Is Syria Aiding the Iraqi Resistance?
How good is US and Iraqi evidence that Syria is and important center for coordinating the Iraqi resistance? On the surface, it looks very weak; although, anything we say about the resistance must be cautious. Everyone seems to be shooting in the dark.
I just had drinks with Scott Wilson, the excellent Washington Post journalist who is in town to do a story on Islamism in Syria. He is just back from spending much of December in Mosul and Baghdad and has as good a bead on what is going on in Iraq as anyone. He was quite frank to say that he doesn’t think Iraqi claims that Syria along with ex-Bathists in Syria are directing the action in Iraq holds water. He said so much of the proof rests on satellite coordinates for Syria found in one phone in Faluja. As Scott said, “I have Syrian coordinates in my satellite phone. What does that mean? Not much.”
To base such sweeping claims on Syrian coordinates found in one phone is irresponsible. So many of the top Iraqis in Syria, he also pointed out, came before the invasion. Is their money really running the thing? As Wilson pointed out, the real story is that thousands of regular Iraqis are picking up guns and shooting at Americans and Iraqi military and no one really knows how it all comes together. He said his time in Mosul following the collapse of Faluja was scary. Americans couldn’t stop anywhere in the Arab section of the city for more than 10 minutes before the resistance closed in on them and began shooting. Everyone was scared. In such an environment it is easy to blame things on outsiders.
The Iraqis are blaming everything on outsiders these days, just as the Lebanese used to during their civil war. I shared a taxi from Beirut to Damascus the other day with a very nice Iraqi gentleman who is the president of some association of judges. He had been at a meeting in Beirut and was returning to Baghdad by way of the Damascus airport. When I asked him about the Syrian roll in the resistance, he assured me it was central. His proof was to relate how Iraqis in their long and illustrious history had never been suicide bombers and had never engaged in such senseless killing in the name of Islam. Thus, for him, the killing in Iraq had to be committed and directed by foreigners who were importing their violent and twisted ways. This is the Iraqi equivalent to the widespread Syrian notion that Mosad or the Americans must be behind the killing of Iraqi intellectuals and its middle class, just as the Lebanese civil war was always blamed on the interests of foreign countries. The result is the same: "It can't be us."
Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara on Thursday rejected media misleading news against Syria over Iraq saying they are baseless. "Syria is interested in Iraq's future and security because it is part of Syria's security and what some media is saying of misinformation is fiction as it is baseless."
Even King Abdullah of Jordan thinks Syria working to stabalize the situation by backing the American plan and elections. His now famous Crescent of Shiism speach, which echoed Bush's "Evil Axis" metaphore is proof of this. The US plan for Iraq will result in a Shi'a takeover of Iraq - that may not have been the original "intent", but it will certainly be the result, especially as more Sunni parties retract their support for the elections. Abdullah thinks this is what Syria wants and by extension we can only conclude that he believes Syria is supporting American in this. He does not believe that Syria is trying to fire up the Sunni resistance so it can take over Iraq - that would not add up to a Shiite crescent.
It is quite clear that Syria is interested in stabilizing Iraq ever since Allawi's first visit, which went very well.
As Rhonda Roumani and Lina Sinjab wrote in the most January issue of Syria Today: "There have been few arrests on the frontier in recent months - with most of these smugglers, not foreign fighters." Syria has built its sand wall along the border to keep cars from crossing. It has also set up control and observation centers at regular intervals along the border. The American and Iraqis have done the same on their side. The Americans also have very sophisticated satallite and other monitoring technology. They are not catching people.
The whole story seems like it has been royally tarted up and overspun. Of course there is also the non-existent Iraqi photo, which I wrote about in my last entry.
In an Associated Press article picked up by the Jerusalem Post -- "Iraqi militant admits ties with Iran, Syria," a new line of non-proof is being spun.
A militant leader suspected of involvement in beheadings and bloody attacks in Iraq confessed to Iraqi authorities his group's links with Iran and Syria, according to footage aired by the US-based and funded Alhurra television.This report, used to trumpet the connections between Syria and Iraq, actually does just the opposite. It demonstrates that there is no evidence of Syrian support for Jaish Muhammad. Let’s recap what the story does say. During the invasion of Faluja, the Americans captured the leader of Jaish Muhammad, believed to be one of the fiercest and most important of the Iraqi resistance groups. They interrogate him for two months. What do they get? He says that in 2003 Saddam authorized the group to send a mission to Syria seeking aid. Did Syria respond? Yasseen doesn’t know!
