(Updated September 24, 2007)
On September 6, 2007, Israel bombed a site in northern Syria. News reports have suggested the raid was designed to either interdict a weapons shipment intended for Hezbollah in Lebanon or to destroy a site suspected of containing materials for a nuclear weapons program set up in collaboration with North Korea. The possibility that the site was related to a nuclear program is also supported by a U.S. intelligence report issued in May 2006 that said Pakistani investigators confirmed reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the covert Pakistani supplier group headed by A.Q. Khan “offered nuclear technology and hardware to Syria.” Syria was already known to conduct nuclear research at three facilities located at Dayr, Al Hajar and Dubaya. “In 2004, Syria continued to develop civilian nuclear capabilities, including uranium extraction technology and hot cell facilities, which may also be potentially applicable to a weapons program,” the report said. As a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Syria is required to submit to IAEA safeguards and inspections. In January 2007, the United States froze the assets of three Syrian entities involved in the development of nonconventional weapons.
Israel's attack raised tensions along the border of the Golan Heights where Syrian actions had already provoked concern about the possibility of conflict. In March 2007, it was reported that thousands of medium and long-range rockets capable of striking major towns across northern Israel, including Haifa, had been positioned by Syria along the border with Israel. A division was added to the Syrian army’s forward deployment on the Golan Heights and the production of Scud missiles has been accelerated. Many of Syria's rockets are hidden in underground chambers and in camouflaged silos. This deployment, coupled with other reports of Syrian troop mobilization and television broadcasts during May 2007 dedicated to “Golan Month,” may be an indication that Damascus is preparing for a future war.
Syria now has more troops and tanks, and nearly as many aircraft as Israel. The Assad regime fields armed forces totaling more than 300,000 men, with another 350,000 troops in reserve. Syria's arsenal is by far the largest in the Arab world (roughly double that of prewar Iraq), and includes more than 4,700 tanks and 611 combat aircrafts.
President Bashar Assad is expanding Syria’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, which now includes chemical and biological agents such as VX, botulinum, ricin, Sarin, and anthrax. The Syrians can manufacture several hundred tons of chemical warfare agents per year at four separate production facilities. They are also believed to have deployed at least 100 missiles with chemical warheads.
In June 2007, reports indicated Russia either has delivered or is planning to give MiG-31E jets to Syria. The head of Russia’s state controlled arms-trading monopoly denied the story, but, if true, this would be the first export deal for the MiG-31E, an interceptor fighter capable of flying at nearly three times the speed of sound and simultaneously shooting several targets more than 110 miles away.
On June 15, 2006, Syria’s defense minister, Hassan Turkmani, signed an agreement with his Iranian counterpart for military cooperation against what they called the “common threats” presented by Israel and the United States. “Our cooperation is based on a strategic pact and unity against common threats,” said Turkmani. “We can have a common front against Israel’s threats.”
UN officials said in June 2007 that the Iranians were preparing to transfer to Syria medium-range Shahab-3, Russian-made Scud-C missiles and Scud-B missiles in preparation for joint military action if it is attacked over its nuclear program. Many of these missiles can be fired from mobile launchers and are capable of hitting targets throughout Israel. Syria has already received, via Iran, hundreds of extended-range North Korean Scud-C missiles, and is reportedly building its own ballistic missiles from imported technology. North Korea has supplied complete Scuds and production equipment to Syria. In 2003, Syria was said to have a new Scud-D missile, developed with Korean assistance, which has a range of 300 miles (sufficient to cover all of Israel). The missile is also capable of carrying chemical weapons. A May 2006 U.S. intelligence report said Syria continues to seek help in building solid-propellant rocket motors, and that North Korea supplied equipment and assistance to the missile program. Syria is building its own liquid-fueled Scud missiles and is developing a 500-mile-range Scud D as well as other variants with help from North Korea and Iran, the report said.
Virtually every major Arab terrorist organization has an office in Damascus. President Assad told Secretary of State Powell the offices would be closed, but they remain open and leaders of the terrorist groups say Syria has not changed its policy.
Israel has said it is prepared to reach a peace agreement with Syria and has expressed a willingness to negotiate a territorial compromise for the Golan Heights. The sticking point for the last two decades has been the Syrians’ refusal to agree to establish normal relations and true peace in exchange for any land.
Several Syrian offiicials have also been implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in early 2005, including Assad himself. This incident sparked international condemnation against Syria, and led dozens of countries and the United Nations to pressure Syria to completely withdraw from Lebanon. On April 26, 2005, Syria withdrew its military and intelligence forces from Lebanon, ending its 29 year occupation. Meanwhile, Syria continues to exert influence through sympathetic legislators, by assassinating anti-Syrian officials and by rearming Hizballah.