SYRIA AFTER LEBANON:
THE GROWING SYRIAN MISSILE THREAT
By Lee Kass
Left unresolved, such questions about Syrian proliferation ambitions, coupled with the regime's demonstrated willingness to use terrorism to advance its goals, will make any rapprochement between Washington and Damascus impossible.
Perhaps to compensate for this weakness, the Syrian regime has sought to upgrade its weapons capability. When Israeli warplanes struck a Palestinian Islamic Jihad base ten miles northwest of Damascus in October, 2003, following the terrorist group's suicide bomb attack in a Haifa restaurant, Iraqis who were in Damascus at the time said Syrian air defense did not react.
The Syrian regime's efforts to upgrade its missile capability threaten U.S., Israeli, and Turkish interests. With a stronger Syrian missile capability, the Assad regime could launch either a preemptive strike or, more likely, feel itself secure enough in its deterrent capability to encourage terrorism without fear of consequence.
Syrian officials have sought to obtain the advanced SS-X-26 surface-to-surface missiles, also known as Iskander-Es, from Russia, but Russian President Vladimir Putin cancelled the deal, after learning from his experts that Israel would not have a capability to intercept the missiles.  With a range of 174 miles (280 kilometers), the Iskander-E could have hit cities such as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa. While a significant threat, due to the proximity of Israeli population centers, the missiles fall under the 186 mile (300 kilometer) range subject to the Missile Technology Control Regime to which Russia, the United States, and thirty-two other countries are subject. It is unclear from unclassified sources whether countries that obtain Iskander-Es can extend the missiles' range, but, if so, they would pose an enhanced threat to Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq as well.  Regardless, the chance that the Syrian government might provide the missile to terrorists or other rogue states undermines both the spirit and the effectiveness of the Missile Technology Control Regime and other nonproliferation agreements.
The Iskander-E would be a particularly dangerous upgrade. Unlike Scuds, Iskander-Es have solid fuel propellants. Solid propellants are less complicated because the fuel and oxidizer do not need to travel through a labyrinth of pumps, pipes, valves, and turbo-pumps to ignite the engines. Instead, when a solid propellant is lit, it burns from the center outward, significantly reducing launch preparation time.
Immediately after launch, Iskander-Es perform maneuvers that prevent opponents from tracking and destroying the launchers. Once in flight, the Iskander-Es can deploy decoys and execute unpredictable flight paths to confuse missile defense systems.  Moreover, they are fast. According to Uzi Rubin, former head of Israel's Arrow-Homa missile defense program, the Iskander can fly at 1,500 meters per second, equivalent to 3,355 miles (5,370 kilometers) per hour.  Launched from Damascus, the Iskander-E could reach Tel Aviv in less than three minutes, sooner if the Iskanders' mobile launchers were moved closer to the border. This capability might prevent Israel's multi-tiered missile defense shield from adequately protecting the country.
Even though Iskander-Es lack the range to hit many strategic targets, their accuracy and varied warhead types make them an adaptable military system. The missile was intended to obliterate both stationary and mobile targets, particularly shortrange missile launchers, ports, command and control facilities, factories, and hardened structures. Such flexibility would allow Syria to destroy an enemy's existing military capabilities and its ability to wage a future war. 
These concerns have led both the U.S. and Israeli governments to criticize the Syrian regime's attempts to acquire the new technology. One U.S. official stated, "We don't think that state sponsors of terrorism should be sold weapons of any kind."  Israel's government is focused on the possibility that Palestinian terrorists might obtain the equipment.  According to the U.S. State Department's Patterns of Global Terrorism, Syria supports or provides safe haven to a number of terrorist groups, including Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. 
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov acknowledged such concerns when he announced that Moscow, at least temporarily, would halt export of the missile to Syria.  At an April, 2005, meeting with senior Israeli officials, Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed that he cancelled the Syrian Iskander contract because Israel lacks the ability to intercept those missiles. 
Instead, Putin said that the Russian government would only authorize sale of Strelet surface-to-air systems that are unable to penetrate Israel.  While a nominal downgrade, even with a range of just three miles (five kilometers),  the system can pose a significant threat to Israel. These missiles can proliferate to Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations supported by the Syrian regime. In such hands, the Strelets could endanger passenger planes on descent to Ben Gurion International Airport, outside Tel Aviv and just four miles from the West Bank.  Russian officials say they will only sell Damascus the vehicle-mounted version and not the shoulder-held type, but Western defense officials say operators can easily dismantle Strelets to make them transportable. 
Augmenting concern was the Israeli disclosure of a Syrian launch of three Scud missiles on May 27, 2005.  The tests were the first since 2001 and represented a significant milestone in the country's missile program, because the three Scud missiles carried airburst warheads. This capability reinforced Israeli concerns that Syria could use the Scuds to deliver chemical weapons. One of the missiles launched was an older Scud B, with a range of about 185 miles (300 kilometers), while the remaining two were newer Scud-Ds with a range of approximately 435 miles (700 kilometers).  The greater range not only gives Syria greater reach but also allows launches from deeper within Syrian territory, making it more difficult to undertake a preemptive aerial attack on the launchers.
U.S., Israeli, and other Western governments' concerns over Russian missile sales to Syria will likely go unheeded. After all, international security concerns have not stopped Russian support for the Iranian nuclear program.  Sergey Kazannov, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences World Economics and International Relations Institutes' Geopolitics Division, said that, in Soviet times, political reasons and the need to maintain the Soviet defense industry motivated Moscow's arms sales.  The post-Cold War climate undercut opportunities for the Russian defense industry. He elaborated:
He also added that the missile sales allow Moscow, Damascus, and other regional actors the independence to develop policies without regard to U.S. pressure.  As relations between Putin and the West worsen, such political calculations might re-enable the Iskander-E sale.
Several different intelligence sources raised red flags about suspicious truck convoys from Iraq to Syria in the days, weeks, and months prior to the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq. 
These concerns first became public when, on December 23, 2002, Ariel Sharon stated on Israeli television, "Chemical and biological weapons which Saddam is endeavoring to conceal have been moved from Iraq to Syria."  About three weeks later, Israel's Foreign Minister repeated the accusation.  The U.S., British, and Australian governments issued similar statements. 
The Syrian Foreign Minister dismissed such charges as a U.S. attempt to divert attention from its problems in Iraq.  But, even if the Syrian regime were sincere, Bashar al-Assad's previous statement -- "I don't do everything in this country,"  -- suggested that Iraqi chemical or biological weapons could cross the Syrian frontier without regime consent. Rather than exculpate the Syrian regime, such a scenario makes the presence of Iraqi weapons in Syria more worrisome, for it suggests that Assad might either eschew responsibility for their ultimate custody or may not actually be able to prevent their transfer to terrorist groups that enjoy close relations with officials in his regime.
Two former United Nations weapon inspectors in Iraq reinforced concerns about illicit transfer of weapon components into Syria in the wake of Saddam Hussein's fall. Richard Butler viewed overhead imagery and other intelligence suggesting that Iraqis transported some weapons components into Syria. Butler did not think --
Former Iraq Survey Group head David Kay obtained corroborating information from the interrogation of former Iraqi officials. He said that the missing components were small in quantity, but he, nevertheless, felt that U.S. intelligence officials needed to determine what reached Syria. 
Baghdad and Damascus may have long been rivals, but there was precedent for such Iraqi cooperation with regional competitors when faced with an outside threat. In the run-up to the 1991 Operation Desert Storm and the liberation of Kuwait, the Iraqi regime flew many of its jets to Iran, with which, just three years previous, it had been engaged in bitter trench warfare. 
Subsequent reports by the Iraq Survey Group, at first glance, threw cold water on some speculation about the fate of missing Iraqi weapons, but a closer read suggests that questions about a possible transfer to Syria remain open. The September 30, 2004, Duelfer report,  while inconclusive, left open such a possibility. While Duelfer dismissed reports of official transfer of weapons material from Iraq into Syria, the Iraq Survey Group was not able to discount the unofficial movement of limited material.
Duelfer described weapons smuggling between both countries prior to Saddam's ouster.  In one incident detailed by a leading British newspaper, intelligence sources assigned to monitor Baghdad's air traffic raised suspicions that Iraqi authorities had smuggled centrifuge components out of Syria in June, 2002. The parts were initially stored in the Syrian port of Tartus, before being transported to Damascus International Airport. The transfer allegedly occurred when Iraqi authorities sent twenty-four planes with humanitarian assistance into Syria after a dam collapsed in June 2002, killing twenty people and leaving some 30,000 others homeless.  Intelligence officials do not believe these planes returned to Iraq empty. Regardless of the merits of this one particular episode, it is well documented that Syria became the main conduit in Saddam Hussein's attempt to rebuild his military under the 1990-2003 United Nations sanctions,  and so the necessary contacts between regimes and along the border would already have been in place. Indeed, according to U.S. Defense Department sources, the weapons smuggling held such importance for the Syrian regime that the trade included Assad's older sister and his brother-in-law, Assaf Shawqat, Deputy Chief of Syria's military intelligence organization. Numerous reports also implicate Shawqat's two brothers, who participated in the Syrian-Iraqi trade during the two years before Saddam's ouster.
