Mission Objective: Intelligence Gathering
Yesterday, Berlin's Defense Minister paid a visit to the German naval forces operating off the coast of Lebanon, within the framework of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The Bundeswehr is currently operating two speedboats and a supply vessel with altogether 230 military personnel. Alongside training and equipping the Lebanese Navy, their mission consists of prohibiting arms smuggling. According to the German Defense Ministry, the German soldiers are responsible for "intelligence gathering and the control of sea routes, as well as the diversion of ships in cases of suspicion." According to the German government, German troops are currently also installing the eighth of nine planned coastal radar stations in Tripoli. June 6, the German cabinet ruled that the mandate for this German UNIFIL unit will be prolonged another year. Immediately afterwards, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle visited the combat ships. This Thursday, the German Bundestag is scheduled to pass, in due form, this prolongation of the mandate. Berlin had ordered the German Navy's fleet service ship, an espionage ship, to cruise off the Syrian coast at the end of 2011. It is unknown whether this vessel is still in the area. During the war on Libya, it was cruising the Mediterranean on a secret mission.
The maritime region, where the German Navy is supposed to prohibit smuggling - and about which Berlin should have very detailed knowledge at its disposal - is considered one of the most important arms supply routes for Syrian insurgents. Tripoli's port is seen as the "main hub" for arriving arms, paid for mainly by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and possibly other Arabian Gulf dictatorships. The combat material arrives in the port - "usually camouflaged in containers" - where it is transferred and then transported overland to Syria. The closest major city in Syria is Homs, one of the first flash points of armed conflict. Originally, this had been "the most important arms smuggling route," according to reports. Only recently "a corridor from the Turkish province Hatay to Idlib" in northern Syria, has begun to have greater importance. According to military specialists, weapons originating, for example, from a depot created by Qatar near the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, are being transited through Tripoli and on to Syria. In the majority Sunni-inhabited Tripoli, where Syrian opposition forces have a strong presence and maintain active political structures, several hundred militant Salafists, many from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, have been converging to infiltrate across the nearby border into Syria. This process brings to mind the role once played by the Pakistani border town, Peshawar. In the 1980s, it too had served militant Islamists as a safe haven after their attacks, to retreat out of range of the armed forces in Afghanistan.
It is not new that, in spite of the arms embargo, the western protected militias are able to stock up on weapons. This was also the case during the Yugoslavian civil wars, and more recently during the war on Libya. Observers report that the arms buildup of the Syrian insurgents has dramatically accelerated. They used "the short ceasefire," beginning April 12, "to reorganize and stockpile arms." In the meantime, they have mortars, assault rifles and machineguns, as well as anti-tank missiles. Since the end of May, at least two dozen Syrian army tanks have been destroyed; since the beginning of the "ceasefire" in April more than 1,000 Syrian soldiers killed. The militias are currently operating within Syria "from relatively safe havens," reported the correspondent from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of the most renowned experts on the region. They have taken control of a region "with corner marks at Idlib and Jisr ash-Shugur to the north as well as Salhab and Hama to the South," in which they have created "a parallel state, where they administer the law, distribute and produce weapons as well as prepare their operations. The territory under their control is slowly expanding."
Opposition to Violence
All of this is very controversial within the Syrian opposition, because of the country's extremely sensitive religious constellation. Numerous religious minorities comprise more than a quarter of the population. Violence has become confessionalized - something experts had warned against already in the spring of 2011 - and religious motivated killings are commonplace. The Damascus-based "National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change," a coalition of opposition groups, which strictly rejects both the armed struggle against the regime, because of its inherent danger, as well as any sort of western intervention, is appealing for a refusal of support to religiously motivated insurgents or even to the Salafist militia. The situation in Iraq and Libya should serve as a warning. The locally active "National Coordination Committee" complains that the West is particularly using the exile-based "Syrian National Council," which has hardly a following inside Syria, to recruit allies for the violent overthrow of the Assad regime. Unlike in the "National Coordination Committee," Islamist organizations, particularly the exiled Muslim Brotherhood, are very influential in the "Syrian National Council."
The Hula massacre shows the dimension of the religiously motivated violence carried out by western-supported militia. According to the reports written by one of the most renowned German correspondents in the Arab world, the massacre was most likely carried out not by militia loyal to the government ("Shabiha"), but rather by insurgent Sunnis. They systematically killed families of religious minorities, including children. (german-foreign-policy.com reported.) Now even the Saudi regime is becoming worried that Saudi Salafists, waging war in Syria, could one day return home and turn on the Al Saud Dynasty - because they consider it too compromising. A fatwa issued in Riyadh on June 7, therefore prohibits participation in a "Jihad in Syria." However, local militia and Salafists fighting in Syria from other countries are still being supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf dictatorships - with arms supplies and the media power of Al Jazeera. That Qatari news channel has been supporting the Syrian opposition from the very beginning of protests. A nun from Quara, a village south of Homs, who witnessed the atrocities recently described the techniques in use by the news channel. She observed how militia "first used a car bomb to kill a businessman, who had refused to close his shop and then declared in front of a running Al Jazeera camera that the government had committed the crime." During his recent trip to Qatar, Foreign Minister Westerwelle also visited Al Jazeera and gave an exclusive interview.
Berlin, in awareness of the situation and the arms buildup of the insurgents, is obviously expecting a further escalation of the civil war - and is declaring its readiness to mitigate the shock. The warships off the coast of Lebanon are "certainly a sort of emergency reserve for humanitarian disasters that could happen in the region," German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière declared Monday during his visit to the German UNIFIL unit.