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The North Korea-Syria Nexus: Congress Needs to Ask Tough Questions
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The North Korea-Syria Nexus: Congress Needs to Ask Tough Questions

Congress needs to ask tough questions about weapons transfers from North Korea to Syria and the Middle East.

SOURCE: AP/Mohammed Zaatari

Hezbollah women hold models of Katyusha and RPG rockets launchers during a rally in southern Lebanon on July 22, 2007.

There’s a good chance that the House Intelligence Committee this week will hold closed-door hearings on Syria, at which time committee members would hear the Bush administration’s account of nuclear ties between North Korea and Syria, and also about Israel’s mysterious air strike against Syria last September. Several media outlets have reported that U.S. officials believe the Syrian facility had some potential to produce material for nuclear weapons—even though nuclear experts have called the Syrian program “rudimentary” and “nowhere near a program for nuclear weapons.”

If the United States is serious about advancing stability and peace in the Middle East and ensuring security for Israel, it must use these hearings to clarify to lawmakers what sort of security threat Syria poses, and how North Korea factors into their assessments. The reason: North Korea’s weapons transfers pose a potential threat to the Middle East peace process.

Pyongyang has a long laundry list of customers who have obtained missiles, components, technical assistance, and production technology, including Iran, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Pakistan. Throughout the 1990s, Syria imported North Korean SCUD-C missiles. These missiles are considered short range and can travel up to 500 kilometers, or more than 300 miles.

More recently, Syria imported SCUD-D and No Dong missiles from North Korea. The SCUD-D, acquired in 2000, is considered short range, with a range of up to 700 km, or more than 400 miles. The longer range No Dong missile, which Syria acquired in late 2006, can reach targets of up to 1,200 km, which means these missiles can hit targets anywhere in Israel.

But the danger to Israel from these missiles may not be confined to Syria. Currently, Hamas uses a smuggling and tunnel system to transfer weapons from Syria via the Sinai Peninsula into Gaza—a method they replicated from Hezbollah. This system has been effective in arming Palestinian militants with weapons and the raw materials needed for independent artillery production.

In addition, it is reported that Syria (through Hezbollah) provides Palestinian militant groups with advanced professional training in sniping, anti-tank warfare, intelligence, and artillery. These Palestinian militants are potentially the beneficiaries of North Korea’s extensive missile exports to the Middle East because they can use their established smuggling and tunnel system to obtain more advanced and longer range weaponry that endanger more Israeli civilians.

Last month Israel launched a military attack against Gaza because Israeli civilians in the southern towns of Sderot and Ashkelon were increasingly vulnerable to rocket fire from Gaza. Palestinian militants rely on Qassam rockets, highly inaccurate rockets with a range of only 6 to 12 km. But there is some evidence of longer range rockets being prepared by militants, called Katyushas, which can travel up to 20—to-40 km.

The town of Sderot is just a few kilometers from the Gaza Strip, and Ashkelon is just 10 kilometers north. Israeli raids in reaction to these rocket attacks by Palestinian militants have resulted in the deaths of more than a hundred Gazans, bringing the already fragile Israeli-Palestinian peace process under additional strain. Both the Qassam and Katyusha rockets are nowhere near as advanced as the missiles that North Korea is exporting to Syria, but the United States needs to maintain vigilance about the full range of weapons transfers North Korea is making to the Middle East.

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice undertakes a new diplomatic mission this week in the Middle East to boost support for Iraq and revitalize the peace process, Congress can play an important role in asking the Bush administration tough questions about what it knows regarding North Korea’s weapons transfers to the Middle East. If the United States downplays the significance of North Korea’s weapons and technology transfers to the region, then it could undermine the Israeli government’s confidence that it can take steps to advance the peace process without undermining the security of its people.

As the Bush administration tries to manage initiatives on multiple fronts in the Middle East—a complicated task by itself—it should keep a close watch on what countries outside the region, such as North Korea, are doing to shape and impact security dynamics in the region. Though there is no clear evidence that weapons North Korea has provided to Syria have gotten into the hands of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas, even the slim possibility that this could happen would have disastrous consequences for Israel’s security and the prospects for the peace process.

Amanda Rios is an intern at the Center for American Progress working with Senior Fellow Brian Katulis.

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