996 in
which 19 U.S. servicemen were killed. On quiet days, terror
"spokesmen" creep out from under the rocks to deliver soliloquies to
the press. But when they come under scrutiny for their involvement in
terrorist operations, spokesmen of Hamas, PIJ and Hezbollah regularly
go to ground, as this reporter found during a trip to Damascus in the
Syria's network of weapons plants and dual-use chemical,
pharmaceutical and industrial facilities provides another series of
targets for U.S. war planners, should they choose to use force
Neither the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency nor the Pentagon
would agree to Insight's requests to provide a background briefing on
Syrian special-weapons capabilities - on the grounds that the subject
was "too sensitive." However, the CIA regularly has acknowledged
Syrian efforts to develop and deploy an arsenal of weapons of mass
destruction in biannual reports to Congress.
In its most recent Report to Congress on the Acquisition of
Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced
Conventional Munitions, the CIA noted that Syria "already held a
stockpile of the nerve agent sarin, but apparently is trying to
develop more toxic and persistent nerve agents." In addition, the
report stated, "it is highly probable that Syria also is continuing
to develop an offensive BW [biological-weapons] capability."
Since 1997, the CIA has reported publicly on Syria's efforts to
acquire solid-fuel missiles and production facilities from Russia,
China, North Korea and Iran.
A more voluminous Pentagon report, Proliferation: Threat and
Response, states that Syria has "several hundred Scud-B, Scud-C and
SS-21 SRBMs [short-range ballistic missiles]. Syria is
believed to have chemical warheads available for a portion of its
Scud missile force." The report also notes that Syria has received
"considerable North Korean help in producing Scud-Cs," missiles that
allow Syria to reach all of Israel and most of Turkey.
Behind the dry language, however, lies a vast network of weapons
plants, missile bases and extensive relationships with foreign
technology suppliers, not just in North Korea and China, but also in
France and in Germany. In fact, it was the French who helped Syria
build its scientific establishment, under a 1969 agreement with the
French state-run Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique. Even
today, the Syrian Scientific Research Center more commonly is known
by its French acronym, CERS (Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches
Scientifiques), and has maintained its government-to-government
relationship with France and French state-owned weapons
Intelligence analysts in the United States, Israel and Western
Europe agree that CERS is the lead agency in Syria that handles
research and development of both conventional and unconventional
weapons. So critical is the role of CERS in the procurement of
technology and materials for Syria's special-weapons programs that
the U.S. and German governments have blacklisted it as a warning to
exporters who might otherwise seek its business. CERS is funded and
reports directly to the Office of the President of the Syrian Arab
Republic. During the 1980s and 1990s, it focused extensively on
military research involving radar, missile-telemetry systems,
telecommunications, plastics, high-performance lubricants and
artificial intelligence, with teams of buyers scouring Europe for
dual-use technologies likely to further chemical-, biological- and
Today, CERS is in charge of procurement for Syria's
strategic-weapons programs. In 1999, it purchased 10 tons of powdered
aluminum from Communist China for use as a solid-fuel propellant,
according to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey
Institute of International Studies.
In February 2001, the French Atomic Energy Agency sent a team of
physicists to explore nuclear-cooperation projects at Syria's four
state universities and at CERS subsidiary ISSAT, known in English as
the Higher Institute for Applied Science and Technology. It was set
up with assistance from the French Embassy in Damascus in 1983 to
facilitate French technical assistance to Syria.
Syrian chemical-weapons plants have been operating for nearly 20
years, and were first mentioned publicly in the United States by
then-director of the CIA, William Webster, in testimony before the
Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs on Feb. 9, 1989. "Syria
began producing chemical-warfare agents and munitions in the
mid-1980s, and currently has a chemical-warfare-production facility,"
In 1991, Israeli chief of staff Ehud Barak (who later became prime
minister) told an audience of leading industrialists in Tel Aviv that
Syria's chemical-weapons capability was "larger than Iraq's." Over
the years, chemical-weapons plants were identified just north of
Damascus, outside of Homs and near Hama, where Syria was believed to
be producing VX agents in addition to sarin and tabun. A fourth
production facility near Cerin was believed to be manufacturing
Industrial facilities that could be potential targets include a
pharmaceuticals plant in Aleppo, a large urea and ammonia plant in
Homs, and a superphosphates complex in the desert near Palmyra, where
Iraqi technicians reportedly have transferred technology Iraq used
with success to extract uranium from raw phosphates ore. Another
dozen government-run pharmaceuticals plants are spread across the
country, some of which were built by major French, Swiss and German
firms and could be used to produce biological-warfare agents.
