Text size

The large arms deal Syria recently made on behalf of the regime in Baghdad (thus provoking rage in Washington) involved the acquisition from Russia of 500 laser-guided anti-tank missiles and their transfer to the Iraqis.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in Washington some five days ago that Syria was continuing to transfer military items to the Iraqis, referring to arms and military equipment deals Syrians made before the outbreak of hostilities in Iraq. These deals, going back to

2001, initially focused on East European states that manufacture Russian weapons systems such as tanks, artillery cannons, and engines for tanks and MiG fighter jets.

The first deals concentrated on equipment to refurbish old tanks and aircraft in Iraq; but the latest large Syrian deal on behalf of Iraq involved the purchase, from Russia, of the Russian military industry's newest anti-tank missile, known as the Kornet, which NATO calls the AT-14. It is laser-guided and has a range of some 5.5 kilometers. The deal was made with the KBP weapons plant in Tula.

Rumsfeld accused Damascus of also being involved in the purchase of night-vision equipment that was passed on to the Iraqis. The secretary of defense did not note the origins of this equipment or who were the Syrians' partners in the deal.

The modus operandi, in general, involved the acquisition of arms or equipment by a Syrian "businessman," with the Mediterranean port of Latakia as the point of destination. The equipment was then offloaded, trucked to the Syrian-Iraqi border and sent directly to the Iraqis.

The Syrians' profit margins were big. Apparently the war in Iraq found the Syrian "traders" in the middle of negotiations over additional arms and equipment slated for the Iraqis.

The Syrians conducted one of the first deals involving equipment for the Iraqis in Germany, where the Syrian "traders" purchased some 60 tank transporters. These were shipped to Latakia, from where they set out on the long journey to Baghdad.

Clearly these deals could not have been made without the approval of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Nevertheless, in light of the secrecy that shrouded the transactions, it is possible that not all the Syrian leadership was in the know.

At first, the Americans sufficed to deal with the problem quietly and diplomatically, but their anger has increased in view of the Syrians' ongoing activities. Washington was also angered by the opening of the Syrian border to volunteers from the Arab states (primarily Syria) who wanted to joint the fight against the coalition forces.

American pressure, it seems, is beginning to work: The Syrian-Iraqi border crossings have indeed been closed to passage.