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Friday, April 28, 2006

Syria poised to spend petrodollars on arms

One of the reasons that Israel's border with Syria has felt relatively secure over the past several years is that since the fall of the Soviet Union, Syria has not had an arms supplier, and its weapons systems have been outdated. In other words, Israel could be confident that it has technological superiority to the Syrians. And while stories have abounded in the press about Saddam Hussein hiding his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Syria in advance of the US invasion of Iraq, Syria has tgiven no indication that it has them or that it is ready to use them. Now, that may all be about to change.

Israel Military Intelligence chief Major General Amos Yadlin hinted at a lecture yesterday that Israel's military intelligence now believes that Syria, which is making windfall profits from rising oil prices, is interested in going weapons shopping. Yadlin also said that large oil producers like Iran and Saudi Arabia are also using oil profits to purchase weapons.

Syria is expected to spend money on refitting its air force, which stopped buying new planes in the 1980s. The Syrians are also continuing to focus their arms production on rockets and longer-range SCUDS. Production, he said, was continuing on 200 to 300 millimeter rockets with a range of dozens of kilometers. Some of these weapons are apparently being given to Hezbollah,which is deploying them along the border between Lebanon and Israel.

Syria is apparently playing on the US's domestic opposition to the Iraq war, and is urging Hezbollah not to give in to demands to disarm.

But Israel is not the only enemy at which Syrian arms may be aimed. Some of you may recall that in 1970, Syria tried to intervene in the civil war between Jordan and the PLO which became known as Black September. The Syrians recall it very well, and may now wish to take advantage of the current tensions between Jordan and Hamas for their own gains. (Hamas is a Syrian proxy and its leadership is in Damascus). Some of you may also recall that earlier this week I reported that a Hamas weapons cache that was discovered in Jordan apparently came from Syria.

Hamas and Syria have both denied those charges. Damascus-based Hamas leader Musa Abu-Marzuk said they reflected confusion in Jordan Hamas' victory in the Palestinian elections.

HaAretz analyst Amos Harel says that it is unclear how reliable the Jordanian reports regarding the weapons and their source are. Israeli intelligence officials say Khaled Meshal, head of Hamas' political wing in Damascus, has "accounts to settle" with Jordan after he was expelled from the country at Israel's request, following a failed attempt on his life by the Mossad (Israel's intelligence agency).

Harel raises a number of other explanations for the arms and their source. He says that the Hamas cell may have been working under orders from the Syrian regime. It is also possible that Hamas is cooperating with the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, a possibility that has Amman very worried. (Recall that Meshal met with an al-Qaida representative in Yemen two weeks ago. Both Hamas and al-Qaida are offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood).

Finally, Jordan's accusations against Hamas may also be a way of justifying the cold shoulder it has given the organization since its election victory in the PA.


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