June 30, 2006

HAMAS, Israel, Syria, Iran – Pieces of the Same Puzzle

The recent Israeli operations nominally to free one of its soldiers taken hostage by Palestinian Hamas gunmen highlight a series of complex, Byzantine relationships. On the surface, it appears to be a confrontation between the Israelis and the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, more commonly know by its Arabic acronym HAMAS. It is that, to be sure, but the conflict is much more complex, stretching from Gaza north to Lebanon and Syria, and from there east to Iran.

It seems that whenever terrorism and the Middle East are discussed, Iran always seems to be involved. There is good reason for that. Iran’s direct involvement in Lebanon goes back to 1982 when elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were dispatched to Lebanon to provide support to Hizballah. The IRGC contingent provided the necessary ingredients for successful insurgent/guerrilla operations – money, weapons and training. Their operations soon expanded south to the various Palestinian groups – including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), several factions of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and of course, HAMAS. By 1992, Iran was the primary sponsor of these groups.

How do money, weapons and training get from Iran to the Palestinians living in areas ostensibly controlled by the Israelis? There are several routes, but the hub of the transshipment system is Syria, a close ally of Iran going back decades – Syria was the only Arab state to back (and provide support to) Iran during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Syria and Iran recently renewed their formal defense cooperation agreement.

Over the years, the Syrians made no effort to hide their support of this transshipment system, the key component of which is the Damascus International Airport. From the airport it is a short drive (30 minutes) to the Lebanese border and the Biqa’ Valley. For years, Iranian Air Force 747 cargo aircraft routinely delivered arms and supplies to Hizballah and Palestinian groups at the airport – and still do. They did not try to hide it on the military side of the airport – this was done on the civilian side in plain view. I was the air attaché at the American embassy in Damascus – often while at the airport, I observed this activity. The aircraft were clearly labeled, as were the Hizballah trucks.

When all is said and done, it will become obvious that the money, weapons and training used to fuel operations of HAMAS in Gaza, as well as those of the PIJ’s ‘Izz Ad-Din Al-Qassam Brigades (where did they learn to make and launch the Qassam rockets?) can all be traced to Iran.

Why did four Israeli fighter jets buzz Syrian president Bashar Al-Asad’s summer palace in Qurdaha (on the Syrian coast)? The Israelis believe that without Syria’s cooperation with Iran allowing money, weapons and personnel to flow through Damascus, HAMAS and the PIJ would not be able to conduct effective operations.