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Archives for Syria (page 1 / 1)

Are We Arming Syrian Jihadists?

Two recent articles illustrate the dangers in getting involved in the Middle East—especially the dangers of using intermediaries to do the dirty work.

Jihadists Receiving Most Arms Sent to Syrian Rebels - NYTimes.com

Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.

That conclusion, of which President Obama and other senior officials are aware from classified assessments of the Syrian conflict that has now claimed more than 25,000 lives, casts into doubt whether the White House’s strategy of minimal and indirect intervention in the Syrian conflict is accomplishing its intended purpose of helping a democratic-minded opposition topple an oppressive government, or is instead sowing the seeds of future insurgencies hostile to the United States.

“The opposition groups that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it,” said one American official familiar with the outlines of those findings, commenting on an operation that in American eyes has increasingly gone awry.

The United States is not sending arms directly to the Syrian opposition. Instead, it is providing intelligence and other support for shipments of secondhand light weapons like rifles and grenades into Syria, mainly orchestrated from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The reports indicate that the shipments organized from Qatar, in particular, are largely going to hard-line Islamists.

Syrian Rebels Get Missiles - WSJ.com

Some Syrian rebel factions have obtained advanced portable antiaircraft weapons, according to rebels and regional officials, a development that could alter the Syrian war's trajectory and fan U.S. concerns that such weapons could end up in the hands of anti-Western Islamist militias.

Video footage uploaded to the Internet earlier this week appears to show rebels in Aleppo using weapons that military experts and rebels say are heat-seeking, shoulder-fired missiles, the first documented instance in the conflict. Versions of the weapons—also known as man-portable air defense systems, or Manpads—have been smuggled into the country over the past two months through Turkey and to a lesser extent Lebanon, according to Syrian rebels and those who supply them arms through an "operations room" coordinated by regional governments.

"Northern Syria is awash with advanced antitank and antiaircraft weapons. The situation has changed very quickly," a Syrian involved in coordinating weapons procurement with regional states said. The Manpad transfers weren't sanctioned by the regional states that have armed and financed Syria's rebels since early this year, he added.

The rebels in Aleppo who are depicted in the footage uploaded to the Internet this week are identified as members of the al-Salam and Hamza battalions, two of the relatively unknown divisions in a mushrooming insurgency. Rebels with the two largest fighting factions in Aleppo couldn't identify the battalions in the videos, though they confirmed that Manpads acquired over the past two weeks had made their way into the city.

I hope that the “unknown battalions” with the ManPADS aren’t jihadists. Because that would really, really stink. It would also call into question this entire foreign policy strategy of “leading from the rear” and being the arsenal of democracy to the people that we hope are actually democratic.

FSA threatens to take fight to Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut

FSA threatens to take fight to Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut →

For years, Bashar Assad, and Syria, has supported Hezbollah, in Lebanon. Now that Assad is facing serious opposition in Syria, Hezbollah is apparently supporting Assad. And, surprisingly, the Free Syrian Army, is now threatening Hezbollah.

Syrian rebels said they have detained 13 Hezbollah members and threatened to take the fight to Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs unless the party ends its support for President Bashar Assad’s regime.

“We [vow] to take the battle in Syria to the heart of the [Beirut] southern suburbs if [Hezbollah] does not stop supporting the killer-Syrian regime,” Free Syrian Army spokesman Fahd al-Masri told media outlets Tuesday.

Syria Wants in On Iraq

From the New York Times: Syria Is Said to Be Strengthening Ties to Opponents of Iraq's Government

Syria is encouraging Sunni Arab insurgent groups and former Iraqi Baathists with ties to the leaders of Saddam Hussein's government to organize [in Damascus], diplomats and Syrian political analysts say. By building strong ties to those groups, they say, Syria hopes to gain influence in Iraq before what it sees as the inevitable waning of the American presence there.

In July, former Baathists opposed to the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki scheduled a conference for insurgent groups -- including two of the most prominent, the 1920s Revolution Brigades and Ansar al Sunna -- at the Sahara Resort outside Damascus.

The meeting followed two others in Syria in January that aimed to form an opposition front to the government of Iraq, and an announcement in Damascus in July of the formation of a coalition of seven Sunni Arab insurgent groups with the goal of coordinating and intensifying attacks in Iraq to force an American withdrawal. That coalition has since expanded to incorporate other groups.

The July conference was canceled at the last minute, however, indicating the political perils of Syria's developing strategy. It was called off by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, participants, diplomats and analysts said, primarily because of pressure from Iran.

Iran is Syria's chief ally and a staunch supporter of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government. The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visited Damascus just days before the conference was to have taken place.

"Iran is the big player in Iraq," said Mr. Hamidi, of Al Hayat, "but it lacks influence on the Baathists and the Sunnis."

