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Cablegate: Syria: 2008 Country Report On Terrorism

VZCZCXYZ0004
PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHDM #0908/01 3640430
ZNR UUUUU ZZH (CCY AD136D0B MSI2965-695)
P 290430Z DEC 08
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 5718
INFO RUEHXK/ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHEE/ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUCNMEM/EU MEMBER STATES COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC PRIORITY
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHDC PRIORITY

UNCLAS DAMASCUS 000908

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

C O R R E C T E D COPY CAPTION
S/CT: RHONDA SHORE; NCTC

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PTER ASEC
SUBJECT: SYRIA: 2008 COUNTRY REPORT ON TERRORISM

REF: A. STATE 124815
B. STATE 120019

1. (SBU) Russell Comeau is the Embassy POC. Address: 6110
Damascus Place, Dulles, VA 20189. Unclassified e-mail:
ComeauR@State.gov. Tel: ( 963) 11-3391-3785.

2. (SBU) Designated in 1979 as a State Sponsor of Terrorism,
Syria in 2008 continued political support to Palestinian
terrorist groups. It also provided political and material
support to Hizballah and allowed Iran to resupply this
organization with weapons. Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad
(PIJ), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
(PLFP), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of
Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), among others, base their
external leadership in Damascus and operate within Syria's
borders. The Syrian government insists the Damascus-based
groups are confined to political and informational
activities, but groups with leaders in Syria have claimed
responsibility for anti-Israeli terrorist attacks.

3. (SBU) Over the course of the year, Syria's public support
for the Palestinian groups varied, depending on Syrian
national interest and international pressure. President
Bashar al-Asad continued to express public support for
Palestinian rejectionist groups. Hamas Politburo head and
defacto leader Khalid Mesh'al and his deputies continued to
reside in Syria. Syria provided a safehaven for Mesh'al and
security escorts for his motorcades. Meshal's use of the
Syrian Ministry of Information as the venue for press
conferences this year can be taken as an endorsement of
Hamas's message. Media reports indicate Hamas used Syrian
soil as training grounds for its militant fighters. Though
the Syrian government claimed periodically that it used its
influence to restrain the rhetoric and activities of
Palestinian groups, the Syrian government allowed a
Palestinian rejctionist conference organized by Hamas,
PFLP-GC, and PIJ to occur in January and another Hamas
organized conference, reportedly funded by Iran, to occur in
November.

4. (SBU) Highlighting Syria's ties to the world's most
notorious terrorists, Hizballah Operations Chief Imad
Mugniyah perished in a car bomb that exploded near Syrian
Military Intelligence (SMI) headquarters in the Damascus
neighborhood of Kafr Sousa on February 12. Among other
atrocities, Mugniyah was wanted in connection with the 1983
bombings of the Marine barracks and U.S. Embassy in Beirut,
which killed over 350. Despite initial attempts to cover up
the incident, the Syrian government reluctantly acknowledged
some days later that one of the world's most wanted
terrorists had been present and died on Syrian soil.

5. (SBU) Syrian officials publicly condemned some acts of
terrorism, while continuing to defend what they considered to
be legitimate armed resistance by Palestinians and Hizballah
against Israeli occupation of Arab territory, and by the
Iraqi opposition against the "occupation of Iraq." Syria has
not been directly implicated in an act of terrorism since
1986, although an ongoing UN investigation into the February
2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq
Hariri continued to investigate Syrian involvement.

6. (SBU) Syria itself was the location of at least one major
attack involving a terrorist group with which it had or used
to have ties. On September 27, the car-bombing of a Syrian
government facility reportedly injured 14 and killed at least
17 individuals, marking the first significant attack against
regime institutions in nearly 20 years. Not since the Muslim
Brotherhood uprising in the early 1980s have Syrian
institutions been targeted by terrorists. Regional media
reports indicated this bombing was directed at the
Palestinian Branch of the Syrian Military Intelligence.

7. (SBU) Throughout the year Syria continued to strengthen
ties with fellow state sponsor of terrorism, Iran. Syria's
Minister of Defense visited Tehran in May and initiated a
defense cooperation Memorandum of Understanding. Syria also
allowed leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian groups to
visit Tehran. President Asad repaid a 2007 visit to Damascus
by Iranian President Ahmadinejad with a visit of his own to
Tehran in early August, his third visit since 2005. Asad
continued to be a staunch defender of Iran's policies,
including Iran's "civil" nuclear ambitions.