Moayad Ahmed Yasseen, the leader of Jaish Muhammad, Arabic for Muhammad's Army, was shown in the program aired in Iraq Friday, nearly two months after his capture in Fallujah, the guerrilla stronghold west of Baghdad.
The Arabic-language station said the Iraq Ministry of Defense provided the tape, filmed on Dec. 24. The circumstances of his purported confession were unclear.
Yasseen, a former colonel in Saddam Hussein's army, said two former military officers were sent "to Iran in April or May, where they met a number of Iranian intelligence officials."
He said Iranian officials provided money, weapons "and as far as I know even car bombs" for the group. He said among the officials they met in Iran was its supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
Yasseen also said he got permission from Saddam, while the former dictator was in hiding after his ouster during the US led invasion in 2003, to cross into Syria and meet a Syrian intelligence officer to ask for money and weapons. He didn't say if the request was granted.
Moayad Yasseen was captured at the end of 2004, he had a year to get a response from the Syrians. He was clearly in a position to know whether they answered and whether other groups were getting Syrian support. Why don't the Americans supply his answers? There can be only two reasons. 1. He said the Syrians didn't respond and he had no knowledge of Syrian support. Or. 2. The US doesn’t want to embarrass the Syrians by airing the confession on al-Hurra TV.
The second possibility doesn’t make any sense. The Americans have been doing everything they can to cast blame on Syria. So have the Iraqis.
This broadcast can only make one conclude that the US cannot get hard evidence of Syrian plotting with resistance leaders in Iraq during 2004. Nevertheless the Syrian Reform Party and others have been using this interview as proof of Syrian complicity with Jaiysh Muhammad. This is very deceptive and it is surprising that Western journalists and Defense Department types allow it to go unquestioned.
Then there is Deputy Secretary Armitage's interview with Egyptian TV on his talks with the Syrians, which doesn't offer anything new.
MR. ELSETOUCHI: What did you get from him [Bashar]?
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Oh, I didn't say I got anything from him, nor did
he get anything from me, other than an exchange of views. But I think it's
quite clear that the U.S. view is that Syria needs to do more on the
question of foreign regime elements who are using Syria as a base from which
to have operations into Iraq. I think I made it very clear that the whole
international community is watching to see that UN Security Council
Resolution 1559 is fulfilled and, among other things, it calls for an
elimination of foreign presence in Lebanon.
And finally, I hope that both of us would take advantage of the opportunity
presented by Sunday's elections, Palestinian elections, and move forward on
the peace process.
MR. ELSETOUCHI: But what the Syrians are saying is that you don't have
enough evidence or you don't provide us with accurate information. So what's
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: We had that discussion. In some cases, they're
right. In some cases, we don't have exact locations.
But our view is that they know these people, they've known them from the
previous regime, and with a good effort, they can find them. And we're
counting on Syria to help bring these fellows to justice and to stop their
MR. ELSETOUCHI: Is what you're saying now is that they know where they are
and they know them, but they allow them operate from Syria?
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Yes. I don't know that they know where each and
every one are, but in general, they know where the foreign regime elements
are, and they have to crack down on them.
We're expecting them to do this and we're counting on them to do this and
we'll see if they do.
MR. ELSETOUCHI: What did they say, what do they tell you when --
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, I don't think it's up to me to give away
the internal discussions we had, but I made our points clear, and I think
they understand them, that they've done some things recently, and it has to
be acknowledged. They've made some improvements on the border; they've made
more barbed wire to make it a little more difficult to get across the
But we do believe that former regime elements are existing in Syria, and
that the Syrians know that they're there and they have to be stopped.
So what does this all add up to? The US does not know the particulars about Iraqis in Syria. It is swinging with it's eyes closed. Armitage admitted that the US does not have hard evidence about a number of Iraqi's thought to be leading the opposition from Syria.
I add the following Salon article kindly sent to me by Jefferson Gray of the University or Virginia: entitled:
Syria at the crossroads By Ferry Biedermann
Jan. 2, 2005 | The giant mobile-phone company ads that have replaced
the grandiose posters of the late president Hafez Assad in Damascus
cannot conceal the crumbling behind the country's newly commercialized
façade. Yet in its foreign policy Syria seems to be as assertive as
ever. Its ambiguous attitude toward the insurgency in Iraq has angered
Washington. Its meddling in Lebanon has drawn criticism even from
European sympathizers such as France. And both Europe and the United
States are irritated by Syria's oldest hobby, stoking the fires of
Palestinian militancy, at a time when the death of Yasser Arafat and
exhaustion with the intifada may mean another chance for a peace deal
between Israel and the Palestinians.
