Assad Secretly Deploys Joint Iranian-Syrian Units in Lebanon
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Syrian ruler Bashar Assad gave nothing away on Lebanon in his unscheduled address to parliament in Damascus Saturday, March 5. Repeatedly contradicting himself, he said: “We will not stay one day if Lebanese consensus asks us to leave”. He then added: but we cannot desert the Lebanese president to whom we have a commitment.
Assad’s decision to redeploy Syrian troops eastward to the Beqaa Valley up to Syrian border sidestepped the issue. The Syrian ruler did not promise to pull a single Syrian troop or secret agent out of Lebanon. He also declared for good measure that Syria`s role in the country would not end with a military withdrawal (which he did not promise.)
Assad joked about the international and Arab clamor to quit Lebanon: “I know that the minute I finish this speech, they will say it is not enough. So I say it now: It is not enough.” He burst out laughing and the chamber roared with him.
Disappointed Lebanese opposition leaders predictably rejected Assad’s statement. We want him to “redeploy” on the other side of the Syrian border, they said. Even for the relocation of the Syrian army in the east, he has set no timetable; nor has he mentioned the removal of his secret agents.
debkafile‘s Washington sources reveal the Bush administration’s decision to act for Syria’s total international isolation. US National Security Council head Stephen Hadley notified European Washington-based envoys of moves to cut off Damascus’ international banking ties and the flow of international funds to and from Syria through Lebanese banks. The volume of these transfers is such that it could bankrupt Syria.
Hadley told the Europeans that UN Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen would take off Sunday on a 12-day tour of Europe, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Gulf emirates to finalize the US-Arab-European consensus on international sanctions against Syria.
On March 17, Larsen will visit Damascus to give Assad his last chance to implement Security Council resolution 1559 in full, or else face up to UN sanctions. Chirac has already ordered French ties with Damascus severed at all government levels.
debkafile‘s Middle East sources account for the Syrian president’s confident bearing when he sidestepped all demands to remove Syria’s overbearing presence from Lebanon by the fact that he was acting out a pre-planned strategy.
On February 25, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 195 exposed the key move he had set in motion to help him stand up to any military threat. Realizing he could not count on Arab support, Assad furnished himself with an alternative ally.
Sunday, February 20, as US Air Force One was ferrying President George W. Bush between meetings with European leaders, Iranian military transports were putting down in Damascus military airport. They were the tail end of the biggest military airlift Iran has launched in the Middle East to date. Its objective was to set up shared Iranian-Syrian safeguards against attacks on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear installations and/or Syrian strategic targets.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources obtained some of the details of the new hush-hush deployment.
The fleet of Iranian military transports secretly offloaded complete elite units for operating, maintaining and guarding a sophisticated system of Iranian electronic warning stations, radar networks and anti-aircraft missiles to be deployed in Syria and Lebanon. More than 1,000 Iranian soldiers and technicians and 600 Revolutionary Guards commandos took up positions on the South Lebanese border with Israel, along the Syrian-Israeli Golan frontier to the south and up Syria’s Mediterranean coastline to the west. They also spread out along Syria’s northeastern frontier with Iraqi Kurdistan and its southern border with Iraq’s al Qaim and al Anbar provinces.
(See DEBKA Special Map attached to this article)
The incoming Iranian forces quickly assumed the command and control of electronic and radar systems at Syrian early warning stations in Syria and Lebanon, supplemented by elements of Signal Intelligence and Human Intelligence. Stationed alongside Syrian units, they have undertaken shared operational responsibility. The two chains of command have been merged except in units where Iranian officers have taken command.
Assad believes he is gaining on the United States in their duel over Lebanon and holds winning cards.
1. The things he left out of his speech to parliament were significant. In announcing the redeployment of his troops on the Syrian border, he omitted mention of the disposition of Syrian intelligence agents and even more pointedly of the early warning stations and the Iranian units who will stay on to man them in Lebanon. With Iranian backing and the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the south, Syria will retain its grip on Lebanon.
2. Assad saw no need to mention the mixed Syrian-Iranian units scattered in Lebanon since President Bush has only called for Syrian personnel to leave the country.
3. Should the US or Lebanese governments decide to get rid of Iranian forces, they will have to turn to Tehran and the Hizballah. Damascus will be off the hook.
4. The Syrian ruler exploited American pressure on the Lebanon issue to invoke his secret military cooperation pact with Tehran and quietly install Iranian forces, including intelligence units, on the borders of Israel, thereby upgrading Syria’s and the Hizballah’s defenses and bolstering the Iranian umbrella over Hizballah’s missile emplacements facing Israel. This strengthened structure also signaled the spreading Palestinian opposition to Mahmoud Abbas’ leadership that aid is available from a strong Syrian-Syrian-Hizballah across the border.
5. No Israeli response was forthcoming to the new Iranian deployment in Syria and Lebanon, aside from intelligence messages speeding from Tel Aviv to Washington. This has left the Assad regime cock-a-hoop with a sense of achieving yet another coup after pulling off the February 14 assassination of the primary threat to Syria’s domination of Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri.