Israeli Spies Track the “Food Chain” of Arms from Iran to Hezbollah — Many Routes, Many Targets

Because of geography, strategy, politics, and even non-Sunni allegiances, Syria’s importance includes its role in a “food chain” from Shi’ite Iran to Shi’ite fighters in Lebanon — Hezbollah (“The Party of God”). 

Hezbollah is known to be stockpiling weapons, in part to prepare for “the next round” — seen as inevitable — referring to the bitter cross-border battle between Israel and Hezbollah’s missile forces in the Summer of 2006.

Here’s a recent analysis by Yossi Melman, published by The Jerusalem Post (as a translation from the Hebrew-language periodical, Sof HaShavua).

For almost two decades, the Israeli intelligence establishment, led by Military Intelligence and the Mossad, has been playing a game of wits, and cat and mouse with the intelligence establishments of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. Israel is trying to obtain as much information as possible on the weapons supply “food chain,” beginning with Iran’s decision to supply weapons, through their transfer to Syria and until their arrival at the Hezbollah bunkers in Lebanon.

These bunkers, according to foreign reports, are concentrated mainly in Shi’ite villages in the Bekaa Valley and in the Dachia quarter in southern Beirut – the location of Hezbollah’s central command, which has been rebuilt in recent years after having been almost completely destroyed by the IAF during the Second Lebanon War.

Armed Hezbollah fighters (courtesy The Israel Project)

From Kalashnikovs to M600’s

The two decades of supplying weapons can be divided into three periods. The first began in the 1990s, during the tenure of former Syrian president Hafez Assad, and was characterized by great caution on the part of the Syrian regime. Damascus allowed Iran to transfer arms to Hezbollah occasionally, but only relatively small amounts of light weapons: Kalashnikov rifles, ammunition, mines, mortars and some anti-tank weapons.

“Some of the weapons were supplied in an organized manner,” a former senior intelligence officer who was involved in the issue told Sof HaShavua. “But there were also personal smuggling operations. Syrian Army officers, without the knowledge of their commanders, and certainly unbeknownst to the leadership in Damascus, sold an anti-tank missile and a mortar here and there, and pocketed the profits. The smuggling was carried out in a simple fashion: the weapons were loaded on a truck and hidden under some kind of merchandise, like boxes of vegetables.”

The second period began after Hafez Assad’s death in 2000. His son Bashar gradually began to expand ties with Iran, until they eventually became what they are today: a strategic alliance.

As part of this alliance (but also as part of Assad’s own personal initiative) relations between Syria and Hezbollah were also cultivated. “Assad has really admired [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah and sees him as a leader and role model,” said another intelligence officer with whom I spoke.

In this period as well, Syria’s behavior was measured and thought out. Most of the weapons being supplied to Hezbollah were Iranian, and the deliveries included Scud surface-to-surface missiles and Fateh-110 precision missiles. These missiles give Hezbollah the ability to hit almost any target of value in Israel, including the Nuclear Research Center in Dimona.

Syrian intelligence officers coordinated the transfers in their territory, under the authority of Assad and his special consultant and confidant, General Muhammad Suleiman, who also served as the coordinator of Iranian arms transfers to Hezbollah.

Suleiman was killed in 2008 by sniper fire while dining with friends on the balcony of his home in the port city of Tartus. The fire came from a ship anchored not far from the beach, and according to foreign reports, Israel was behind the assassination. [The book Spies Against Armageddon describes the assassination in detail.]

Syria transferred missiles and weapons from their warehouses to Hezbollah only in isolated cases. In one of these instances, old and imprecise Scuds were transferred. In another case, following the attack on the nuclear core in September 2007 [an attack by Israel’s air force also described in Spies Against Armageddon although never acknowledged officially by Israel] Assad decided, as an expression of his frustration and even revenge, to transfer new, more precise missiles – M600 missiles.

The M600 is the Syrian version of the Iranian Fateh-110 – a guided missile with a range of approximately 200km. The combination of a large, one-ton warhead with relatively high precision and a long range gives Hezbollah abilities that it never had before, such as accurate firing on strategic targets like airports, emergency warehouses, power plants and more.

Israel’s current defense systems – the Iron Dome and the Arrow – are not capable of coping with this threat. The system which is planned to provide an answer for these missiles is the Magic Wand (also known as David’s Sling), which is still in development.

The third and last stage in relations between the triangular axis began with the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 and has continued since. The process was gradual: As the rebels took control of more and more territory, the Syrian Army began to empty some of their warehouses and to transfer them to more secure storage facilities in areas under Hezbollah control in Lebanon.

At least at the beginning of the rebellion, the Syrian motive was not to arm Hezbollah. According to American sources, the Syrians only wanted to keep their weapons systems from falling into the hands of the rebels.

The weapons transfers included surface-to-surface missiles of various ranges and possibly surface-to-sea missiles. However, Hezboallah was not known to have received any air-defense systems. The transfers were documented in written contracts in which it was agreed that the weapons were temporarily being deposited.

The Syrians forbade Hezbollah from using the weapons against Israel without their consent and Hezbollah agreed, with Iran’s approval.

Hezbollah also agreed to give the weapons back when Assad’s regime regained its strength and control of the country. And if Assad were to fall, what would be the fate of the weapons? Likely, Hezbollah will keep them for themselves, while continuing to follow Iran’s lead.

When the first Gulf War broke out in 1991, Saddam Hussein dispersed his planes to the neighboring enemy Iran, with the promise that they would return them. The planes never again landed on Iraqi soil.

Hezbollah behind the wheel

Israel is not the only country monitoring the transfer of weapons from Iran to Lebanon with concern. The US, British, Jordanian and Turkish intelligence communities are keeping their eyes open, cooperating and sharing information with each other. All those involved are using all the resources at their disposal to keep track of the transfers and gather information on them. They are enlisting agents (HUMINT) in Iran, Syria and Lebanon, operating eavesdropping devices (SIGINT) and using visual methods (VIZINT), with satellite images, spy planes and drones.

According to Western sources, weapons deliveries have been flown in recent years from Iran through Turkey to the airport in Damascus, mostly by Iran Air planes. A special unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is responsible for the flights. However, since the start of the Syrian uprising, Turkey has tightened control on this channel, and, at least on one occasion the Turks intercepted a plane based on  intelligence information and confiscated the weapons.

Today, Iran prefers to fly the weapons through Iraq, with which it has friendly relations. The US government has complained to Iraq on several occasions for turning a blind eye to the flights, but to no avail.

According to Western sources, when the weapons arrive in Damascus, they are unloaded in a special compound controlled by Hezbollah, usually at night. Syrian intelligence officers are present, overseeing the process. They know exactly what each and every cargo load contains.

The cargo loads are then loaded onto a fleet of civilian trucks (sometimes with hidden compartments) which make their way to intermediate storage sites in Syria or go straight to warehouses in Lebanon. The drivers are all loyal Hezbollah operatives. In order not to be too conspicuous, the convoys are not composed of more than a few trucks.

In the past, weapons were delivered from Iran by ships which were unloaded at Latakia port in Syria, and on a few occasions arms transfers were made over land, from Iran through Turkey to Syria. The Turks, acting on intelligence information, intercepted some of the trucks and confiscated the weapons.

Last week, conflicting reports were published about Israel’s policies on the situation in Syria. An Israeli official was quoted by The New York Times as threatening that Israel would intervene in the civil war and take down the Assad regime if he continued to supply weapons to Hezbollah.  Conversly, The Times of London cited a senior Israeli intelligence official as saying that Israel actually prefers that Assad’s rule continue in Syria.

Official spokesmen in Jerusalem, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, responded to the reports, saying that Israel is not interested in intervening in Syria, but will continue to prevent the transfer of “game-changing” weapons to Hezbollah, such as precise surface-to-surface missiles, surface-to-sea missiles and air defense systems.

Israel is also concerned with the possibility – which is not likely but must be taken into account – that Syria will also send its chemical weapons to Hezbollah for safekeeping. All of these scenarios are likely to trigger massive military reactions by Israel.

[This Jerusalem Post article by Yossi Melman has been slightly edited for]

June 1, 2013

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