SYRIA has accelerated its supply of weapons, including advanced ballistic missiles, to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon in a move that could further inflame an already destabilised region.
According to intelligence sources in the West and the Middle East, the unrest facing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has not halted its build-up of military hardware.
With the help of experts from Iran and North Korea, Damascus is pressing ahead with its development of sophisticated missiles at a secret site nicknamed “missile city” built into Jabal Taqsis, a mountain near the opposition stronghold of Hama.
The missile program is allegedly run by the Scientific Studies and Research Centre in Damascus, an organisation that is already on a US sanctions list.
With financial and political support from Iran, the Syrians have also stepped up their military assistance to Hezbollah, which must now rank as the most powerful non-state military force in the world.
The Times reported last year that Hezbollah had taken delivery of two advanced Scud D surface-to-surface missiles with a range of 700km.
Since then, the Syrians have handed over eight more of the ballistic weapons, which have been assembled with the help of North Korean experts.
The projectiles, which carry one-tonne warheads, are accurate to within tens of metres and bring all of Israel, Jordan and large parts of Turkey within Hezbollah’s range. Hezbollah has also been given M600s — surface-to-surface missiles based on the Iranian Fateh-110 — with a range of 250km and 500kg warheads.
“A new reality has dawned,” an intelligence report seen by The Times said.
“This is the first time that a terror organisation has obtained a missile of this type, which . . . is considered ‘strategic’. In the past, this type of missile has been held only by national armies.”
The key to the production of the Scuds is expertise from North Korea, which is one of the world’s biggest proliferators of missile technology. “North Korea has transitioned from selling full missile systems to licensed production and assembly of missiles (in third countries),” said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies non-proliferation and disarmament program.
Sources close to Hezbollah said the flow of weapons entering the Bekaa Valley from Syria had accelerated in March when protests erupted against the Assad regime.
One Hezbollah fighter joked that the scale of the arms shipments into Lebanon was so great that “we don’t know where to put it all”. Another said that it was only a contingency measure. “We can send it all back when things calm down in Syria,” he said.
Although the land border is believed to be the main channel for smuggling weapons, Hezbollah is also thought to receive weapons via sea and air routes.
In 2009, three suspected Iranian arms shipments were intercepted en route to ports in Lebanon and Syria.
The cargo of tank shells and explosives found on one ship, the Monchegorsk, which was seized by the US Navy in January 2009 and stored in a naval base near Limassol in Cyprus, blew up on Monday, killing 12 people.
Israeli military intelligence also confirmed that Hezbollah was engaged in a serious arms build-up.
“They moved some weapons before the uprisings in Syria, when the situation in Egypt was starting. But now that they see Syria as possibly unstable we are seeing the movement of a lot of weapons into Lebanon,” an Israeli military intelligence source said.
“We have never had a more quiet border with Lebanon but the threat from there has never been greater.”
A spokesman for the Syrian embassy in London said that he had no knowledge about the allegations of arms shipments to Hezbollah.
In a stern warning yesterday to the Syrian regime to move faster on reforms, US ambassador Robert Ford said in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine: “I have seen no evidence yet in terms of hard changes on ground that the Syrian government is willing to reform at anything like the speed demanded by the street protesters.
“If it doesn’t start moving with far greater alacrity, the street will wash them away.”