February 20, 2006: Syria is deeper into criminal and terrorist activities than it usually gets credit for. Syria has long been recognized as a supporter of terrorist groups. Often this support was, and still is, open, with terrorist groups allowed to maintain their headquarters in Syria. But it's Syria's less well known activities that should be the greatest cause of concern. Syria's smuggling operations have been a major source of income for the small circle of people that run the country. Smuggling is an ancient enterprise, especially in the Middle East, and flourishes because countries have long imposed taxes on what is imported. Smugglers also move illegal merchandise. Heroin and cocaine, for example, as well as weapons and explosives. And people, including terrorists. Syria is still involved in all of this.
Smugglers have also been caught moving terrorists themselves. Anti-smuggling efforts have usually been left to police organizations, often outfits associated with cracking down on other forms of tax evasion. But with the terrorism angle, the military and intelligence agencies are getting involved. This has scared away a lot of the independent, small time, smugglers, and made the state sponsored ones the targets of more attention.
The most visible Syrian operations are those that went through Lebanon. That has changed, somewhat, now that Syria has been forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. Well, most of Lebanon. The Bekaa valley, which, historically, was more often a part of Syria, than the coastal cities that have long been known as "the Lebanon," is still available to Syrian smugglers. The Bekaa is controlled by the Shia terrorist group Hizbollah, which is in turn subsidized by Iran. Syria is also on Iran's payroll.
But the most worrisome aspect of Syria's smuggling are the shipping companies that have been connected with all manner of irregular undertakings. Al Fahel Shipping is a Syrian company (http://www.fahel-shipping.com/) with a reputation for shady dealing. That made it worth keeping an eye on. They were formed in the 1970s and do a lot of ship chartering and broker ships sales, often buying from dubious owners and then reselling to other dubious operators. They own or operate nearly 40 ships (about 18 owned, and about 20 chartered, at least as of last year), all dry cargo types and none larger than 10,000 tons (GRT). Since they carry a lot of spices and such, this fleet of unusually small vessels is not in itself suspicious, as there's a lot of trade out of small ports in the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Indian Ocean. Most Al Fahel ships have been arrested or detained for various types of violations regularly, usually pollution or crewmen jumping ship. The are tied into a web of charters and cross-charters to several other companies, some of which are pretty dubious, often just an address and a website that may not work. With government officials as partners, these shippers can go for years without ever getting caught. Technically, they should never get caught, because they can always claim that a ship of theirs that is caught was operating on its own. That's often the case in the smuggling business, with rogue captains and crews freelancing. But when government officials are involved, you can be sure that freelancing is strongly discouraged.
Another shady shipping operation is Phoenicia Maritime (http://www.phoeniciamaritime.com/). This outfit has been more discreet than Al Fahel, but as counter-terrorism operations dig deeper into seaborne activities, they keep showing up. EUCOM and CENTCOM are interested in both of these outfits. However, it's also believed that a lot of the suspicious activity is due to managerial carelessness and cost-cutting, combined with petty corruption and lax enforcement by the flag under which the lines operate. This provides opportunities for terrorist sympathizers among crews, merchants, and local officials to lend help to terrorists. It's obvious that avoiding responsibility is the best protection.
Syrian involvement in seaborne smuggling is one of the reasons it got tagged as part of the Axis of Evil. Get Syria out of the terrorism business, and you might get them out of the smuggling business as well. But that's unlikely. The Syrian government needs the money. Iran was generous with its "foreign aid" because Syria provided support for terrorists Iran backed. Now Iran is keen on getting nuclear weapons. The first ones Iran will get will be large and delicate. The only feasible intercontinental delivery system will be a ship. A ship that is accustomed to moving illicit goods.