That would seem to create a natural opening for Syria, a predominantly Sunni country governed by its own version of the Baath Party. But its relations with the Iraqi Baathists have long been strained. Syria backed Iran in its war with Iraq in the 1980s and supported the United States against Mr. Hussein during the Persian Gulf war of 1991.

Syria has long had a regional strategy of influencing its neighbors' politics by harboring their opposition groups. Washington imposed economic sanctions on Syria in 2004 for, among other things, its support of Hamas and several other militant Palestinian groups.

Suspected of orchestrating the 2005 assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, Syria has also come under increasing pressure from the United States and France for its support of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia.

I can think of two possibilities here, neither of them particularly good. The first is that Syria wants to escape from Iran's shadow. Iran is busy trying to establish influence over Iraq's Shiite parties. Perhaps Syria wants to establish influence of Iraq's Sunni and Baathist parties, in an attempt to outflank Iran. However, I just don't see Syria having the will to actually go against Iran.

The second possibility is that Iran is using Syria to establish even more control over Iraq. While Iran establishes influence over the Shiite parties, Syria establishes influence over the Sunni parties. Together, they play the Iraqi government like fiddles.

Perhaps. The whole situation is muddled by the fact that Iran told Syria to knock it. Pique at Syria's attempts? Wanting to hide the strategy before it gets too obvious? Something else? I don't know, but I'm worried about the whole situation.

Israel's Attack on Syria

About a month ago, the Israeli Defense Force bombed a target inside Syria. This is a bit of a problem for Syria.

If you believe the Syrian foreign minister, then the Israelis flew through the heart of his nation's air defenses--apparently undetected--to strike at targets near the country's eastern border. And it wouldn't be the first time that the IAF has accomplished such a feat; in 2003, Israeli jets struck a Palestinian terrorist complex near Damascus, taking advantage of confusion within the Syrian air defense system to bomb the target and escape, with no reaction from fighters or ground-based air defenses. The success of this particular raid suggests that despite a reported shake-up of the Syria's air defense organization, the system remains incapable of defeating an Israeli attack.

And, making matters worse, the IDF raid apparently included a ground attack, featuring commandos that were (presumably) ferried in by helicopter. While IAF CH-53 Sea Stallions have the range (540 NM) to reach distant targets, getting the chopper(s) and the commandos in and out of enemy territory was indeed an impressive feat. Apparently, the Syrians fared no better against the heliborne element of the mission than they did against the IAF jets. However, given the location of the target area--and initial Syrian comments about Israeli aircraft "coming out of Turkey," it's quite possible that the helicopters (and commando elements) staged from a "foreign" base.

The initial speculation was that the Israeli's were targeting a nuclear facility in Syria. More worisome was the idea that the facility was courtesy of the North Koreans.

But the real stunner in the Times report comes in the sixth paragraph, with this revelation from an unnamed member of the Bush Administration:

One Bush administration official said Israel had recently carried out reconnaissance flights over Syria, taking pictures of possible nuclear installations that Israeli officials believed might have been supplied with material from North Korea. The administration official said Israeli officials believed that North Korea might be unloading some of its nuclear material on Syria.

"The Israelis think North Korea is selling to Iran and Syria what little they have left," the official said. He said it was unclear whether the Israeli strike had produced any evidence that might validate that belief.

The possible transfer of "nuclear material" from North Korea to other rogue states is something we've written about at length, including this most recent installment. Fact is, we don't know the full extent of the "relationship" between Pyongyang, Tehran and Damascus. Clearly, North Korea has been the primary source of ballistic missile technology for both Iran and Syria; both countries have active WMD programs and an interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. But clear evidence of a nuclear transfer has never been offered, at least publicly.

The Israeli attacks looks like a major success for Israel and a major embarrassment for Syria.

Obviously, the Israeli strategy worked; the operation caught Damascus by surprise (there was apparently little reaction from Syria's air defense system); the Israelis inflicted serious damage on the target, and both the F-15I crews and the commandos escaped unscathed. Syria has threatened retaliation, but its options are limited. The odds of Syrian aircraft penetrating Israeli airspace are slim, and a missile strike would invite a devastating response, as would an attack across the Golan Heights.

Still, the Times article leaves a number of questions unanswered. We'll begin with the issue of Israel successfully penetrating Syria's air defense system. While it's happened before, the Syrian air defense network was supposedly re-organized after an embarrassing 2003 Israeli strike against a Palestinian terrorist camp near Damascus. During that raid, the Israelis reportedly exploited confusion over geographic responsibilities within the Syrian defense system. The most recent mission--which involved a much deeper penetration into Syrian territory--suggests that (a) Bashir Assad's air defense network hasn't improved, or (b) the Israelis are using more advanced measures to target the system, and render it impotent.

Then, there's the matter of that commando team. If the Times is correct, those personnel arrived in the target area a day ahead of the fighters, inserted (we'll assume) by Israeli Sea Stallion helicopters. As we've noted before, the successful infiltration of a commando team by helicopter, deep into Syrian territory, is an impressive operational feat, indeed. But getting the commandos (and their choppers) all the way across Syria (and back again), undetected, represents a monumental challenge, even for a state-of-the-art military like the IDF.