Many foreign diplomats and some Syrian analysts say the government of
Hafez's son Bashar can no longer afford those policies. And there are
reasons to believe that the Syrian leader himself is trying to move
away from his nation's traditional role as a bastion of Arab militancy.
Yet during a recent visit to Damascus, a wide range of observers --
including a senior Palestinian leader, Iraqi politicians and local
activists -- attested that the policies are continuing. Definitive
proof is hard to come by here, in one of the most closed and
controlling regimes in the world. Lebanon, which Damascus regards as
its own private fiefdom, is the only place where Syria makes no attempt
to hide its hand. But Syria still seems to be playing the games that
under Hafez Assad made it famous for "punching above its weight" in the
The problem for Damascus, diplomats say, is that times have changed
since 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- not to mention that the son
is just not as adept as the father.
At the same time, however, Damascus is also reaching out to the West
and its archenemy Israel. The young Assad is clearly interested in
kick-starting negotiations with Israel, and not only through the
official channels. Seated in the lobby of a posh Damascus hotel, one
highly regarded academic told me, on condition of anonymity, that he
was involved in setting up "second track" negotiations with the
Israelis, based on the model of the Oslo talks that led to the historic
1993 agreement between the Rabin government and Arafat's PLO. The man,
who is known to be reliable, provided names, dates and places and said
the feelers were sanctioned at the very highest level.
Terje Roed-Larsen, the United Nations special coordinator for the
Middle East peace process who was a key player in the Oslo talks,
believes that Assad is sincerely interested not only in making peace
with Israel but also in bringing Syria closer to the West. In the
latest issue of Bitterlemons International, a Middle East round table,
he wrote of "a very warm, creative and constructive" meeting with
Assad. "I came away convinced that the president is genuinely
interested not only in restarting negotiations, but also in seeking to
reposition Syria and integrate the country more deeply into the
international community," Roed-Larsen wrote. "All the indications are
that Syria has recognized the signs of the times, and is trying to make
some progress, both as regards peace with Israel and in terms of a
broader redefinition of its role in the region."
Debate rages about Assad's motivations. Syria is clearly feeling heat
from Washington and Europe, and the academic involved in the
second-track talks admitted that Assad's peace feelers to Israel might
be partly a P.R. ploy. But, he said, Assad is genuinely interested in
making peace with Israel.
There can be no doubt that the United States, and now the United
Nations, are putting pressure on Syria. Neoconservatives in the Bush
administration who once boasted of making a "left turn" to Damascus
after defeating Iraq and Iran continue to talk ominously about dealing
with Syria. Although few expect the United States to actually invade
either Syria or Iran now that its Iraq adventure has soured, the
presence of American troops next door has clearly gotten Syria's
attention. A few months ago the U.S. adopted the Syria Accountability
Act, which imposed sanctions on Syria for allegedly seeking weapons of
mass destruction, a charge Syria denies. And the U.N. Security Council
in September agreed on Resolution 1559, which called on Syria to
withdraw from Lebanon and to stop supporting that country's Hezbollah
movement. To Syria's horror, France supported the resolution. But
Damascus is far more worried about the United States.
Last week President Bush and one of his officials, Deputy Secretary of
State Richard Armitage, demanded that Syria stop what they said was its
support for the insurgency in Iraq. "We have sent messages to the
Syrians in the past and will continue to do so. We have tools at our
disposal, a variety of tools, ranging from diplomatic tools to economic
pressure. Nothing's taken off the table," Bush said at a news
conference. He is said to be reviewing options that include freezing
the assets of high-ranking Syrian government officials. Armitage told
the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar that the administration would not let
the subject of Resolution 1559 rest, either. "I hope that our relations
with Syria do not worsen further, but it's entirely in the hands of
Damascus," he said. "Syria's failure to accept U.N. Security Council
Resolution 1559 is a defiance of the international community."
On Sunday, Armitage offered guarded praise for Syria's cooperation
after meeting with Assad and his foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa.
"Syria has made some real improvements in recent months on border
security. But we all need to do more, particularly on the question of
former regime elements participating in activities in Iraq, going back
and forth from Syria," the Associated Press quoted him as saying.
