Unlike his father, who brought Syria into the American-led coalition against Baghdad in 1991 and reaped enormous financial and diplomatic rewards, Syrian President Bashar Assad may pay a heavy diplomatic price for backing a losing horse.
Last spring, American airborne radar aircraft monitoring the no-fly zones in Iraq detected a steady rise in the number of flights by Iraqi combat aircraft in the unrestricted central zone of the country. This raised many eyebrows at the Pentagon. UN restrictions on imports of military equipment during the last decade had, until recently, severely depleted the combat readiness of the Iraqi air force. The number of training flights over the skies of Baghdad had been on the decline, as Iraqi technicians were increasingly forced to dismantle healthy aircraft just to obtain the spare parts to keep others flying.
Had Iran returned the scores of Iraqi aircraft that took refuge on its soil during the 1991 Gulf War? American intelligence found no evidence of this. After intense surveillance of Iraqi air force installations, it was concluded that previously grounded Soviet-build aircraft were taking to the skies. For this, there could be but one explanation - Baghdad was acquiring spare parts from an outside source. At the same time, Iraq was undertaking the largest deployment of anti-aircraft missile batteries into the no-fly zones in over two years. But who was supplying Baghdad? The most pressing question was not where the equipment originated -Soviet bloc weaponry is plentiful throughout the Middle East and eastern Europe - but how the shipments got into Iraq.
Syria was a prime suspect from the very beginning. Trade between the two former enemies had skyrocketed since border controls were greatly reduced in 2000, from virtually nothing to around $1 billion last year, and increasing levels of strategic military cooperation were evident. Moreover, Syria began importing an estimated 150,000-200,000 barrels of oil per day from Iraq, in violation of UN sanctions, allowing it to significantly boost its own oil exports. Given the large volume of overland trucking and railway traffic between the two countries, the temptation to smuggle military equipment to Iraq in lieu of payment for some or all of this oil would have been enormous for Syria's cash-strapped government.
Indeed, three Iraqi defectors who left the country in late 2001 and early 2002 were making this precise allegation. By their accounts, a shipment of military equipment, including anti-aircraft missiles, rockets and Scud missile guidance systems, arrived from the Czech Republic under Syrian and Yemeni export licenses at the Syrian port of Latakia on February 23. An Iraqi intelligence officer was present to supervise the unloading of the shipment and its transfer overland to Iraq. The defectors said that two more shipments were planned.1
Western intelligence sources cited by the London Times in June confirmed the allegations. According to this report, the Czech arms shipments, as well as tanks imported by Syria from Bulgaria several years ago, were smuggled overland via the Aleppo-Mosul railway, which connects by rail to the Iraqi capital.2
On July 15, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz published new, though unattributed, information about the arms shipments. According to the the paper's defense editor, Ze'ev Schiff, Syria also transferred to Iraq refurbished T-55 tank engines and replacement parts for T-72 tanks from Bulgaria and Belarus, military trucks from Russia, 80 MiG-29 engines and radar systems from Ukraine, and spare parts of unknown origin for MiG 21s, 23s and 25s.3
Within twenty-four hours of the Ha'aretz report's publication, the Czech Ministry of Trade and Industry issued a statement insisting that no weapons exports licenses had been granted to Syria in the last two and a half years; Bulgaria's arms trade commission denied having licensed exports of T-55 and T-72 tanks or their components to Damascus, while the Hungarian Defense Ministry denied having ever approved sales of military equipment to Syria.
However, similar denials have been heard before from former Soviet bloc governments. Since the end of the Cold War, newly-privatized defense firms and arms brokers in Central and Eastern European countries have been frequently involved in illicit arms trafficking. Typically, arms dealers have worked in conjunction with corrupt government officials and shipping agents to exploit weak export controls, set up front companies and register fraudulent documents to create a false paper trail. In most cases, arms shipments are authorized on paper for export to a third, legal destination.
It was in this fashion, for example, that Sudan was able to import T-55 tanks from Russia, BMP-2 armored personnel carriers from the Ukraine, and Mi-24B attack helicopters from Belarus during the 1990s.4 According to Human Rights Watch, in 2000 the Czech Republic "delivered surplus tanks sold to Yemen despite concerns that they might be illegally diverted" to a third country. In the mid-1990s, Bulgarian weapons were supplied illegally to Angolan rebels and Ukrainian arms dealers violated the UN arms embargo on Liberia.5
In a July 18 interview, Syrian UN Ambassador Mikhail Wehbe accused Israel of manufacturing reports on Syrian arms smuggling to Iraq, but did not specifically deny that his government has provided Baghdad with weapons.6 Indeed, the Syrian regime has seemed to relish the attention that this allegation has brought it in the Arab world. On July 25, Syrian foreign minister Farouk al-Sharaa boasted that Bush administration officials "feel that the main weak point in their war [planning] is Syria's good relations with Iraq."7
According to the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, American officials confronted the Syrians in May, producing satellite photographs showing Syrian arms shipments en route to Iraq.8 However, the Bush administration has not publicly accused the Assad regime of violating UN weapons sanctions against Baghdad.
This may reflect continuing uncertainty as to whether Syria is responsible for the smuggling or, more likely, uncertainty as to whether Assad himself has authorized the shipments. It is rumored that the principal Syrian figure behind the arms transfers is Firas Tlass, the son of Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass. Firas owns several holding companies in Syria and has long been involved in smuggling consumer goods into the country and selling them for a handsome profit on the black market. He has also been involved in regular commercial trade with the Iraqis.
It is also possible that the Bush administration has ascertained with a reasonable degree certainty that Assad is responsible for the sanctions violations, but is unwilling to openly rebuke the Syrian leader for fear that this would strain its already tense relations with other Arab governments. It is apparently for this reason that US officials no longer express indignation at Assad's failure to abide by his promise to end illegal oil imports from Iraq. Once Saddam Huseein is removed, however, it not likely that Syria's violation of the sanctions will be forgotten.
US officials are probably not overly concerned with the potential impact of Syrian arms smuggling on the military outcome of an all-out war against Iraq. The Iraqi military does not suffer from quantitative deficiencies vis-a-vis American forces, but from qualitative shortcomings. A greater concern, for example, is Iraq's acquisition of Chinese-manufactured fiber optic cables, which have enabled it to improve its air defense system (there is no evidence that Syria played a role in this).
Extensive repairs to Iraqi aircraft and armor could, however, have a marginal impact on Saddam Hussein's ability to suppress internal challenges to his authority. Moreover, while having more serviceable aircraft would not enable the Iraqis to mount a serious threat to American pilots, it could measurably improve the outcome of a "hail Mary" surprise air strike on Israel with chemical weapons - one or two aircraft might succeed in delivering their payloads if a sufficiently large number of aircraft attack simultaneously and overwhelm the Jewish state's air defenses.
1 The Guardian (London) 29 April 2002.
2 The Times (London), 10 June 2002.
3 Ha'aretz, 15 July 2002.
4 Human Rights Watch, Global Trade, Local Impact: Arms Transfers to all Sides in the Civil War in Sudan, August 1998.
5 Human Rights Watch, Security Concerns Raised by Arms Transfers from Candidate Countries, 19 October 2001; No Questions Asked: The Eastern Europe Arms Pipeline to Liberia, 15 November 2001.
6 The Daily Star (Beirut), 18 July 2002.
7 The Financial Times, 26 July 2002.
7 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 21 June 2002.