Why focus on the realities of terror-sponsoring rogue regimes, when you can mock Gov. Mitt Romney instead? After Monday night’s Obama-Romney foreign policy debate, the Washington Post’s Al Kamen is having fun deriding Romney’s description of Syria as Iran’s “route to the sea.” In commentary posted beneath a map of the Middle East, Kamen writes that “the fact-checkers went wild.” He notes, more in derision than in sorrow, that Romney has said this before, and “We had tried ever so hard back in February to get Romney to stop saying that.”
Kamen points out that Iran has direct access to waterways, with its own long coastline along the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, that it doesn’t share a border with Syria, and that Iranians making the overland journey would have to travel through northern Iraq to get to Syria, “and once the Iranians get there, they’ll find Syria has only a measly 111 miles of coastline.”
All correct, as far as it goes. Which isn’t very far. To be fair to Kamen, what Romney might more fastidiously have said is that Syria is Iran’s beachhead on the Mediterranean Sea. Which it is. Syria is right up the short coastline from Hezbollah-infested Lebanon, and the state of Israel, which Iran’s regime would like wiped off the map. But Kamen and his fact-checkers-gone-wild have neglected to mention that, or to note Romney’s additional remarks that Syria has been used by Iran as a “route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally, Israel.”
Yes, it is something of an expedition to shuttle between Iran and Syria, but that has not daunted decades of traffic in weapons and personnel between Iran and the Iranian-spawned, trained, and supported terrorists of Hezbollah in Lebanon, plenty of that traffic running via Syria. Nor, during Syria’s tumult of the past 19 months, has the journey discouraged Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from hustling to the aid of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Just last month, Reuters reported that according to a Western intelligence report, provided by a United Nations diplomatic source, Iran was “continuing to assist the regime in Damascus by sending trucks overland via Iraq.” According to the same report, Iran has also been making heavy use of those modern contraptions (referenced Monday night by President Obama, while lecturing Romney on the modern world) called airplanes. Reuters quotes further from the leaked intelligence report: “Planes are flying from Iran to Syria on an almost daily basis, carrying IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) personnel and tens of tons of weapons to arm the Syrian security forces and militias… .”
As for Syria’s “measly 111 miles of coastline” — as it happens, the Iranians have already discovered it. Syria’s coastline is home to such fascinating ports as Tartous and Lattakia, which figure, for instance, in a June, 2012 report by the United Nations panel of experts on Iran sanctions, in the context of alleged Iranian-origin maritime weapons shipments to Syria. Tartous is home to a naval base of Iran’s protector-in-proliferation, Russia, and locale for such stories as AlJazeera’s dispatch this past February, citing Iran state media: “Iran warships ‘dock in Syria’s Tartous port.’” And last year, for the first time since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, two Iranian navy ships docked in the Syrian port of Lattakia. Iran’s PressTV provided video of that event, along with footage of Iran’s navy commander visiting Damascus to sign a cooperation agreement with his Syrian counterpart.
Of course, if fact-checkers are desperate for a good chuckle, why deny them their fun over Romney’s locution? Syria is by no means Iran’s only access to the sea, and we can cavil over what distances and means of transport differentiate a “route” from, say, an access point, or a hub. But this comment did not arise in the midst of a detailed geography lesson. Romney made it, arguably as shorthand, during a debate on foreign policy. Even the most mirth-filled fact-checker might reasonably pause for a moment to consider whether it meant the candidate has never seen a map, or whether, having looked at much more than just the map, he was flagging the dangerous and increasingly alarming dealings between Iran and its bedfellow-on-the-Med, Syria.