Assad Gives Iran a Free Hand in Syria’s Military Air Fields

As the Lebanon conflict lurches into its fourth week, Iran comes out with a strong upper hand – even on the diplomatic field. The Bush administration and US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice were stalled in their effort to achieve a ceasefire and a UN initiative for posting a multinational stabilization force; the United States also suffered a serious setback when Israel’s military and political standing in the Middle East took a dive.

These trends will be discussed in separate articles in this issue.

In the past week, a number of maneuvers attested to Tehran mounting self-confidence. Most significantly, Iran’s national security adviser Ali Larijani, in Damascus on July 27, requested and obtained a number of favors from Syrian president Bashar Assad to further expedite and streamline the Iranian arms supply routes for bolstering the durability of Hizballah’s stand against Israel. Larijani was accompanied by Ali-Akbar MohtashamiPour, former Iranian ambassador to Damascus and Tehran’s senior liaison man with Hizballah.

1. Assad agreed to transfer three Syrian military air fields to the control and operation of Iran’s air force: the military facilities at Damascus’s Mezze international airport; Nasiriya – northwest of Damascus and 26 miles from the Lebanese border and the Hizballah-controlled Beqaa Valley of eastern Lebanon – and Al Qusayr, which lies north of Damascus and 15 miles from the Lebanese border sector north of the Beqaa Valley.

Larijani made no bones about Syrian air field personnel not being up to scratch for managing the Iranian arms airlift and the passage of military hardware destined for Hizballah. In order to stabilize Hizballah’s capabilities for standing up to the Israeli army and air force, Iran needed a hands-on, smoothly operating logistical machine that was not subject to Syrian inefficiency.

The Duhur airfield north of Homs, which served the first part of the Iranian airlift, can no longer handle the volume of Iranian military aid for Hizballah; as an airstrip of the Syrian-Iranian military industries, it is both too small and 150 miles away from the Lebanese border, which is too far to be useful.


Syria foregoes advance notice of Iranian weapons for Hizballah


Furthermore, said the Iranian official, Israel has sent its military satellites in orbit over Lebanon and Syria. They can easily track the Lebanese trucks which the Iranian embassy in Beirut has chartered to ferry the hardware from Duhur into Lebanon. A signal from a satellite tells the Israeli air force what time the convoys are due to cross the border. The warplanes prowling the sky overhead around the clock are then ready to pounce on the convoys as they pass into Lebanon.

Positioning the consignment at jumping-off points closer to the Lebanese border will make it possible to use fast pick-up trucks and small vans instead of the conspicuous trucks. Even mules can carry burdens across the 5,000-7,800 meter peaks that loom over the border.

Israeli satellites are not the only problem. Some of the roads to be traversed are too narrow for the safe passage of heavily-loaded trucks. Incidentally, Israeli units deployed in these mountains are finding llamas the perfect beasts of burden for transporting ordnance and heavy equipment.

2. The Syrian president also gave permission for 200 members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards maintenance units to be stationed at the Nasiriya and al Qusayr air fields. Larijani did not ask for military personnel to be posted at the Damascus military airfield, but it was agreed that Iranian civilian maintenance and transport companies would be allowed to run the Damascus facilities.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources, Iran will station in Syria around 350 civilian and military personnel to oversee the logistics of ferrying Iranian weapons to Lebanon and into Hizballah hands.

3. Tehran obtained from President Assad exemption from submitting in advance to Syrian military intelligence all the lists of the weapons systems with serial numbers transiting Syria en route for Lebanon. Iranian cargoes may now land in Syria and transship their freights to Lebanon without notifying Syria or requesting permission. This gives Tehran a completely free hand to consign state of the art weaponry and so escalate the level of Hizballah-Israel warfare without Damascus’s by-your-leave – or even knowledge.

4. Assad and Larijani agreed that a senior Iranian official of ministerial rank and military background will arrive in Damascus next week. He, Syrian defense minister General Hassan Turkemeni and chief of Staff General Ali Habib will form a joint Syrian-Iranian senior staff team for coordinating their joint aid program for Hizballah and orchestrating Iranian military responses in the event of an Israeli air, sea or ground attack on Syria.


Iran bolsters Hizballah’s long-term stamina to attrition Israel’s army


5. For the first time, there was talk of using Syrian military air installations for the stopover of volunteers from Tehran on their way to fight alongside the Hizballah in Lebanon.

It came up when the two men agreed that Syria would open its border for seriously battle-fatigued or injured Hizballah fighters to cross over and be flown to Iran for medical attention and recuperation.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report that Tuesday, August 1, the first groups of Hizballah fighters, including casualties of battles and Israeli aerial attacks, took advantage of the Syrian gesture and crossed by foot. Around 150 were collected by Iranian planes at the three Syrian air fields made available to Tehran and were flown to Iranian military hospitals.

Our sources add that it was President Assad who proposed flying in Iranian volunteers to join Hizballah. Larijani avoided answering directly. Tehran is still stepping gingerly on the volunteer question. But he did not reject it out of hand.

Our Iranian sources report that, at this stage, Tehran’s policy for the Lebanon war rests on two optional courses of action.

On the one hand, Iran is keen on the fighting in Lebanon sustaining its present pace for several weeks or months in order to attrition Israel’s military strength. The Iranians deduced from the US airlift of GBU-28 laser guided bombs to Israel of the last ten days that the Israeli air force had run short of these bunker busters and the Hizballah bunkers were standing up well to their assaults. The Iranians also decided that their own nuclear installations were now safe from Israeli air attack.

The GBU-28 bombers can penetrate over 20 feet of concrete and 100 feet of earth.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources disclose that Iran is using its air corridor to Hizballah not only for weapons but also to send its most sophisticated electronic equipment. These sensitive instruments have been installed in Syria to keep track of Israeli air force movements over Lebanon and some smuggled into Lebanon to record Israel’s aerial performance.

For all these reasons, Tehran is in no hurry for a truce to take effect in the Lebanon war.

On the other hand, Tehran might change its mind overnight if Hizballah starts losing ground in battle – which does not look likely at the moment. If that happens, Iran will make every effort to halt the hostilities without delay or intervene by sending volunteers. For Tehran, the volunteers are a last resort to be applied only if there is no other way to rescue Hizballah from humiliation.

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