Reports have emerged this week indicating the presence of North Korean military
personnel in Syria. They note that 15 North Korean helicopter pilots are
operating there on behalf of President Bashar Assad’s regime.
have been validated by the pro-rebel but usually reliable Syrian Observatory for
They are also not the first evidence that Pyongyang is
actively involved on the ground in the Assad regime’s war effort.
this year, the Saudi-based regional newspaper Asharq al-Awsat carried eyewitness
reports revealing the presence of North Korean officers among the Syrian
regime’s ground forces in the city of Aleppo.
On this occasion, the
Syrian Observatory was itself the source of the report.
detailed the presence of between 11 and 15 North Korean officers in the city.
Rami Abdul Rahman of the organization said the men were artillery
They were not, he said, taking part directly in the fighting.
Rather, the men were engaged in providing “logistical support in addition to the
development plans of military operations.”
These sightings are the latest
confirmation of the long, close and cooperative relationship maintained between
Pyongyang and the regime of the Assads.
The connection precedes the
current Syrian war. It forms part of North Korea’s broader network of
relationships in the Middle East.
Most famously, of course, the plutonium
reactor under construction at the al-Kibar facility near Deir ez-Zor, destroyed
by Israel in September 2007, was built under North Korean
North Korean participation in the reactor’s construction was
confirmed by a high-level Iranian defector, Ali Reza Asghari. According to Der
Spiegel, North Korean scientists were present at the site at the time of the
But Assad’s fledgling nuclear program was not the only project
in which Damascus was aided by Pyongyang. Cooperation also took place both in
the field of conventional weapons and in that of nonnuclear weapons of mass
In an October 3 interview with Radio Free Asia, former
Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Bruce Bechtol noted that North Korea has
been supplying weaponry, including chemical weapons, to Syria since the early
According to Bechtol, North Korea provides the Syrians with the
ability to “marry up” chemical weapons with missile systems. He noted that the
North Koreans constructed two chemical weapons facilities for the Syrians, which
remain in operation today.
In terms of conventional weapons, North Korea
has played a vital part in Syria’s missile program.
The North Koreans are
acknowledged experts in weapons smuggling process. They have continued to
transport spare parts for Assad’s missiles into the country throughout the war,
by air and by sea, coolly dismissive of the supposed international arms embargo.
According to a 2012 report prepared for the UN Security Council, South Korea
intercepted one shipment in May 2012, which was carrying graphite cylinders en
route to Syria for Assad’s missiles.
The Iraqi authorities also claim to
have diverted a plane carrying North Korean material to Syria, last
Bechtol, the former DIA man, noted that “in the past few
months, there’s been an uptick in the number of North Korean advisers and
logistics personnel on the ground that are helping Syrians resupply themselves,”
and in the maintenance of weapons systems earlier supplied by Pyongyang. Such
maintenance and resupply, of course, is vital for a country engaged in a long
war, in which systems are in daily use.
Why are the North Koreans doing
this? The answer does not lie in the realm of ideology.
Rather, the North
Koreans are isolated and subject to sanctions. They need money, and will sell to
whoever pays them.
So who is paying them? In the case of Syria, the
answer is – almost certainly – the Iranians.
As with Russia, Syria does
not get free arms handouts from its sponsors outside of the region. It instead
gets free cash handouts from its regional patron, Iran, for which the survival
of the Assad regime is most vital.
This money is then used to pay for
Pyongyang’s and Moscow’s hardware and expertise.
Of course, Iran is North
Korea’s main customer in the Middle East.
So Pyongyang’s evident
involvement in the Syrian war is also a matter of longstanding alliances, as
well as monetary gain.
Most intriguing in the latest development is the
involvement of North Korean pilots. It is not clear if these men are actually
engaged in combat on behalf of Assad, or in other tasks.
presence appears to suggest that the dictator’s problems with manpower also
extend to his air force. The lack of trustworthy fighters has been the main
problem facing the regime since the outbreak of the war.
Iran has sought
to solve it through the insertion of large numbers of Hezbollah fighters, Iraqi
Shi’ite volunteers and Iranian Revolutionary Guards into the fighting
If Pyongyang is now supplying pilots to the regime, then appears
it can no longer rely even on its own airmen.
This is quite
On the one hand, the Assad regime is, among other things, an
“air force” regime. Hafez Assad was himself a pilot and a commander of the
Syrian Air Force.
But as with other parts of the armed forces, the most
loyal men in the air force are to be found in the most politically sensitive
positions, not the most dangerous ones.
So while the very powerful Syrian
Air Force Intelligence (Idarat al- Mukhabarat al-Quwwa al-Jawiya) is largely
officered by Syrian Alawites, the majority of the pilots are Sunnis.
such, it is perfectly possible that the same problems of trust apply to Assad’s
aircrews as those which afflict his ground forces.
suggesting the presence of North Korean soldiers and aviators in Syria
ultimately furthers testimony to the determined, effective and continuing effort
by Assad’s allies, from the very start of the war, to keep him in
It may also be assumed that the North Koreans have noted and
enjoyed the rudderless, wavering US policy toward the same issue over the same