April 28, 2009

Air strike in Sudan hits old arms route - UPDATE

This is an update to an article that I wrote in March.

According to the Egyptian newspaper al-Usbu' (The Week), quoting Sudanese sources, an unidentified naval vessel fired on and sank an Iranian ship allegedly transporting weapons bound for the Gaza Strip. The intended recipient of the arms was the Islamic group Hamas.

If past practice was to be followed, the Iranian ship would have docked in Sudan, the weapons offloaded for overland transport to the Sinai peninsula, then smuggled into the Gaza Strip via a series of tunnels under the Egyptian border.

Given Israel's demonstrated willingness to use its air force to attack these Iranian illicit arms deliveries - it did so in March - there is no reason to believe it would not employ its small but capable navy. Israel's missile patrol boats - like this Sa'ar 5 - are easily capable of operating in the Red Sea off the Sudanese coast.

In January and again in February, unidentified foreign aircraft struck an arms convoy in Sudan near the Egyptian border. The conventional wisdom is that the strike was conducted by Israeli Air Force aircraft and that their target was a convoy headed for Hamas in the Gaza Strip. (read entiremore

Given the timing of the attacks - the last week of January and the early part of February - it must have been the Israelis. It is inconceivable that the Obama administration would have ordered this type of proactive decisive operation by the U.S. Air Force. The new American president is still laboring under the impression that his words will move Hamas to change its ways. The Israelis have concluded that only force of arms will move Hamas.

The attack on this arms transhipment route highlights an ages-old smuggling route, one used for at least two decades by the Iranians to support their clients in the Middle East and North Africa.

The red line on the map shows the route used by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force to move weapons from Iran to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. First, the arms are moved by air or sea to the Sudan. Generally speaking, arms and ammunition are heavy, so they are most likely moved by ship from Iranian ports to Port Sudan. From the port, the materiel is moved by trucks up the coastal road along the Red Sea into Egypt, continuing up along the Gulf of Suez.

There are a few spots to cross the Suez Canal, but the most likely is the well-established commercial ferry service at Qantarah (photo). I have crossed the canal here several times - it is a beehive of transhipping activity. These ferries are easily capable of moving heavy loads across the canal.

Once the materiel is on the Sinai side of the canal, it is moved to the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip. At this point, it is broken down into much smaller parcels and smuggled through the scores of tunnels under the border into the Gaza Strip, where they are stored and used by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. While this might seem like an inefficient method of moving arms from Iran into Gaza, it has been surprisingly effective. It is effective because it is relatively easy to bribe Egyptian customs and border officials to look the other way.

One of Israel's demands for a long-term truce with Hamas is the cessation of this arms smuggling. To be effective, this must include a commitment on the part of the Egyptians to control their borders. Israel has conducted numerous air strikes on the tunnels, but the soil on this border is conducive to tunneling, and the Gazans are highly motivated by the profits generated from the smuggling of consumer goods into the Strip.

Arms and goods - legitimate and otherwise - have traveled this route since trade began in ancient tiems. Iran has used it in the past to move weapons to Islamist groups in Africa, and now to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. It should come as no surprise that Israel is interdicting the weapons before they arrive at the Gaza border.