Global media speculation centering on a North Korean-flagged freighter that docked in the Syrian port of Tartus three days before the alleged September 6 IAF strike on Syrian territory has focused the world's attention on the mysterious port. In fact, published sources demonstrate the centrality of Tartus to a prolonged history of secretive military cooperation between the two countries.
Two Web sites list the Al-Hamad freighter as having docked at Tartus on September 3, flying North Korean colors. A third Web site, run by the Egyptian Transportation Ministry, says the Al-Hamad docked in the Nile Delta one month earlier and later passed by the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli.
The Al-Hamad is believed to be a 42-year-old, 1,700-ton general-purpose freighter. Its cargo on the fateful voyage was listed as cement. The origin of the freighter, according to one report, has been removed from Web sites that track shipping movements.
According to Russian sources, the London-based Almashad Alsiasi publication and the AXIS Global Research and Analysis Web site, Tartus is one of the bases where Syrian Scud missile launchers (Transporter-Elevator-Launcher vehicles) are stationed. Most of the launchers were brought to the port from North Korea or built using North Korean blueprints and parts.
The process reportedly began in 1991. That March, using the $2 billion that it received from America for participation in the First Gulf War, Syria contracted for the delivery of more than 150 Scud-C missiles and 20 launchers from North Korea, for an estimated $500 million. Western intelligence officials said the sale received prior approval from Saudi Arabia, Steve Emerson of The Wall Street Journal reported that summer. The equipment was to be shipped to the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia aboard foreign vessels.
The first such delivery took place in May 1991, according to reported comments by David Ivri, the former director-general of Israel's Defense Ministry. Carried aboard a Yugoslavian freighter, the missiles were delivered to Tartus, as reported by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and by Bill Gertz in the Washington Times.
The North Korean ship Mupo reportedly returned home without delivering its cargo of missiles and assembly equipment for Syria - but the cargo did get there in the end. The Mupo was said by US defense officials to be carrying eight launchers and additional missiles, part of the Syrian order for 150 Scud-C's, the Washington Times reported. The ship followed a circuitous route in an effort to avoid Israeli interception, and its cargo was transferred to another freighter at Gibraltar.
In June 1991, the Washington Times reported, a large shipment of North Korean Scud-C missiles arrived in Cyprus and was transferred to smaller vessels for transshipment to Latakia and Tartus.
Next, in March 1992, 24 Scud-C missiles, along with missile-production and assembly equipment, were delivered to Tartus aboard the North Korean freighter Tae Hung Ho. The manufacturing equipment was destined for missile factories in the Syrian cities of Hama and Aleppo, the Nuclear Threat Initiative Web site reported.
Later, according to the same Web site and other sources, Tartus became a secondary conduit for military cargoes, as most subsequent shipments were made by air, sometimes through Iran.
By 1996, according to the AXIS Global Research and Analysis Web site, the Tartus base had several dozen mid-range Scud-B missiles, able to strike up to 300 kilometers away.
In 2000, several reports suggested (including from the Wisconsin Project On Nuclear Arms Control and the Nuclear Threat Initiative Web site) that the North Korean firm Chon-gchon-gang had delivered 50 Scud-D (No-Dong) missiles to Syria via Tartus, and some of them were installed at the local base. Other sources said Syria had also acquired seven new launchers. At the end of September 2000 and in the middle of 2001, some of these missiles were modernized and test-fired in the Aleppo area.
Syria's acquisition of Scud-D missiles was seen as significant because it would allow Damascus to strike targets throughout Israel from launchers positioned deep inside its territory and less easily detected by Israel.
According to Russian sources, the Wisconsin Project and Munich Focus (in November 2005), the Scud-D may have had problems with its guidance system, later reportedly addressed.
Reports on the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin and Nuclear Threat Initiative Web sites also noted that Syria had begun assembling Scud-C missiles at a factory built by North Korea. These reports indicated that Syria was capable of producing some but not all of the components needed to construct the projectiles. Several of the 26 launchers were reportedly adapted for Scuds with chemical warheads. It is unknown how many of them are stationed in Tartus.
In June 2002, US and Israeli officials said Syria was mass producing a longer-range version of its Scud C missile, with possible assistance from North Korea and Iran, Jane's Defence Weekly reported. Unconfirmed reports suggested that North Korean scientists were working at several Scud launch sites, including at the Tartus base.
On May 19, 2004, US officials confirmed that a train crash in North Korea had caused the death of approximately a dozen Syrian technicians. The Syrians were accompanying a train car full of missiles and missile components being moved from a facility near the Chinese border to a North Korean port. From there, they were to have been shipped to Tartus or Latakia; the cargo was destroyed in the subsequent explosion. The officials said there was no evidence of chemical or biological weapons in the shipment.
Then the Russians reportedly entered the picture. Several Western experts (in particular the AXIS Global Research and Analysis Web site) reported that in November 2004, two ships from the Russian Black Sea Fleet, acting in the framework of a joint exercise with NATO on the "prevention of WMD distribution," arrived for a "routine check" at Tartus.
They were allegedly carrying parts and blueprints needed for the Syrian Scud upgrade program. From there, some of the parts were supposedly transported to the Aleppo production site and some, with the help of Russian technicians, were mounted on Scuds at the Tartus missile base. Some Russian sources claimed these were new guidance systems.
On March 9, 2005, yet another Russian Black Sea Fleet landing vessel, the Azov, left for Syria, carrying machinery for "rebuilding of the moorage" at the Tartus technical base and "new equipment to replace obsolete items at the base's storage facilities." When the ship arrived at the Syrian port, several meetings "between local authorities and officers of the Russian Navy" took place, Russian media reported.
Less than two months later, Damascus conducted various missile-firings: The Syrians launched one Scud-B missile with a range of 300 kilometers, and two Scud-D missiles with a range of 700 kilometers.
The missiles were reportedly designed to deliver airburst chemical weapons. Some Syrian opposition sources have said that additional equipment for the missile program arrived on board the Azov. So too, reportedly, did a group of Russian specialists to oversee test launches of new Scuds.