Wednesday, September 19, 2007

18-Sep-07: State terrorism: how it looks up-close

Jane's Defence Weekly, the authoritative British publication, yesterday described a huge blunder that caused the deaths of dozens of Syrian military officers and Iranian engineers. The context is a joint development programme by Iran and Syria to weaponise Syrian 'Scud B', 'Scud C' and 'Scud D' short-range ballistic missiles with chemical warheads.

This is so-far reported almost nowhere else in the media this morning. If you care to see what it's like to be the neighbour of a dictatorship frantically engaged in state terrorism in the fullest, most literal sense of that expression, read on.

This was a chemical weapons accident, says Jane's. It took place in a secret weapons facility in Halab, Syria, on July 26, 2007. Officers were in the midst of attempting to mount a chemical warhead with mustard gas on a Scud-C missile. A fire started in the missile's engine. This produced an explosion of stored chemical substances. The blast spread lethal chemical agents, including mustard gas, VX gas and sarin nerve gas. These are extremely toxic and banned by international treaties. 15 Syrian officers were killed along with "dozens" of Iranian engineers. Dozens of others were injured.

The incident is corroborated by Syria's official news agency. They mention only the Syrian casualties. The Iranians are ignored. The Syrian government rejects the possibility of sabotage. Its report says the explosion was triggered by a heat wave though the blast took place at 4:30 in the morning.

Jane's says the facility where the accident took place was built as part of a co-operation agreement signed between Syria and Iran in 2005. The joint activity included technological supply and assistance from Syria to Iran.

YNet this morning says Tehran was providing Damascus with means that would enable it to independently produce chemical weapons, plan and build facilities and carry out chemical weapons experiments. It reminds us that Syria is currently in the midst of a PR battle aimed at denying the allegations that it has nuclear ties with Iran and North Korea. On Tuesday, Syrian Expatriate Affairs Minister Bussaina Shaaban said that the allegations of nuclear cooperation between Syria and North Korea which led to the reported Israeli overflight were "an orchestra of lies". In an interview with the Iranian Fars news agency, the minister denied reports in Israeli and American media that suggested Pyongyang was helping Damascus build a nuclear installation in the country and said that "Syria maintains the right to respond when and where it sees fit."

Meanwhile CNN is reporting today that the U.S. military and intelligence community have been tracking multiple shipments of material from North Korea and destined for Syria - have already landed there according to a Pentagon official.

For more sleep-disturbing background analysis, have a look at yesterday's perceptive article in the London Times: "A tale of two dictatorships: The links between North Korea and Syria". The Times' Far Eastern correspondent points out that "Syria possesses the biggest missile arsenal and the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the Middle East, built up over the last two decades with arms bought from North Korea. North Korea, which exploded a nuclear device in October last year, has become critical to Syria’s plans to enhance and upgrade its weapons." He quotes an unnamed Israeli security expert: “We’ve known for a long time that Syria has deadly chemical warheads on its Scuds, but Israel can’t live with a nuclear warhead.”

For some, the notion of terrorism, whether by a state or by deranged fanatics, is an abstraction. Here in Israel, it's a practical day to day reality, one that demands constant vigilance, finesse and some very difficult choices. As pathetic as Syria, North Korea and Iran - two autocratic police states and a jihadist thugocracy - may be in terms of the lives they enable for their citizens, for us they are a powerful, unholy trinity of wildcards capable of visiting almost any catastrophic scenario on our heads. A pity this is not better understood in the salons and faculty rooms of the civilized world.

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