Insight on the News - World

Issue: 06/10/03

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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 1990s.

 

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 against Assad.

 

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 companies.

 

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 nuclear-weapons programs.

 

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," Webster said.

 

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 biological-warfare agents.

 

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 site.

 

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 are meaningless.

 

"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 technology." 

 

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

 

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

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Insight on the News - World

Issue: 06/10/03

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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 change.

 

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 Syria.

 

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 eighties."

 

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."

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