Syria has tried to compensate for some of the American pressure by
turning toward Europe. After nine years of glacial negotiations,
Damascus this year signed an "association agreement" with the European
Union. It was held up at the last moment when the EU insisted that its
new rules on human rights and weapons of mass destruction be
incorporated. But, says Frank Hesske, the EU's ambassador to Damascus,
the agreement "certainly does not" mean that the Syrians can play off
the EU against the United States.
The U.S. sanctions by themselves don't harm Syria's economy much.
Trade between the two countries is relatively minor. But the sanctions
do make it a lot harder to attract international investment, including
capital from European companies, which is desperately needed to revive
Syria's antiquated economy, says Hesske. Unable to provide jobs for
young people entering the labor market and faced with slowing growth,
Syria's economy may grind to a halt in two years' time. Partly as a
result, social unrest -- including renewed stirrings of Islamic
fundamentalism -- is growing. Fundamentalism was stomped out after
Assad launched a brutal assault on the city of Hama in 1982, a
stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, killing up to 20,000 people.
Political repression is still heavy, even though the government is now
steadily releasing small numbers of political prisoners. There have
been no more signs of a thaw after the authorities came down hard on a
nascent pro-democracy movement that sprang up after Bashar Assad took
over in 2000.
The seemingly logical way to avoid a crisis would be to give in to the
international pressure, get out of Lebanon, and stop meddling in Iraq
and Palestine. But for several reasons Syria may find it difficult to
do that. First of all, the regime survives by the grace of payoffs to
clans and factions, according to several analysts who wish to remain
anonymous. The money supposedly comes from Syria's involvement in
Lebanon. Then there is the traditional role that Syria has played as a
champion of Arab nationalism. It will not be easy for the government to
let go of those ambitions and maintain its credibility domestically,
among a public that has turned increasingly anti-Western after the U.S.
invasion of Iraq. And lastly there is a persistent feeling that the
good old ways still work.
Part of the riddle is the position of Bashar Assad. The
British-educated ophthalmologist inherited the presidency upon his
father's death, but many question the extent to which he is in control.
Some observers speak of competing factions within the governing clique,
which consists mainly of the extended Assad family, their minority
Alawite sect, Christian allies and a sprinkling of outsiders. One of
the factions is said to advocate business as usual, despite the 9/11
attacks and the presence of American troops in neighboring Iraq.
Business as usual in Syria means that the country will keep up its
support for hard-liners and militants wherever it can, in order to
The continuing ambiguity about Syria's role in Iraq may fit this
pattern. In Hiri, a desolate village about halfway along the
400-mile-long border, the Syrian security service, the Mukhabarat,
seems to be keeping an eye on any suspicious strangers. Journalists who
are not on a press tour organized by the country's Ministry of
Information are told to leave and then escorted for more than 45
minutes through the nearby town of Abu Qamal, just to make sure they're
really gone. But the regime's vigilance against people sneaking across
the border to join the Iraqi insurgents, or bring them money or
supplies, is said to be less sharp.
Indeed, as Syrian officials keep saying, the border is long and
difficult to patrol. Near Hiri, the Syrians have built an earthen ramp
to prevent cars from crossing, but everybody agrees that people get
through elsewhere. The tribes and families in Syria are the same as on
the Iraqi side, and people are used to moving back and forth. A sheik
of the large Duleimi clan in Abu Qamal said that he was in Iraq during
the war and that he knows that some people have since crossed to join
their family members in their fight against the Americans.
The United States appears to be worried less about such individual
crossings and much more about the possibility that the Syrian
government may either be turning a blind eye to Iraqi insurgents or be
actively assisting them. After initially complaining about the porous
border, the United States has shifted its attention to the presence in
Syria of members of the former Iraqi regime and its Baath party and
their alleged role in funding and supporting the insurgency.
The country officially hosts some 45,000 Iraqis, but wildly inflated
figures of up to a million refugees also circulate. One Iraqi Baathist
who has been in Damascus for some 30 years, a refugee from Saddam
Hussein, not an associate, is Mahdi al-Obeidi. "There are many people
here from the regime," said Obeidi, who styles himself a representative
of the "original Baath party, from before Saddam." In his shabby office
in Damascus, he claimed to have met with many new arrivals. He does not
make a distinction between those who have been "Saddam's men" and
others. Now is Iraq's hour of need, and everybody should unite to fight
the Americans, Obeidi said. "Even if I only have one dime left, I would
give it to the resistance," he declared. Most Iraqis who are in Syria
feel that way, he asserted, so it should not come as a surprise that
they try to support the "freedom fighters." It is no secret that the
Syrians are in "total sympathy with the resistance," Obeidi claimed.
