January 9, 2009

Damascus - Nexus of Terrorism

There was an expression during the heyday of the Roman Empire that all roads lead to Rome. Today, when speaking of terrorism in the Middle East, it seems that all roads lead to Damascus. Whether it be supplies from Iran bound for Islamic militants in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza, or a venue for meetings with senior terrorist officials, it all happens in Damascus.

Only hours before the Israeli ground operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Said Jalili, flew to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. While in the city, he also met with exiled Hamas political chief Khalid Mish'al and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan 'Abdullah Shalah. Both live in the Syrian capital with the permission and protection of the Asad regime. Virtually all of Hamas's and Islamic Jihad's funding, weapons and training originates in Iran and is funneled via Syria.

It is not just Hamas and Islamic Jihad that draws Iranian leaders to Damascus. Last week, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, came to Damascus and met with Ahmad Jibril, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a group with American blood on its hands. Larijani also met with Khalid Mish'al and Ramadan Shalah. That's the second meeting in two weeks between these Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders and senior Iranian officials.

Jibril, like Mish'al and Shalah, lives in Damascus, also with the permission and protection of Bashar al-Asad. Jibril threatened to open another front against Israel - that would be from the north, from Lebanon. That sounds like it might be a problem for the Israelis, but in reality anything that happens in southern Lebanon happens with the express knowledge and consent of another of Iran's clients - Hizballah.

Hizballah is also supplied, funded and trained by Iran, via - you guessed it - Damascus. It is unlikely that Hizballah wants to provoke a confrontation with Israel, for several reasons. Hizballah emerged as a major power broker in Labanon following the war with Israel in 2006 - there is no reason to jeapardize that, especially given the mood in Israel now. Any Israeli operation against Hazballah will be much more effective than two years ago. I suspect that the few rockets that were fired from southern Lebanon into northern Israel were not fired by Hizballah, but by Palestinians from one of the refugee camps.

Israel's operation against Hamas in the Gaza has stalled indirect talks between Damascus and Tel Aviv. If and when the talks resume, Israel will continue to make one of its key demands - that Syria stop allowing Iran to use Syrian airspace, airports, roads and border crossings with Lebanon to supply Palestinian and Lebanese militants.

The battles may be taking place in the Gaza Strip, but the fuel for the fire originates in Iran, but it comes through Damascus.