Confrontation Inescapable

The chairman of the U.S. senate’s intelligence committee, Florida Democrat Bob Graham, did not mince words on the subject of Syria’s support for terrorists.

The United States “should have a serious discussion with Syria,” he said without much conviction this week to a CNN interviewer after he visited the Syrian capital. But what if Damascus refuses to close down the camps in its country and Lebanon, where groups like the Hizballah and Islamic Jihad train? Should the US use air power to destroy those camps?

The senator’s reply was firm: “Then I think the international community led by the United States has a priority to do so.”

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington and the Middle East say that Graham’s words may be described as Washington’s last warning to Syrian president Bashar Assad before it goes into action against him.

Graham was part of a three-member senate intelligence committee delegation who went on a fact-finding Middle East tour last week in connection with the joint Senate-House Committees investigation into the events of September 11.

The delegation visited Egypt, Syria and Lebanon before winding up its tour in Israel.

The senator’s comments underscored the fact that no one in the political, military or intelligence branches of the American government sees any way of avoiding a confrontation with Syria. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, after six weeks, Washington has finally read the writing on the wall: Assad has not the slightest intention of withdrawing his support from the Hizballah or closing down the Damascus bases of such hardline Palestinian terrorist groups as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Moreover, the Syrian leader, following an intricate game plan of his own, is aiding Iraq’s war preparations against America, while fostering Iran’s aspirations to rope Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority into its sphere of influence.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources learned that Middle East strategic planners of the national security council, Pentagon and CIA have warned the White House that Assad’s maneuvers may end up undoing any American victory over Saddam Hussein. The US expeditionary force and the units staying on in post-Saddam Iraq to buttress the Kurdish, Turkomen and Shiite autonomous regions will find themselves hemmed in and threatened by the Iranian takeover of east Mediterranean countries. Quite simply, the Syrian president is helping Tehran in a scheme to turn the tables on the US-led alliance by drawing a threatening economic and military line from Iranian territory in the east and south and, through his strategic grip on Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority, from the north and west too. The advice from US war planners is for America and its senior regional allies, Turkey and Israel, to take urgent action to thwart the Syrian president’s plans, even before getting started on the Iraq campaign.

Assad, they say, is wasting no time. He has taken the following steps to promote the plans of both his allies:

1. He has given the Iraqi army sole use of the renovated rail link running from the Syrian Mediterranean ports of Tartous and Latakia via the northern Syrian town of Qamishli to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. The trains return to Syria laden with Iraqi oil. The Syrian-Iraqi rail route is now in effect Baghdad’s prime conduit for the delivery of the weapons and military supplies it needs to bolster its preparations for the coming US offensive. New spare parts for Iraq’s French-built Mirage F-1 warplanes and Sukhoi and Tupolev fighter-bombers, recently transported along this route, have enabled the Iraqi air force to fly with increasing freedom in the no-fly zones (as reported in the first article of this issue.)

2. He has let Iran set up a mobile radar station atop the Djebel Baroukh peak in the Chouf Mountains of central Lebanon. The station will give early warning of an Israeli missile attack against Hizballah forces in Lebanon, as well as gathering intelligence on Israeli and Mediterranean targets for the terrorist group’s missile and rockets strikes. The station and all Lebanon-based Iranian Revolutionary Guards operations have been put under the command of the newly established Guards’ forward headquarters in Damascus. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources believe the radar station will give Iran almost total command of Israeli, Jordanian and eastern Mediterranean airspace.

3. He has ordered Syrian military chiefs in Lebanon to help the Iranians build the Hizballah’s third line of fortifications in south Lebanon. Our military sources report exclusively that Iranian and Syrian engineering units are working with Lebanese contractors on the line that will run between 18 and 25 kilometers (11 to 15 miles) north of the Israeli border, curving northeast from a point south of Sarafand on the Mediterranean across central Lebanon through Jezzine, Rahiyeh near the northern foothills of Mount Hermon and on to Jabal al-Mazar on the Lebanese-Syrian border.

This line of defenses, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, will be fortified with anti-tank obstacles, anti-tank and anti-aircraft gun emplacements, troop bunkers, surface-to-air missile and heavy rocket positions.

The builders are working round the clock to complete the project by early August. Its completion will provide the Hizballah with a triple line of protection against an Israeli drive into south Lebanon or any hostile landing on Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast: the southernmost line running along the Lebanese-Israeli border from the Mediterranean east to Mt. Hermon; the next one running 10 kilometers (six miles) north of the first, from the coastal city of Tyre to the southeastern slopes of Hermon.

Since the Hizballah can muster no more than 10,000 to 12,000 trained fighting men, the big question is who will man its triple line of defense. Iran and Syria, certainly aware of the Shiite terror group’s manpower shortcoming for stopping an Israeli armored and infantry advance, may envisage the defenses as fallback positions for Hizballah contingents, allowing them to regroup for counter-attack. Syrian troops with Iranian and Iraqi “volunteers” (soldiers disguised as civilians) may also be planned for the project, which has claimed a heavy investment of money and skilled manpower from Tehran and Damascus.

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