While the Duelfer report was inconclusive, part of its failure to tie up all loose ends was due to declining security conditions in Iraq, which forced the Iraq Survey Group to curtail its operations.  The cloud of suspicion over the Syrian regime's role in smuggling Iraq's weapons -- and speculation as to the nature of those weapons -- will not dissipate until Damascus reveals the contents of truck convoys spotted entering Syria from Iraq in the run-up to the March, 2003, U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.  U.S. intelligence officials and policymakers also will not be able to end speculation until Bashar al-Assad completely and unconditionally allows international inspectors to search suspected depots and interview key participants in the Syrian-Iraqi weapons trade. Four repositories in Syria remain under suspicion. Anonymous U.S. sources have suggested that some components may have been kept in an ammunition facility adjacent to a military base close to Khan Abu Shamat, 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Damascus. In addition, three sites in the western part of central Syria, an area where support for the Assad regime is strong, are reputed to house suspicious weapons components. These sites include an air force factory in the village of Tall as-Sinan; a mountainous tunnel near Al-Baydah, less than five miles from Al-Masyaf (Masyaf); and another location near Shanshar. 
While the Western media often focus on the fate of Iraqi weapons components, just as important to Syrian proliferation efforts has been the influx of Iraqi weapons scientists. The Daily Telegraph reported prior to the 2003 Iraq war that Iraq's former special security organization and Shawqat arranged for the transfer into Syria of twelve mid-level Iraqi weapons specialists, along with their families and compact disks full of research material on their country's nuclear initiatives. According to unnamed Western intelligence officials cited in the report, Assad turned around and offered to relocate the scientists to Iran, on the condition that Tehran would share the fruits of their research with Damascus. 
In 2003, cooperation between U.S. and British intelligence and coordination with their militaries led to the seizure of a Libya-bound ship that carried material for its nuclear weapons program. The capture partly led to Tripoli's agreement to dismantle and destroy its weapons of mass destruction capabilities.  Additionally, it was the seizure of this ship that unraveled Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadir Khan's clandestine nuclear proliferation network. While the exposure of the network drew international attention, the limelight did not eradicate the program. As one former aid of Khan's acknowledged, "The hardware is still available, and the network hasn't stopped." 
Khan visited various countries throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia. While no credible evidence yet links Khan's network to Damascus, Western diplomats said that he gave numerous lectures on nuclear issues in late 1997 and early 1998 in Damascus. According to sources, starting in 2001, meetings with the Syrians were held in Iran to avoid any possible linkages between Damascus and Khan's nuclear network. One senior U.S. official stated that an experimental electronic monitor recognized the unique patterns of operational centrifuges in Syria in early to mid-2004. The source reaffirmed Washington's suspicion that the technology originated from Khan's nexus. 
The Pakistani government has been unwilling to cooperate fully in the investigation of Khan's activities. As Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf explained,
Some analysts note that Islamabad, in addition to wanting to safeguard the nuclear weapons program, fears Khan might disclose the extent of support he obtained from the Pakistani military. Further complicating efforts to determine what assistance, if any, the Khan network provided Syria, Pakistan's Interior Ministry denied exit visas to over a dozen technicians who worked in the country's nuclear weapons program and barred the officials from meeting or exchanging information with any foreigner.  Such unknowns about the extent of weapons know-how and material acquired from Iraq and Pakistan may not equate to proof, but they raise serious concerns about Syrian intentions, all the more so because Damascus has not been forthcoming with explanations and simultaneously has worked to acquire potential delivery systems from Russian firms.
The Syrian government denies harboring terrorists, although much of this denial is based on unwillingness to recognize terrorist groups as such. Damascus views many terrorists as soldiers in its war against Israel. Syrian-backed terrorists have attacked Israel, often from Syrian-occupied Bekaa Valley in neighboring Lebanon.  Even though the Syrian military has officially ended its occupation of Lebanon under terms of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559,  the Syrian intelligence presence in Lebanon remains significant. 
Syrian willingness to encourage terrorism, not only against Israel but also against other neighbors, is well documented. Until 1999, the Syrian regime provided Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorists safe-haven from which to strike at Turkey.  Syrian intelligence or its proxies remain the chief suspect in the February 14, 2005, assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. 
