Another thread in the oil-for-food scandal is unraveling, and this one shows the extent of Syrian involvement.
On Wednesday, officials from the State and Treasury departments and a former U.N. monitor who had tried to tighten the sanctions detailed in testimony before the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia how Syria funneled more than $3.4 billion in illicit oil money plus weaponry to the Iraqi dictator in the three years before his downfall. The highest levels of the Syrian government were involved. Given that the September 2004 Duelfer report estimated that Iraq earned about $5 billion in illicit oil sales in 2000-03, $3.4 billion would comprise more than two-thirds of the total, making Syria Iraq’s most egregiously eager partner.
The Iraq-Syria relationship apparently began in June 2000 when, amid a diplomatic thaw, Iraq and Syria reached a bilateral trade agreement in violation of U.N. sanctions. According to Dwight Sparlin of the Internal Revenue Service’s criminal division, that summer, the Iraqi State Oil Marketing Corporation arranged accounts with the Commercial Bank of Syria to handle funds generated from oil sales outside oil for food.
The Dutch firm Saybolt International BV, a U.N. contractor inspecting oil shipments, passed the U.N. rumors in November 2000 that a pipeline between Iraq and Syria capable of handling $1 billion of oil a year had reopened in violation of sanctions. Syria sought to conceal this, and in February 2001, when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Syrian strongman Bashir Assad in Damascus, he was told three times that the pipeline would be brought under the U.N. sanctions regime. Meanwhile, in the 661 Committee, the U.N. group monitoring the oil for food program, Syrian officials stalled and misrepresented the pipeline’s use.
None of the Syrian claims were true. The pipeline became Syria’s primary means of funneling oil from Iraq for money, goods and services in flagrant violation of U.N. sanctions. This happened, as U.N. monitor Victor D. Comras put it scathingly in his testimony, because of “serious flaws in the program concept itself,” concluding that “much blame must also be placed on those responsible for its oversight, and those that sought to take advantage of the program for their own avarice, greed or narrow political interests.” Syria still has $262 million of Iraqi money, according to testimony given by Elizabeth Dibble of the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
The worst part of all: Some of the $3.4 billion might be funding the insurgency in Iraq. Mr. Comras confirmed that Iraq used some of its Syrian funds to buy Syrian weapons and munitions in direct contravention of U.N. sanctions. In that regard the influx of Syrian money into Iraq, the details of which are just beginning to emerge, could lead to some shocking revelations about the weapons currently trained upon American and Iraqi soldiers.