8. (SBU) Syria increased border monitoring activities,
instituted tighter screening practices on military-age Arab
males entering its borders, hosted two Border Security
Working Group meetings with technical experts from the Iraqi
Neighbors group and expressed a desire to increase security
cooperation with Iraq. At the same time, Syria remained a
key hub for foreign fighters en route to Iraq. The Syrian
government continued to harbor former Iraqi regime elements.

9. (SBU) The U.S. Government designated several Iraqis and
Iraqi-owned entities residing in Syria which provided
financial, material, and technical support for acts of
violence that threatened the peace and stability of Iraq,
including Mish'an Al-Jaburi and his satellite television
channel Al-Ra'y. Additionally, the U.S. Government
designated known foreign fighter facilitators based in Syria,
including members of the Abu Ghadiyah network, which
orchestrated the flow of terrorists, weapons, and money from
Syria to al-Qaida in Iraq. Attacks against Coalition Forces
and Iraqi citizens continued to have a destabilizing effect
on Iraq's internal security. Though Syrian and Iraqi leaders
met throughout the year both publicly and privately to
discuss border enhancements and other measures needed to
combat foreign fighter flows, there have been few tangible
results.

10. (SBU) Despite acknowledged reductions in foreign fighter
flows, the scope and impact of the problem remained
significant. Syria continued to allow former Iraqi regime
elements to operate in the country. According to the
December 2007 "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq"
report to Congress, nearly 90% of all foreign terrorists
known in Iraq used Syria as an entry point, and there is no
evidence to suggest that this percentage has diminished over
the past year. While Syria has taken some positive steps,
the Syrian government can do more to interdict known
terrorist networks and foreign fighter facilitators operating
within its borders. Syria's ability to turn the flow of
fighters off and on for political reasons was apparent in the
wake of the alleged October 26 military incursion into Syria,
when the Syrian government's self-described response was to
remove border guards from key border checkpoints along the
Iraqi/Syrian border.

11. (SBU) Syria remains a source of concern regarding
terrorist financing. The Commercial Bank of Syria remains
subject to U.S. sanctions. Industry experts report that 70
percent of all business transitions are conducted in cash and
that nearly 90 percent of all Syrians do not use formal
banking services. Despite SARG legislation requiring
money-changers to be licensed by the end of 2007, many
money-changers continued to operate illegally in Syria's vast
black market, estimated to be as large as Syria's formal
economy. Regional "hawala" networks remain intertwined with
smuggling and trade-based money laundering - facilitated by
notoriously corrupt customs and immigration officials -
raising significant concerns that Syrian government and
business elite are, at the very least, complicit in terror
financing schemes.

12. (SBU) Syria's government-controlled press continued to
tout Syrian regime efforts to combat terrorism. The Syrian
government, using tightly-controlled press outlets, was quick
to blame a Lebanese-based, al-Qaida affiliated group, Fatah
al-Islam, for this attack. Syrian TV broadcast a November 7
program featuring the confessions of some 20 Fatah al-Islam
members, including the daughter and son-in-law of Fatah
al-Islam leader Shakr al-Absy, of their involvement in the
attack against the prominent military intelligence
installation. Syrian and other commentators have noted that
the Syrian government allegedly had maintained ties to Shakr
al-Absy, for whom Jordanian authorities had issued an arrest
warrant for the 2003 murder of USAID employee Lawrence Foley.
Fatah al-Islam was also involved in the 2007 standoff
against the Lebanese Armed Forces in the Nahr al Barid camp
located in northern Lebanon. It remains unclear why this
group would have launched an attack against Syrian security
elements, but media reports suggest Absy's disappearance
inside of Syria as a possible motive. In response to the
September 27 bombing, the Syrian security services conducted
at least one reported raid on a terror cell residing in the
Damascus area, killing and arresting several suspected
militants and confiscating a cache of weapons and explosives.
Since the attack, the regime has attempted to portray Syria
as a victim of terrorism rather than a purveyor of it.

CONNELLY

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