Iran sends arms to Syria via Turkey, say diplomats
UNITED NATIONS - Reuters
A handout picture released by the Iranian president's official website shows Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (L) meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in Tehran on March 2, 2013. Syria's close ally Iran said that President Bashar al-Assad will take part in next year's presidential election. AFP PHOTO / HO / PRESIDENT.IRIran has significantly stepped up military support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in recent months by sending lots of arms to the regime via Turkey, solidifying its position alongside Russia, Western diplomats said.
Iranian weapons continue to pour into Syria from Iraq but also increasingly along other routes, including via Turkey and Lebanon, in violation of a U.N. arms embargo on Iran, Western officials said on condition of anonymity. Iraqi and Turkish officials denied the allegations.
Iran’s acceleration of support for al-Assad suggests the Syrian war is entering a new phase in which Iran may be trying to end the battlefield stalemate by redoubling its commitment to al-Assad and offering Syria’s increasingly isolated government a crucial lifeline, the envoys said.
It also highlights the growing sectarian nature of the conflict, diplomats say, with Iranian arms flowing to the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. That group is increasingly active on the ground in Syria in support of al-Assad’s forces, envoys added.
Much of the weaponry going to Syria now, diplomats say, continues to be shipped to Iran through Iraqi airspace and overland through Iraq, despite Baghdad’s repeated promises to put a stop to Iranian arms supplies to al-Assad in violation of a U.N. arms embargo on Tehran over its nuclear program. Iraq denied that report but later made a point of inspecting an Iran-bound flight that it said had no arms on board.
“The Iranians really are supporting massively the regime,” a senior Western diplomat said this week. They have been increasing their support for the last three, four months through Iraq’s airspace and now trucks. And the Iraqis really are looking the other way.”
“They (Iran) are playing now a crucial role,” the senior diplomat said, adding that Hezbollah was “hardly hiding the support it’s giving to the (Syrian) regime.”
The diplomats made clear that the principal delivery route for arms to Syria still went through Iraq, despite the existence of alternative supply channels such as Turkish airspace. They also said that Iran Air and Mahan Air were well-known violators of the Iranian arms embargo.
Turkish airspace to Beirut
One Western diplomat cited intelligence reports from his country that a new avenue for sending arms to Syria went on occasion through Turkish airspace to Beirut and from there to Syria by truck. There was no suggestion, he said, that Turkish officials were aware of the illicit arms shipments.
There are about 5 tons of arms per flight, which are occurring on a near weekly basis, hidden in the bottom of the planes’ fuselages, the report said, adding that arms cargo was removed separately after civilian cargo was unloaded.
A Turkish diplomatic source denied the allegation. “This is a very sensitive matter for Turkey, and we are very certain that this is baseless,” the source said.
Turkey has intercepted Iranian arms shipments in the past and reported them to the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions committee. Ankara’s aggressive campaign to stamp out Iranian arms smuggling via its airspace, Western diplomats say, was what led Iran to begin using Iraqi airspace instead.