Iran’s ulterior motive in providing massive support for Lebanon’s Hizballah – manpower, military instructors and state-of-the-art weapons systems – is simple: a strategic decision to locate its forward line of defense far from Iranian soil and Tehran’s vulnerable nuclear center at Bushehr. The Iranians have therefore built up the Shi’ite religious, political and terrorist organization as the most potent Muslim intelligence power outside their own Islamic republic, with long arms outside the region.
Iran’s plan came to light in mid-June when officers from the Iranian air force’s general staff arrived in Damascus. They were under orders to set up a permanent Iranian air force annex in the Syrian capital. Some of the officers belonged to the air force’s operations branch, while others came from its intelligence wing. An Iranian colonel, a wing commander, led the group.
Intelligence sources in the Middle East who spoke with DEBKA-Net-Weekly believe Iran is making secret arrangements with Damascus to deploy a tactical fighter wing in Syria to provide air cover for Hizballah forces threatened by Israeli bombing. But in a pinch, the fighters could be used to attack US naval targets in the Middle East. Most of the US Sixth Fleet is concentrated in the eastern Mediterranean, in an area stretching from Cyprus to the shores of Syria and Lebanon.
Iran as adopted a double-edged policy.
Tehran hopes to create a strategic deterrent to any attack on Hizballah by pouring large numbers of missiles into Lebanon, capable of hitting targets in any corner of northern Israel and parts of central Israel as well.
By posing a threat to the US Navy, Tehran is also aiming for a similar strategic balance that will dissuade the Americans and Israelis from attacking military targets inside Iran itself, especially the Bushehr reactor and nuclear industries, including uranium enrichment facilities.
In the event of a coordinated US-Israel assault, or separate strikes, against Iranian targets, the Iranians plan to retaliate by sending their air force to hit US targets, while Hizballah missiles rake Israel’s strategic installations — main airports, seaports, military airfields, military industries, oil refineries, water pumping stations and power plants.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources note that Iraq already maintains a forward air command center in Damascus. The Iranian and Iraqi centers would be housed in different wings of Syrian air force headquarters in the military section of Damascus International Airport, Damascus-West. They say Iranian and Iraqi officers held at least one coordinating meeting this month with senior Syrian officers present.
Despite its secret September 2000 military pact with Syria, Iraq has so far refrained from stationing combat aircraft at Syrian airfields. Iran is in no hurry either to park its fighter-bombers in Syria. But our intelligence sources report the Iranian air force intends its planes to begin operating out of Syrian air bases from the coming September.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources covering another front, Iran has in the last ten days stepped up the flow of al Qaeda men traveling across its territory to Lebanon via Damascus. Arriving in Tehran from Pakistan and Afghanistan by plane, train or truck, al Qaeda fighters are put aboard aircraft that transit Iraqi air space to Damascus, where they are transferred to Lebanon. Another route takes them by train or truck through Iran’s northern mountains into northern Iraq and onto Syria.
From Syria, they cross into Lebanon or one of the Gulf States, although most of the Saudi nationals are directed to Damascus whence they fly home to Saudi Arabia.