Iran and Syria are fighting over who will control the medium range missiles Iran has posted in Lebanon. The Zelzal batteries, which have a range of 120 km to 250 km (70 mile to 150 miles),
were smuggled into Lebanon through its southern ports of Sidon and Tyre, without Syria’s knowledge. They are totally under Iranian control, with no access even to Iran’s Lebanese protege, the Shiite Hizballah.
Early last week, visiting Iranian intelligence minister Ali Yunessi and Syrian leaders, including President Bashar Assad, got into an argument over the missile enclave Iran has established in south Lebanon behind Syria’s back.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources say a 150-strong Iranian Revolutionary Guards unit is stationed in the two cities. It takes charge of the missiles as they are delivered and is standing by to launch them on orders from Tehran. The unit has rented two buildings near Sidon harbor and one in Tyre, where its members are quartered and work. The Iranians wear civilian clothing and drive trucks and jeeps with Lebanese license plates.
Israeli intelligence has known about the Iranian missile deployment for more than a year. But the Syrians are upset by not being able to account for the missiles slipping into Lebanon under their noses. Most Iranian arms supplies for the Hizballah are routed through Damascus, where the Syrian authorities give them the once-over before they trucked into Lebanon.
Zelzal missiles fired from south Lebanon not only can hit Haifa, Israel’s most important industrial city and the site of its refineries, but can also reach Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and even Beersheba in the south. Damascus needs to know about Iranian military plans because a single firing ordered by Iran could provoke a fierce Israeli military strike against Syria, as Lebanon’s main powerbroker.
Press exposure of the presence of the Zelzal missiles in southern Lebanon brought Yunessi rushed over to Damascus. An Italian newspaper disclosed the weapons can carry chemical and biological warheads. Lest he be drawn into battle by an unplanned flare-up with Israel, Syrian president Assad wants Tehran to pass the batteries over to Syrian forces – or at least relinquish sole authority over their launch. But the Iranians are loath to rescind their strategic ace in the hole, or give up this powerful deterrent in Israel’s back yard against American or Israel attack.
While officially, Syria is against any US military offensive against Iraq, it nonetheless wants to keep its options open. However, Iran out of self-interest is capable of forcing the pace by sending the Zelzal missiles flying toward Israel at some stage, in order to head off a US invasion by manufacturing a fresh Middle East crisis as a distraction. Damascus fears Iran might fire those missiles as a means of punishing the US government should it renege on any of the recently reached secret US-Iran military cooperation accords on Iraq.
If Iranian missiles do slam into Israeli cities, Israel has made it clear that Syria will be held responsible.
This danger was made very clear to Yunessi in his meetings with Syrian officials. He promised to report fully to Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards commanders. Demanding a fast response, the Syrian president refrained from laying down any ultimata.
He did however threaten to retaliate for Iranian intransigence on the missiles by holding down Iran’s arms deliveries to the Hizballah, or putting a damper on its activities. At the very least, Syria was holding out for joint control.
As for Tehran, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that while Syrian threats are taken seriously there, Damascus has too much at stake to risk cutting off a primary source of revenue, Iranian fees for allowing its troops free rein in Lebanon and control over the Hizballah. Assad will also not jeopardize Iran’s negotiations with the Russians for expanded three-way cooperation to manufacture short-range missiles and other weapons in Syria.
In any case, Iran has long since found an alternative route to Damascus for secreting arms into Lebanon. Motor boats make regular runs to Beirut from the Cypriot port of Larnaca.