NEW YORK — For dirty deals done with Saddam Hussein, France and Russia may take the cake — but that’s just the beginning.
Packed into the Iraq Survey Group report from CIA chief weapons sleuth Charles Duelfer is news that there were some mighty big crumbs for many more countries that loudly defended Saddam during last year’s debates at the United Nations. For a taste, take Syria.
During the U.N. showdown over Iraq in 2002 and early 2003, Syria held a seat and had a vote on the U.N. Security Council. From that world platform, in February 2003 — a month before the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq — Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Shara pitched a high-minded plea that the only solution was not war, but yet more haggling by the UN: “We can achieve peace if we pursue it with determination and armed with political will.”
Meanwhile, Syria was pulling in big bucks for arming not the United Nation’s “political will” but Saddam himself.
The Duelfer report says that in that same month before the war, while Syria’s Al-Shara was arguing for “peace,” Saddam’s government was signing contracts with a Syrian company owned by a relative of Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad. The contracts were to buy “portable air defense systems, Kornet antitank guided missiles, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), heavy machine guns, and 20 million machinegun rounds for delivery to Iraq,” according to a former high-ranking Iraqi official.
In the case of those particular munitions, delivery was apparently interrupted by the U.S.-led coalition’s overthrow of Saddam’s regime. But plenty of forbidden items had poured through Syria to Iraq already, including munitions that may still be killing coalition troops and Iraqi civilians. For the final two years of Saddam’s regime, Duelfer’s report explains: “Syria was Iraq’s primary conduit for illicit imports,” handling contracts for $1.2 billion worth of forbidden goods and services, including weapons and military technology.
This burst of Iraqi-Syrian commerce was no freelance spree. It came under the auspices of a formal trade protocol, signed in 2000 between the regimes of Saddam and Assad — a flagrant violation of U.N. sanctions. Under this government-to-government agreement, Syria re-opened the Iraq-Syria pipeline, which became Saddam’s prime conduit for smuggling out oil, and over the life of the protocol helped bring Saddam about $2.8 billion in illicit income.
Syria’s dirty traffic with Iraq included deals with state-owned firms in fellow dictatorships such as North Korea (global retailer of the covert missile market) and Belarus (one of Saddam’s financing and procurement hubs in the former Soviet bloc). Within Syria, according to Duelfer, such business involved a number of firms run by cronies or relatives of President Assad and entailed “support from agencies or personnel within the government itself.”
For instance, one of Saddam’s regular dealers, signing some 257 illicit contracts with various Iraqi ministries, was SES International, a firm that Duelfer says was owned by the head of Syrian Presidential Security, Dhu al-Himma Shalish, and run by his nephew — both relatives of Syria’s president.
Through SES and similar Syrian companies, Saddam during his final years in power was busy procuring such stuff as surface-to-air missiles, missile navigation components from North Korea and laser and night-vision technology from China.
Syria also served as an illicit banker for Baghdad, with the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria laundering hundreds of millions in Saddam’s secret funds, and by some accounts channeling Saddam’s stash onward via a CBS subsidiary in Beirut, capital of Syria’s vassal state, Lebanon.
Saddam’s shady business with the Commercial Bank of Syria is all the more disturbing given that this past May the U.S. Treasury designated this bank as a conduit for “numerous transactions that may be indicative of terrorist financing,” including “two accounts at CBS that reference a reputed financier for Usama bin Laden.”
So flagrant was Syria’s cooperation with Saddam that in October, 2002, while the U.S. was trying to reason with the U.N. Security Council, Syria, according to the Duelfer report, was helping Saddam import from a Ukrainian military manufacturer an entire massive pontoon bridge set.
All this was made much easier by a setup in which, despite the reassuring label of sanctions on Iraq, the United Nations in practice did nothing to police the Iraqi-Syrian border. Under the 1996-2003 Oil-for-Food program, which was supposed to restrict Saddam’s trade exclusively to humanitarian goods (expanded early on to include oil industry equipment), the U.N. Secretariat collected $1.4 billion in commissions on Saddam’s oil sales, to monitor and ensure the integrity of the U.N. program.
But, as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan ran the program, the U.N.-hired inspectors were tasked only to check whether shipments into Iraq qualified for payment from U.N.-held escrow accounts for Iraq — not to stop contraband. Under the U.N. setup, it turns out, there was nothing to prevent trucks filled with forbidden munitions rolling from Syria into Iraq. And that, it seems, is what happened.
The Duelfer report, in hundreds more pages, lays out details of more than a dozen countries involved in Saddam’s illicit arms deals, including other nations in which the government played a direct role: “Belarus, North Korea, former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Yemen and possibly Russia.”
All this was part of a deliberate strategy by Saddam to corrupt the United Nations debates, erode sanctions, and re-arm his regime. The multi-billion-dollar bonanza of sanctions-busting business Saddam lavished on Syria was just one slice of such stuff, but it’s enough to give a pretty good idea of the realities behind the U.N. debates over peace and political will in dealing with Saddam.
Claudia Rosett is Journalist-in-Residence at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, and writes a column, “The Real World,” on issues of tyranny and human rights, especially as these relate to the war on terror, for The Wall Street Journal’s Opinionjournal.com and The Wall Street Journal Europe. Previously, Ms. Rosett has served as a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board in New York, as bureau chief in The Wall Street Journal’s Moscow Bureau and as editorial-page editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal. For her on-site coverage of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, Ms. Rosett won an Overseas Press Club Citation for Excellence.