As Lebanon's government tries to maintain its shaky grip on power, sources
tell TIME that Tehran and Damascus are shipping weapons to the militant
By ELAINE SHANNON/WASHINGTON AND TIM MCGIRK/BEIRUT
Time Magazine - Posted Nov. 24, 2006
Iran is smuggling weapons through Syria to re-arm Lebanese allies Hizballah,
despite renewed efforts by United Nations peacekeepers and the Lebanese army
to seal off the mountain borders with Syria in the wake of last summer's war
between the Shi'ite militia and Israel, according to reports by Saudi and
Israeli intelligence sources that have been confirmed by western diplomats
Israeli military officials in Tel Aviv say that Hizballah replenished nearly
half of its pre-war stockpiles of short-range missiles and small arms. But
western diplomats in Beirut say these calculations under-estimate the
weapons flow and that Hizballah has now filled its war chest with over
20,000 short-range missiles-a similar amount to what they had at the start
of the conflict, during which the group is believed to have fired over 3,000
rockets at Israel. "The Iranian pipeline through Syria was already working
during the war," despite constant Israeli bombing raids on the roads into
Lebanon from Syria, this Beirut source said. Officially, Syria and Iran deny
that they're supplying weapons to Hizballah. As for the Shi'ite group
itself, when asked about receiving a new shipment of arms from Syria and
Iran, a spokesman told TIME, without elaborating, "We have more than enough
weapons if Israel tries to attack us again."
Over the past three months, according to a knowledgeable Saudi source,
Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers have been operating out of a military
base on the outskirts of Damascus. The Iranian government has dispatched
shipments of small arms and what appear to be missile components to this
military base, according to the source. From the secret base, weapons have
been shipped by truck across the border into Lebanon. Western diplomats say
that the Lebanese army has posted over 8,000 troops along the border,
forcing smugglers to use mountain passes instead of the heavily-monitored
crossing on the main Beirut-Damascus road.
The Saudis, in particular, are alarmed at Iran's spreading influence in
Lebanon. "There has been a serious increase in (Iranian and Syrian) activity
in the rearming of HIzballah," says Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi security advisor
who is managing director of the Riyadh-based Saudi National Security
Assessment Project, a consulting group that advises the Saudi government.
Obaid contends that "a huge stream of trucks" has been crossing the border
from Syria into Lebanon, ferrying thinly disguised shipments of arms.
Moreover, Obaid says, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Iran's Ministry of
Intelligence and Security (MOIS) are using the Iranian embassies in Damascus
and Beirut as command and control centers -- an allegation that was also
confirmed to TIME by Israeli military sources. Obaid says there appear to be
direct communications links between the Iranians and Hizballah, via
Hizballah officers working inside the Iranian embassy in Beirut, and Iranian
officers in the field with Hizballah fighters; in the past, some Middle East
analysts have rejected the popular notion that Hizballah takes direct orders
Iran's apparent efforts to destabilize Lebanon and to expand Shi'ite
influence in Iraq and throughout the region are of major concern to the
Saudi government, a leading power in the Sunni Muslim world that presumably
would like to see the U.S. take a more active stance in Lebanon against its
regional rivals. Obaid says that when Vice President Cheney visits King
Abdallah bin Abd Al Aziz Al Saud Saturday in Riyadh, the Saudi king is
expected to tell Cheney that "the Saudi leadership will not and cannot allow
Iran, through Syria and Hizballah, to bring down the Lebanese government and
overtake the levers of power in Beirut." Obaid says the Saudi king is also
expected to discuss with Cheney the kingdom's worries about Iranian activity
in Iraq and the Palestinian territories as well as its alliance with Syria.
All of the Iranian and Syrian activity is taking place against the backdrop
of growing instability within Lebanon's government and Saturday's upcoming
vote among government ministers to bring the assassins of the late Prime
Minister Rafik Hariri before an international tribunal -- a process that is
expected to implicate high-level Syrian officials. Hizballah pulled out of
the country's coalition government recently after its push for greater
representation was rebuffed; many observers viewed the push for effectve
veto power as motivated by its concern that prime minister Fouad Siniora
would try to begin the process of Hizballah's disarmament that was
reaffirmed in the UN-brokered ceasefire that ended this summer's war.
Moreover, some politicians in Beirut suspect that the assassination of
Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel on Tuesday was plotted by Syria to scare
cabinet ministers into voting against the international probe into Hariri's
death by a massive truck bomb (other analysts argue the predictable fallout
from the killing just ahead of such a crucial vote is precisely why Syria
would not have ordered it). Saad Hariri, the prime minister's son and a
supporter of the current government, told TIME, "Syria is waging a campaign
of intimidation and assassinations to stop the tribunal."
If the Lebanese government approves of the tribunal, it will then go to the
United Nations, which could slap an embargo on Syria. This process will drag
on for months before it wends its way into the UN Security Council.
Moreover, such a confrontational approach would run counter to the expected
recommendation of the Iraq Study Group, commissioned by the White House, to
engage with Syria. But after the assassination of Pierre Gemayel the notion
of US talks with Syria may be off the table, at least for the moment.
- with additional reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Tel Aviv and Timothy J.
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