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Cablegate: Syria: 2009 Country Report On Terrorism

VZCZCXRO1271
PP RUEHBC RUEHDE RUEHDH RUEHKUK RUEHROV
DE RUEHDM #0871/01 3541013
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 201013Z DEC 09
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 7135
INFO RUEHXK/ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE
RUEHEE/ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 DAMASCUS 000871

SIPDIS

LONDON FOR LORD; PARIS FOR NOBLES; DESK PLEASE PASS TO S/CT
RHONDA SHORE; NCTC

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PTER ASEC SY
SUBJECT: SYRIA: 2009 COUNTRY REPORT ON TERRORISM

1. (SBU) Junaid Munir is the Embassy POC. Unclassified
e-mail: MunirJM@state.gov. Tel: (963) 11-3391-3785.

2. (SBU) Designated in 1979 as a State Sponsor of Terrorism,
Syria in 2009 continued political support to Palestinian
terrorist groups. It also provided political and material
support to Hizballah in Lebanon 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. Statements supporting terrorist groups like Hamas
and Hizballah permeate government speeches and official
statements on a regular basis. The Syrian government insists
the Damascus-based groups are confined to political and
informational activities, but groups with leaders in Syria
have in the past claimed responsibility for anti-Israeli
terrorist attacks.

3. (SBU) Over the course of the year, President Bashar
al-Asad continued to express public support for
Palestinian terrorist groups. Hamas Politburo head and
defacto leader Khalid Mesh'al and his deputies continued to
reside in Syria. Syria provided a safe haven for Mesh'al and
security escorts for his motorcades. Mesh,al freely travels
around Damascus, attending numerous public events such as
national day celebrations for Arab states. Mesh'al's use of
the Syrian Ministry of Information as the venue for press
conferences 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, it allowed rejectionist conferences
organized by Hamas to take place over the course of the year.

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 Soussa on February 12, 2008. 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."

6. (SBU) Underscoring links between the Syrian government
and Hizballah, Israeli naval commandos intercepted a large
cache of arms on November 3 on its way from Iran to Hizballah
by way of the Syrian port of Latakia. The arms shipment,
which was found amidst civilian cargo on the Antiguan-flagged
ship MV Francop, weighed over 500 tons. Press reports quoted
Israeli officials stating the quantity of arms seized would
have been enough to equip the terrorist group for more than
one month of attacks on Israeli cities. While the Syrian
government denied involvement in the shipment, Israeli
officials stressed the incident illustrates Syria,s
continued efforts to fight a proxy war with Israel through
terrorist groups like Hizballah. Official Syrian statements
are peppered with references to "the Israeli enemy,"
bolstering Israeli concerns.

7. (SBU) Syria continued to strengthen ties with fellow
state sponsor of terrorism Iran. Throughout the year, the
countries exchanged high-level visitors. In August,
President al-Asad visited Tehran. On December 3, the Syrian
president met the Iranian National Security Advisor Said
Jalili in Damascus. On December 8, Iranian Defense Minister
Ahmed Vahidi began a three-day visit to Syria during which he
met with political and military leaders. Vahidi and his
Syrian counterpart announced agreement on a Syrian-Iranian
defense cooperation agreement on December 11. Frequent
working-level visits between Iranian and Syrian officials
took place throughout 2009. Syria also allowed leaders of
Hamas and other Palestinian groups to visit Tehran. Al-Asad
continued to be a staunch defender of Iran's policies,
including Iran's nuclear ambitions.

8. (SBU) Syria increased border monitoring activities,
instituted tighter screening practices on military-age Arab

DAMASCUS 00000871 002 OF 002


males entering its borders, 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. In September, General Ray Odierno, the U.S.
commander in Iraq, stated to the press: "Syria continues to
allow the facilitation of foreign fighters through Syria that
come both to Iraq as well as, I believe, Afghanistan. We do
know that there are some ex-Baathist elements that are
funding operations in Iraq, and we also know that they are
operating websites that encourage attacks inside Iraq."

9. (SBU) Following August 19 bombing attacks in Baghdad that
killed and wounded hundreds, Iraq withdrew its ambassador to
Damascus, alleging Syrian government support to Iraqi
Baathists it implicated in the attacks. In turn, Syria
recalled its ambassador from Baghdad. The Iraqi government
demanded the handover of four Iraqi Baathist leaders it
claimed are living in Syria. The Syrian government denied
involvement in these terrorist attacks, and pledged to act on
any "credible evidence" Iraq provided concerning terrorist
activities of Iraqi "opposition" members in Syria.

10. (SBU) In 2008, 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-Rai. Iraqi government officials criticize al-Rai
for serving as a "platform for terrorists." Media reports in
November reported al-Jaburi had sold the equipment and
offices of al-Rai to Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf (whom
the Treasury Department has designated an individual
determined to be responsible for or having benefited from
public corruption in Syria), though Makhlouf later denied
these reports. Observers speculated al-Jaburi and other
Iraqi Baathists may also have been linked to a new anti-Iraqi
government television stated called "Saddam," which completed
its inaugural two-day broadcast in late November.
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-Qa,ida 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
first part of the year both publicly and privately to discuss
border enhancements and other measures needed to combat
foreign fighter flows, that cooperation has been largely
inactive after the withdrawal of the Syrian and Iraqi
ambassadors from Damascus and Baghdad, respectively.

11. (SBU) Syria remains a source of concern regarding
terrorist financing. The Commercial Bank of Syria is 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 Syrian 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 the Syrian government and
the 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. In response
to a September 27, 2008 bombing near a Syrian security
installation that killed 17, 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. The Syrian government explained an explosion of a
tourist bus in the Damascus suburb of al-Sayyida Zainab as
the result of a tire repair mishap that killed three people,
though the presence of shattered windows 200 meters away from
the explosion creates some doubt about the source of the
explosion.

HUNTER

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