Syria's Clenched Fist
by Robert Maginnis (more by this author)
Posted 03/03/2009 ET

Syria is building a new chemical weapons factory next to a long-range missile base, hiding evidence of its mushrooming nuclear weapons program and radically increasing military spending on conventional systems. These activities which are primarily funded by Iran suggest Damascus is preparing for war and not -- in President Obama’s unhappy terminology -- unclenching its fist.

President Obama promised “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” Why then has the president “extended” his hand when Damascus is obviously on the war path?

Last month, Obama sent a congressional delegation headed by Senator John Kerry (D-Ma) to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad. After that meeting Kerry said there are possibilities for “real cooperation” with Syria but in return Syria must “change its behavior.” Then last week Obama’s State Department hosted talks with Syria’s ambassador hoping to “advance U.S. interests” but immediately President Obama authorized the Commerce Department to approve the export of U.S. components for Syria’s fleet of aging Boeing 747 aircraft.

The export of components for Syria’s aircraft marks a departure from nearly five years of sanctions under the Syrian Accountability Act. Reportedly Syria has used its passenger jets to ferry weapons from Iran to Tehran’s terrorist proxy group Hizballah in Lebanon.

There isn’t a shred of evidence that Syria is about to unclench its fist as Obama wishes. In fact Damascus has become an Iranian pawn, part of the Persian hegemon’s growing empire which has put the entire region in danger.

Syria’s relationship with Iran is widely understood. Last fall, Ali Ibramhim, an Egyptian Member of Parliament and editor of the Egyptian daily Al-Gomhouriyya, labeled Syria “a vassal of Iran.” Even important Syrians admit Tehran’s influence over Damascus. In Dec. 2008, former Syrian vice president Abd al-Halim Khaddam admitted, “Iran has a significant presence in Syria. Iran is involved in the very heart of the regime -- in its security agencies, in its military forces, in its economic [institutions], and in its mosques.”

Iran has taken great pains to establish this special relationship with Syria. A July 2007 article in London’s daily Al-Sharq Al-Swsat outlined a previously secret Iran-Syria agreement that establishes their quid pro quo relationship and explains Damascus’ current militarization binge.

That report states Tehran and Damascus sealed a secret strategic cooperation deal allowing Iran considerable sway in Syria including the right to deploy weapons like long-range missiles and using that country to resupply Hizballah.

Hizballah, one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations, aims to destroy Israel, is a dominant force in Lebanon, and is among Iran’s terrorist surrogates fighting in Iraq.

Syria receives significant military aid in exchange for allowing Tehran free rein. Damascus was promised money to purchase weapons and Iran would build in Syria factories to produce missiles and launchers. Damascus was to receive armored vehicles and Iranian-made antiship missiles and it was promised technological aid relating to nuclear research and chemical weapons.

There is significant evidence Tehran has delivered on all these promises.

Syria has been on a conventional weapons buying binge to equip its 380,000 man army. In the past three years, Syria spent more than $3 billion on weapons, which is 10 percent of its annual budget for each year. By comparison Damascus spent only $100 million for weapons as recently as 2002.

Most of the arms money appears to have come from Tehran. Last March, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Syria received $1 billion from Iran to buy missiles, rockets and anti-aircraft systems. Two months later a Syrian delegation visited Moscow seeking a variety of new weapons. It sought sophisticated long-range S-300 surface-to-air missiles that could defeat Israeli fighters, MiG 29 fighter jets, Iskander surface-to-surface missiles and Amur-1650 submarines from Russia.

Since 2007, Syria has added significant capability to its ballistic missile fleet. According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, Syria has a massive missile production facility at al-Hamma known as “missile city” which houses hundreds of ballistic missiles and their launchers, as well as “… 30 reinforced underground concrete bunkers, production facilities, development laboratories, and command posts.” The report indicates chemical agent warheads for the missiles are stored separately outside the missile complex.

Syria has expanded its weapons of mass destruction program since signing the Iranian agreement. The February 2009 edition of Jane’s Intelligence Review (JIR) reported Syria has stepped up production of chemical weapons at its al Safir facility. The report states Syria shows “significant levels of construction” including sophisticated filtration systems and cooling towers adjacent to a missile base with long-range Scud-D ballistic missiles, which can reach all of Israel.

A July 2007 accident demonstrates Syria’s chemical weaponization efforts and Iran’s complicity. Jane’s Defense Weekly reported that 15 military personnel and “dozens” of Iranian advisers died when the fuel for a missile caught fire and the weapon exploded. The report said the explosion sent out a cloud of nerve gases, including deadly VX and sarin agents as well as mustard gas.

Syria also has a nuclear program. Last Tuesday, Syria announced that it converted a suspected nuclear site bombed by Israel in September 2007 to a military installation for firing missiles. Converting the al Kibar site to a military facility means it won’t be open to inspection and therefore cripples the United Nation’s ongoing investigation.

Initially, Syria refused the UN access to al Kibar after Israel’s attack claiming it had “nothing to hide.” But once the site was bulldozed and new construction started it allowed an inspection visit in June 2008.

That inspection was to determine whether there was nuclear development there as Israel has alleged. A November 2008 UN report states samples taken from the site included 80 uranium particles used in nuclear fuel, high-grade graphite, used to control the speed of fission in some reactors and barium sulfate, a nuclear shielding material.

Last April, senior U.S. intelligence officials testified al Kibar harbored “… a nuclear reactor … constructed by the Syrians … for the production of plutonium with the assistance of the North Koreans.” Officials indicated that once finished the reactor would have been able to produce plutonium for atomic weapons.

It’s noteworthy that DEBKAfile, an Israeli open source military intelligence website, alleges Tehran “funded the North Korean reactor in Syria.” The Iran-Syria plan in the event of a war with Israel, according to DEBKAfile, was to use al Kibar to produce “dirty weapons” material to be distributed to the terrorist organizations fighting Israel, while “Iran would go for a nuclear bomb.”

Israel knows Syria is rapidly militarizing and recognizes that their win now, lose later calculus is running on borrowed time. They also see that Obama is quickly removing America from their calculus in favor of their enemies. With Binyamin Netanyahu now at the helm in Jerusalem we seem to be driving Israel closer to attacking Iran and/or Syria unilaterally.

There is no evidence Syria has unclenched its fist. Rather, Damascus is firmly in the clenched grip of Tehran and its hegemonic agenda. President Obama should retract his extended hand and join hands with democratic Israel to stop the Persians and their Syrian proxy.
Mr. Maginnis is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, a national security and foreign affairs analyst for radio and television and a senior strategist with the U.S. Army.