Last year, the Israeli daily Yediot Aharanot identified a major
chemical-weapons plant and Scud-C missile base in northern Syria,
near the village of As-Safirah, and published satellite photographs
of the site that it had commissioned.
The photographs show an extensive industrial complex, several
munitions-storage depots, a missile-silo complex and a separate
command-and-control site with a large phased-array radar. The complex
is protected by SAM-2 surface-to-air missiles. Three tunnel entrances
protected by box-canyon walls give access to buried parts of the
The As-Safirah complex, just west of Aleppo near Syria's
Mediterranean coast, was built as part of a $500 million deal with
North Korea signed in Damascus on March 29, 1990, by North Korean
Vice President Yi Chong-Ok.
Bill Gertz, of Insight's sister daily, the Washington Times, first
reported on the delivery of Scud-C kits from North Korea to Syria in
March 1991. Today, the Israelis believe Syria has assembled several
hundred Scud-Cs and is developing "multiple-warhead" clusters in an
effort to defeat Israel's Arrow antitactical ballistic-missile
system, according to defense analyst Anthony H. Cordesman.
The United States repeatedly has imposed sanctions on Chinese and
North Korean state-owned companies for selling Syria missile kits,
production technology, guidance kits and solid-fuel components. But
U.S. officials acknowledge that the sanctions, which bar those
companies from competing for U.S. government contracts, essentially
"We need to take a new look at the proliferation problem," one
administration official tells Insight. "We need to start thinking
about active intervention, new tools and tactics, and methods of
preventing the actual shipment of weapons and weapons
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.
Read more about Syria's support of terrorism in "Not-So-Secret
Insight on the News - World
Not-So-Secret Iraqi-Syrian Deals
By Kenneth R. Timmerman
Middle East analysts will tell you that Syria and Iraq long have
been enemies, citing their leaders' rival visions of Ba'ath Party
dictatorship. And they were right until Hafez Assad died in June
2000. Almost as soon as son Bashar took power, things began to
In November 2000, the younger Assad agreed to reopen a 500-mile
oil pipeline, which soon began hauling an estimated 150,000 to
200,000 barrels per day from the Kirkuk oil fields of Iraq to Syria's
Mediterranean export terminal at Banias. For Assad and Saddam
Hussein, it was a gold mine. The pipeline deal gave Saddam an
estimated $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 agreed
to 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 trade
agreement was inked to discuss military cooperation with Qusay
Hussein. Following that visit, agreements were drafted to hide Iraqi
weapons of mass destruction in Syria should U.N. inspections resume,
and later, when the coalition attack became imminent, to provide
sanctuary to fleeing Iraqi leaders. According to published reports,
Syria also served as a conduit for weapons and spare parts that Iraq
purchased on the black market in Russia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic
and France, in defiance with the U.N. embargo.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned in an interview with
Israeli television on Dec. 24, 2002, that Iraq already had trucked
the 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 several
key Iraqi weapons scientists and intelligence officers, including
Farouk Hijazi, believed to be the key link between Iraq and al-Qaeda.
But hundreds of other Iraqis are reported to have escaped through
For now, Assad appears to be wedded to his lies. When asked by
Lally Weymouth of Newsweek about the escaping Iraqis, Assad insisted
that once the war began no one was allowed to come. "We allowed
families to come to Syria, women and children," Assad said. "But we
were suspicious of some of the relatives - that they had positions in
the past and were responsible for killings in Syria in the
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight.
Read about the recent stern warning that Syria received from the
United States in "Sending a Serious Message to Syria."