The weekend report of a German-owned, Ukrainian-chartered ship carrying weapons to Syria should raise questions and alarm bells. Der Spiegel reported that the Atlantic Cruiser, owned by the German company Bockstiegel, had been chartered by the Ukrainian White Whale company to pick up Iranian-origin cargo in Djibouti. White Whale said the cargo was "mainly pumps and similar things," according to the German shipping agent. However, the ship was refused entry for refueling at the port of Limassol, Cyprus after the crew told the Cypriots that the cargo was "weapons and munitions." The Cruiser tried then to sail for Tartus, Syria, but it is currently sitting at sea.
Is the regime running out of bullets? This would account for Bashar al-Asad's agreement to Kofi Annan's ceasefire proposal. The proposal worked to the government's advantage in several ways, not least of which was leaving the al-Asad government in place. But clearly it has taken al-Asad more firepower and more time than he had planned to put down the insurrection. A few days or a week of respite would have permitted the regime to conserve ammunition until new supplies arrived. The last known ammunition shipment was from the Russians in January on a ship called The Chariot.
Who knew, who told? Somewhere between the chartering of the boat and the attempt to dock at Limassol, the nature of the cargo became clear -- munitions, not "pumps." Even if the crew knew what it had loaded in Djibouti, it would be highly unusual for a ship's captain to decide to contradict his manifest. (A German crew loaded Patriot missiles and propellant on a ship bound for an Asian country -- there was no proper paperwork, and the propellant was not properly packaged and labeled "fireworks," but the crew said nary a word until local Finnish dock workers alerted authorities while the ship was in port there.) Der Spiegel reports that "defectors from inside the Syrian government had learned of the delivery" and told the German charter company, which then pulled the plug on the illicit cargo.
That would mean that not only are Syrian soldiers and officers defecting, but there are spies inside the Syrian government, willing to remain inside and use their knowledge against the regime.
How many more ships are there, and where are they headed? The sea lanes between Iran and the eastern Mediterranean Sea have been used for the transit of weapons primarily bound for Hamas and Hezb'allah. Over the years, Israel has -- often with U.S. assistance -- followed and boarded merchant ships illegally carrying weapons to its adversaries. About a year ago, the Iranian military ships Alvand and Kharg transferred an estimated 50 tons of weapons to The Victoria, which Israel intercepted and offloaded. The Karine A, the Santorini, the Francop, the Hansa India, the Monchegorsk, and scores of smaller ships have been intercepted. Investigative journalist Claudia Rosett followed The Chariot after it unloaded its admitted military cargo and then carried "Ukrainian generators" to Iran.
The outcome in this case is actually quite positive for those who desire the downfall of al-Asad (read, the civilized world). The idea that there are spies inside must further unsettle the regime, and the fact that al-Asad is becoming desperate for munitions will cheer the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian civilians who have been at the mercy of aggression that clearly rises to the level of war crimes.
But the West should be alarmed by the ease with which countries attempting to circumvent arms embargoes (Iran is forbidden both to import and to export but seems to be in the middle of both sets of transactions) have been able to put things in boxes, lie about the contents, and ship said boxes around the world. The Atlantic Cruiser was unmasked apparently by the work of inside agents, but certainly for every Alvand or Monchegorsk, there are ships that sail their dangerous cargoes to even more dangerous regimes.
One final thought. It used to be legitimate for countries to sell arms to Syria -- not nice, perhaps, but legitimate. Now, in recognition of changing conditions, it isn't. Other countries of the Middle East should be re-evaluated in light of changes in their governments, including some allies of the United States.
No mention of ships and weapons could be complete without asking about the Dutch-flagged MV Schippersgracht, which sailed from a U.S. Military terminal apparently carrying weapons to Egypt after the State Department waived U.S. Senate conditions on American military aid that could be used by the government against its civilian population.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center. This piece is adapted from an article on its website.