The Syrian regime has also played a double game with regard to Iraq. General John Abizaid, the Commander of U.S. Forces in the Middle East, commented that, although Damascus made some progress in the curtailment of insurgents entering Iraq,
CIA director Peter Goss concurred. In March, 2005, he told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee,
Syrian support for terrorism, combined with its lack of support for the new Iraqi government, make more troubling the possibility that the Syrian regime became custodian to Iraq's chemical and biological weapons capability in the final days of Saddam Hussein's regime.
The confluence of weapons of mass destruction ambitions and Syrian willingness to sponsor terrorism make Syrian ambitions particularly dangerous. In April, 2004, for example, Jordanian authorities intercepted, arrested, or killed several Al-Qa'ida-sponsored terrorists who planned to attack the U.S. Embassy and Jordanian targets in Amman with chemical weapons. The terrorists gathered their materials in Syria and used that country as a base from which to infiltrate Jordan.  While the Syrian government denies any role, the implication that it participated in such a potentially catastrophic tragedy underlines Damascus's opposition to the war on terrorism.
The Syrian government may feel that it can ameliorate or outlast U.S. concerns about its flirtation with terrorist groups. In the aftermath of 9-11, Syrian officials detained some alleged Al-Qa'ida operatives, but they allowed U.S. officials only to submit questions in writing, not to interrogate the suspects directly.  Realists within the Bush administration did not sanction such à la carte for the war on terrorism. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, for example, remarked, "If you oppose terrorism, you oppose all terrorism."  Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's new lineup at the State Department shows no sign of deviating from such positions.
The Syrian government may also believe that Washington is not able to back its rhetoric against Syria with action. With more than 100,000 U.S. troops committed in Iraq, looming crises over the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs and European Union cynicism, the Syrian government remains convinced that U.S. efforts to isolate Damascus will fail. As Assad recently told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica,
But, Assad's belief that Washington needs his cooperation may be a significant misread of U.S. policy. Partly in response to Damascus's refusal to cooperate completely in the war on terrorism, President Bush signed the "Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003."  Under terms of the act, American firms cannot export any products to Syria beyond food and medicine. The President can wave this provision for an unspecified duration, provided he determines that it would further U.S. national security and he submits justification for the waiver to the appropriate Congressional committees.  However, Bush increasingly shows little inclination to waive such provisions. In late February, 2005, some U.S. government officials suggested that the Bush administration was exploring additional measures against Syria. Under the Syrian Accountability Act, Bush could cut off Syrian access to U.S. banks, limit the travel of Syrian diplomats within the United States, and freeze Syrian assets.  Other provisions call for the Secretary of State to submit to Congress an annual report on provisions relating to the prevention of dual-use technologies that Damascus could use to advance its ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction projects; such reports will also prevent questions over Syrian compliance to fade from policymakers' attention. 
Evidence indicates otherwise. Syrian attempts to obtain a sophisticated Russian ballistic missile undermine Washington's ability to prevent terrorist sponsors from advancing their military capabilities. Damascus's failure to come clean regarding prewar Iraqi convoys and immigration of Iraqi weapons personnel, as well as its flirtation with Abdul Qadir Khan, raise questions about Assad's sincerity.
The unknowns regarding Syria's weapons programs are especially worrisome, given Assad's continued rejection of international norms of behavior. Syrian obstructionism and attempts to augment its weapons of mass destruction stock make expansion and enforcement of the Proliferation Security Initiative imperative, a strategy supported by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.  Offering economic or political incentives to Yemen, Turkey, Egypt, and other countries which retain close relationships with Syria might help shut down avenues which the Syrian regime uses to advance its weapons projects, although the damage to counter-proliferation efforts caused by Abdul Qadir Khan's network suggests that there should be a verification mechanism beyond simple diplomatic assurance.
Failure to counter Syrian weapons ambitions could undercut U.S. democracy and antiterror initiatives. The Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon has neither changed basic Syrian behavior nor altered its regional ambitions. The combination of a ballistic missile capability, chemical and biological weapons, and a willingness to arm or turn a blind-eye to terrorists -- including those targeting the U.S. presence in Iraq -- might lead to bolder terror initiatives, like the attempt in Amman in April, 2004, as well as embolden rejectionism by a Syrian regime feeling its arsenal sufficient to deter a U.S. response. Only with sustained pressure can Washington prevent the Syrian regime from such a miscalculation.
 Syria Primer, Virtual Information Center, Apr. 24, 2003, p. 38, 47.
 Associated Press, Apr. 28, 2005.
 "The SS-26," The Claremont Institute, accessed June 8, 2005.
 Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), Jan. 13, 2005.
 "The SS-26," The Claremont Institute.
 Agence France-Presse, Feb. 16, 2005.
 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Jan. 13, 2005.
 "Overview of State-Sponsored Terrorism," Patterns of Global Terrorism, 2004 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State,
 Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostey (Moscow), Mar. 25, 2005.
 Associated Press, Apr. 28, 2005.
 Associated Press, Apr. 21, 2005.
 Associated Press, Apr. 26, 2005.
 Yaakov Amidror, "Israel's Requirements for Defensible Borders," Defensible Borders for a Lasting Peace (Jerusalem:
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs), p. 33.
 Reuters, Apr. 21, 2005.
 The Jerusalem Post, June 5, 2005.
 The New York Times, June 4, 2005.
 BBC News, May 21, 2005.
 Politkum.ru (Moscow), Feb. 21, 2005.
 "Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and
Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 July through 31 Dec. 2003," CIA, Nov. 2004, p. 6.
 The Washington Times, Oct. 28, 2004.
 Israel's Channel 2, Dec. 23, 2002.
 Petah Tiqva, Yoman Shevu'i supplement (Tel Aviv), Feb. 21 2003.
 "Syria's Weapons of Mass Destruction and Missile Development Program," testimony of John R. Bolton, U.S.
Undersecretary of Arms Control and International Security, before the House International Relations Committee,
Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, Sept. 16, 2003; BBC News, Apr. 14, 2003; Alexander Downer, Australian
Minister of Foreign Affairs, news conference, Canberra, June 5, 2003.
 Agence France-Presse, Apr. 17, 2003.
 Time, Mar. 14, 2005.
 Agence France-Presse, Apr. 15 2003.
 Sunday Telegraph (London), Jan. 25, 2005.
 Los Angeles Times, Oct. 8, 1991.
 Complied by Charles Duelfer, Special Advisor for Strategy to the Director of Central Intelligence.
 Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD, vol. 1, (Washington, D.C.: CIA, Sept. 30, 2004),
hereafter, Duelfer report, p. 104.
 The Times (London) June 17, 2002.
 Duelfer report, p. 239.
 Ibid., p. 104.
 Addendums to Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on WMD, Mar. 2005, accessed on June 8 2005.
 The Washington Times, Oct. 28, 2004.
 Petah Tiqva, Yoman Shevu'i supplement, Feb. 21 2003.
 De Telegraaf (Amsterdam), Jan. 5, 2004.
 The Daily Telegraph (London), Sept. 26, 2004.
 State of the Union Address, Jan. 29, 2002.
 "The Proliferation Security Initiative," U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Nonproliferation, July 28, 2004.
 The Washington Times, Dec. 23, 2004.
 Time, Feb. 14, 2005.
 Los Angeles Times, June 25, 2004.
 Los Angeles Times, Dec. 6, 2004.
 The News (Islamabad), Jan. 5, 2005.
 Patterns of Global Terrorism, 2004, p. 93.
 Patterns of Global Terrorism, 2003 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, Apr. 2004), p. 93.
 U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, S/RES/1559 (2004), Sept. 2, 2004.
 Reuters, May 20, 2005.
 Ben Thein, "Is Israel's Security Barrier Unique?" Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2004, p. 29.
 Agence France-Presse, Mar. 25, 2005.
 Associated Press, Mar. 1, 2005.
 Reuters, Mar. 17, 2005.
 CNN News, Apr. 26, 2004.
 The Washington Post, June 19, 2002.
 U.S. Embassy news release, Sept. 10, 2004.
 BBC News, Feb. 28, 2005.
 "Fact Sheet: Implementing the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003," White House
news release, May 11, 2004.
 The Washington Post, Feb. 17, 2005.
 "Fact Sheet," May 11, 2004.
 Time, Mar. 14, 2005.
 The Washington Times, Dec. 23, 2004.
The Middle East & the Problem of Syria
Military Weaponry & International Security
The Middle East & the Arabs
Islamism & Jihadism -- The Threat of Radical Islam
Page Three Page Two Page One
War & Peace in the Real World
Page Two Page One
Islamist Terrorist Attacks on the U.S.A.
Osama bin Laden & the Islamist Declaration of War
Against the U.S.A. & Western Civilization
Islamist International Terrorism &
U.S. Intelligence Agencies
U.S. National Security Strategy
The foregoing article by Lee Kass was originally published in the Middle East Quarterly, Fall, 2005, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum.
Lee Kass is an analyst in the Research and Analysis Division of Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). The views
expressed in this article are his own.
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