July 18, 2006

Hezbollah and Hamas - the Iranian connection

This appeared at MSNBC Hardblogger July 18, 2006

(This is an updated and edited version of my earlier post: Hamas, Israel, Syria and Iran - All Pieces of the Same Puzzle.)

Since late June, Israeli forces have been involved in military operations in Gaza, and since July 12 in Lebanon as well. On the surface, it appears that these are conflicts between the Israel and Palestinian Hamas (acronym for “Islamic Resistance Movement”), and between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah (the “Party of God”). It is that, but the conflicts highlight a series of complex Byzantine relationships, spanning the region from Gaza Strip, north to Lebanon, east to Syria, and finally to Iran.

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 for the newly-created Hezbollah. The IRGC contingent provided the ingredients necessary for any 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 the early 1990’s, Iran was the primary sponsor of these groups.

How do money, weapons and training get from Iran to these groups? There are several routes, but the primary route is through Syria, a close ally of Iran. The Iranian-Syrian relationship goes back decades - Syria was the only Arab state to support Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. That relationship soon matured into a formal defense cooperation agreement between the two countries. The defense pact was renewed last month in Tehran.

Over the years, the Syrians have made no effort to hide Iranian access to Damascus International Airport as a key component of the Hezbollah supply line. From the airport it is a short drive (30 minutes) on the Beirut-Damascus highway to the Lebanese border and the Biqa’ Valley. For years, Iranian air force 747 cargo aircraft have routinely delivered arms and supplies to Hezbollah and Palestinian groups at the airport – and as of March 2006 still do. This activity is not hidden on the military side of the airport – this was done on the civilian side in plain view.

I served in Syria as the air attaché at the American embassy. Often while at the Damascus airport, I observed this activity. On one ocassion, I was there with an American Congressional delegation when this activity was taking place. The aircraft were clearly labeled as Iranian air force; the trucks bore the unmistakeable Hezbollah logo. When all is said and done, the money, weapons and training used to fuel operations of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon can be traced to Iran, but the line goes through Damascus. Without Syria’s cooperation with Iran to allow Iranian supplies to flow through Damascus, neither Hamas nor Hezbollah would be able to conduct effective operations.