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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Israel Says Syria, Not Just Iran, Supplied Missiles to Hezbollah

The Los Angeles Times is reporting this morning that Syria supplied weapons directly to Hezbullah. It was previously thought by most non-Israeli sources that Syria acted only as a trans-shipment point for Iranian weapons heading for Hezbullah. Additionally, it turns out that Hezbullah had a lot more 'fighters' than previously thought, and that although Israel killed about 500 of them, that is only 15% and not the much higher numbers previously indicated.

New postwar intelligence indicates that the militant group Hezbollah had broader access to sophisticated weaponry than was publicly known — including large numbers of medium-range rockets made in Syria, said U.S. and Israeli government officials and military analysts.

The size of the Hezbollah arsenal and the direct role of Syria in supplying it will complicate the daunting task of keeping Hezbollah from rearming, the officials said.

Before the war, Hezbollah's access to weapons supplied by Iran and shipped through other countries was well documented. So was Syria's political support for Hezbollah and its role in allowing shipments of arms into Lebanon from Iran. But Washington thought Syria for the most part was not supplying munitions directly.

The new weapons data indicating a broader Syrian role were gathered by Israel largely by examining debris left by shells that hit the country during the conflict. The examination uncovered the serial numbers and other defining characteristics of the weapons. Israel's postwar forensics have shown some of the rockets were manufactured by the Syrian munitions industry, military sources said.

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Syrian officials would not confirm or deny the reports.

"These are just accusations," said a spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in Washington, who requested anonymity because only the ambassador was allowed to discuss official Syrian policy. "If they have evidence, they should make it clear."

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"There's a limit to what we can do in response to this," said Miri Eisen, a senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The forensic evidence from shell debris bolstered what Israeli officials said they had long known about Syria's role in helping to arm Hezbollah.

"Syria has been a direct supplier of rockets, as well as a safe haven and weapons conduit," Eisen said.

"The short- to medium-range rockets that hit Tiberias and Haifa turned out to have been directly supplied by Syria — just as we said all along," Eisen said, referring to the northern Israeli cities targeted by Hezbollah.

Analysts said Syria's role in directly arming Hezbollah marked a shift in Damascus' strategy toward Lebanon. Syria was forced to withdraw its military from Lebanon last year after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

"I don't believe these kinds of technologies passed to Hezbollah under the regime of Hafez al Assad," Syria's longtime leader who died in 2000, said David Schenker, a former Pentagon official now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Referring to Assad's son and successor, Bashar Assad, Schenker said, "The father saw Hezbollah as a tool; Bashar sees them differently."

In addition to evidence of Syrian-made weapons, Israel also said it found evidence that Hezbollah used advanced, Russian-made Kornet antitank weapons. Israeli intelligence contends that serial numbers found on spent Kornets show they were originally supplied by Russia to Syria, although others may have come from Iran.

Russia has disputed the claims, saying it keeps tight restrictions on reshipments.

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In addition to the 3,700 to 3,800 rockets fired by Hezbollah, the Israeli military said it destroyed about 1,600. Together, that would account for fewer than half of the rockets that Israeli and U.S. intelligence officials think Hezbollah had at the start of the conflict. [The claim that has been made all along in Israel is that most of Hezbullah's long-range capability was destroyed. No one has ever really claimed that the short-range capability was wiped out. CiJ].

Israel said it had underestimated the number of Hezbollah fighters. The military said it killed about 500 Hezbollah guerrillas, a figure that the militia has not confirmed. Some of the fighters who were killed or captured were using sophisticated equipment, including sniper rifles and night-vision goggles.

"At most, if you take the most dramatic claim we heard, they probably got about 15% of Hezbollah strength, and that includes wounded as well as killed in the forward area, which is not a decisive type of battle," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. military analyst who recently returned from meetings with Israeli military and intelligence officials.

"If anything, you now have very large numbers of very experienced combat people who have spent more than six weeks in active engagement with the [Israeli military] and have, if not won, learned enough so they will be a far more serious problem in the future."

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