The success of the raid has given Iran serious concerns as well.

According to Strategy Page, Iran is a bit upset over the alleged "failure" of Russian air defense systems during the raid. Both Tehran and Damascus have spent billions on radar and missile systems built in Russia, with the assurance that such equipment could defend against an Israeli attack. Complaints that have made their way onto Farsi-language message boards (presumably from Iranian military officers) suggest that the IAF was able to blind Syria's defensive systems, rendering them useless. The Israeli strike package flew across hundreds of miles of Syrian airspace, strike the target and return, unmolested by air defense systems.

Iran's concerns are three-fold. First, there is logical speculation that the recent raid on Syria was a dress rehearsal for an attack on Iran's nuclear sites, although that raid would be larger and much more complex. Secondly, Tehran is footing the bill for Syria's most recent upgrade, the acquisition of the Pantsir-S1 air defense system. Iran is also slated to acquire the system, although initial deliveries were made to Damascus.

Equipped with two 30mm cannon and twelve Tunguska missiles, the Pantsir-S1 was supposed to provide point-defense for high-value targets--like that Syrian nuclear facility. The system's on-board radar can detect medium-altitude targets up to 30 miles away; the Pantsir's cannons are effective against targets up to 10,000 feet, and the missiles have a maximum range of roughly nine miles. In terms of close-in air defense, the Pantsir is supposed to be state-of-the-art, but it (apparently) proved ineffective against the Israeli raid.

Tehran's third concern? The Iranian air defense network is far more chaotic than its Syrian counterpart. In recent years, there have been credible reports about Iranian fighters sent out in pursuit of mystery lights and "UFOs," and near-fratricide incidents involving civilian airliners. If the Israelis were successful in blinding Syria's more centralized system (which covers a relatively small area), then they should have little problem in creating mass confusion within the Iranian network. Assuming that Israel eventually attacks, Iranian air defense crews could find themselves operating in a de-centralized mode, chasing targets that don't exist, and illuminating their radars with the knowledge that an anti-radar missile may be on the way.

Finally, the U.S. recently confirmed to ABC News that Israel did indeed bomb a nuclear facility in Syria.

The September Israeli airstrike on a suspected nuclear site in Syria had been in the works for months, ABC News has learned, and was delayed only at the strong urging of the United States.

In early July the Israelis presented the United States with satellite imagery that they said showed a nuclear facility in Syria. They had additional evidence that they said showed that some of the technology was supplied by North Korea.

One U.S. official told ABC's Martha Raddatz the material was "jaw dropping" because it raised questions as to why U.S. intelligence had not previously picked up on the facility.

Officials said that the facility had likely been there for months if not years.

"Israel tends to be very thorough about its intelligence coverage, particularly when it takes a major military step, so they would not have acted without data from several sources," said ABC military consultant Tony Cordesman.

Some in the administration supported the Israeli action, but others, notably Sect. of State Condoleeza Rice did not. One senior official said the U.S. convinced the Israelis to "confront Syria before attacking."

Officials said they were concerned about the impact an attack on Syria would have on the region. And given the profound consequences of the flawed intelligence in Iraq, the U.S. wanted to be absolutely certain the intelligence was accurate.

Initially, administration officials convinced the Israelis to call off the July strike. But in September the Israelis feared that news of the site was about to leak and went ahead with the strike despite U.S. concerns.

Jules Crittenden wonders what kind of stability the State Department was trying to protect.

There's the stability enforced by dictatorial regimes in places as Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia. There's the stability places like Lebanon and Iraq are barely managing to maintain ... no thanks to Syria, Iran, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Palestinians, etc., but thanks in large part to the Lebanese Army, the Israeli Defense Forces and the United States military. There's the stability of Gaza, accomplished in part when one group of Palestinian terrorists decided to throw the other group of Palestinian terrorists off rooftops, but really thanks to the Israeli Defense Forces, which make it impossible for either group to be much more than a nuisance. There's the stability of the West Bank, where they've had enough.

Anyway, so Israel gets the nod, blows up the Syrian nukes, and what happens? Nothing. Syria is hardly likely to want another humiliating ass-kicking. That leaves terrorism. ... That'd be different.

Just kidding. Except that ever since Israel introduced some stability to Lebanon, Hezbollah hasn't been quite on its game. The Lebs, meanwhile, appear to have watched and learned from the Israelis. Blowing the crap out of terrorists and those who harbor them works. It can actually introduce stability to places where stability had been wanting. So the Lebs have been taking care of business in the camps.

Just for the record, I fully support Israel's actions in humiliating Syria, scaring Iran, and reducing the threat the terrorist nutters in Hezbollah will get the bomb. Thank-you for doing what we won't and thank-you for seeing what we couldn't.