Sadly, he added, the government has not done much to help.
On the surface, it seems that the claim is correct, at least since the
capture of Saddam Hussein about a year ago. Mahmoud Mohammed al Ghasi,
also known as Sheik Qa'aqa, was a fiery preacher until the invasion of
Iraq. Bearded and dressed as an Afghan veteran in a combination of
fatigues and traditional garb, he urged the faithful to oppose American
designs in the region. After the invasion he was told to tone it down.
Now he looks like a businessman, dressed in a blazer with a cropped
beard, and he has given up preaching in the local mosque. "The
government does not have a problem with me," maintained Qa'aqa, seated
behind his desk in his office in Aleppo. "I think some officials just
became worried because I attracted too many people."
One disappointed former associate who preferred to remain unnamed said
that he and a group of some 300 core supporters left Qa'aqa almost a
year ago because the sheik "turned out to be a fraud." He said that
before the war, Qa'aqa had called for a holy war against the Americans
if they invaded Iraq. After the fall of Baghdad, Qa'aqa made a U-turn.
"A lot of kids came to talk to him about going to Iraq and he swore
again and again that there is no jihad in Iraq." Qa'aqa's former
associate is closely watched by the Mukhabarat, and he has been
forbidden to meet with other former followers of the sheik. "They do
not want us to organize," he said. Nevertheless, he claimed that he and
others like him had "very good contacts" among the insurgents in Iraq
and that it was no problem to cross the border.
There is disagreement in Syria about what the government knows about
such supposed ties and what it is doing about it. One advisor to the
foreign ministry called it "inconceivable" that the government would
allow, let alone condone, support for the Iraqi insurgents. "Those
people may go and fight, be trained, learn all kinds of things, and
come back to make trouble," said Riad Daoudi, arguing that the
insurgency in Iraq is not in Syria's interest.
A prominent human rights lawyer, Anwar Al Bounni, agreed -- up to a
point. He said that the government was arresting fighters who returned
from Iraq, but not because it wanted the American vision of a
democratic Iraq to succeed. At the beginning of December he was visited
in his office in Damascus by one man who had been held for four months
after crossing back to Syria. He told Al Bounni that at least 50 former
fighters were languishing in the same jail. The lawyer thought that
there must be many more elsewhere, and said that the government has
indeed clamped down on some of the people who were calling for a jihad
in Iraq. In Hama, where fundamentalism is reviving after the elder
Assad's massacre, 16 preachers who had called on their followers to go
to Iraq were arrested in September, the lawyer said. This was done, he
claimed, not because the authorities wanted to stop the flow of
fighters but because they do not want such fighters to be "outside
Al Bounni said the government has no interest in a stable Iraq. "They
worry about Iraq being a really democratic and free country." This
presumably would set a bad example for Syria's own population. Another
analyst who has insight into the working of the government, slightly
adjusted that picture. Syria may still play a "passive" role in
allowing fighters and financial support to cross into Iraq, he said.
But the government would be willing to stop that "in exchange for a
role" in the affairs of its neighbor. He called it the Americans'
greatest failure that they have not made such an offer until now.
Syria's relationship with the Palestinians may face a similar problem.
Syria simply does not want to be the last country to make peace with
Israel. Its negotiating position over the Israeli-occupied Golan
Heights would suffer if the Palestinians cut a deal first, which now
seems possible, if only faintly. But both the Israeli government and
the Bush administration have made clear that they are in no hurry to
let Syria in on peace talks and thus evade international pressure over
its other actions. In mid-December, Bush said, "Assad needs to wait:
first peace between Israel and Palestine, and then we'll see what to do
So Syria may once again revert to its "spoiler" role in the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The country hosts some of Palestinian
militant groups' leaders and offices, and senior Palestinian leaders
also say Damascus is trying to influence factions in the Palestinian
territories. This is shaping up as a concern in the run-up to the
elections on Jan. 9 for a new chairman of the Palestinian Authority to
replace Yasser Arafat. The new Palestinian leadership is worried about
the possibility that renewed fighting could disrupt the elections and
scupper their plans to restore a measure of stability and even to
restart negotiations with Israel. Over the last couple of weeks,
fighting in Gaza between the militants and the army once again
escalated after a period of relative calm in the wake of Arafat's
In Damascus, a veteran Palestinian leader, Naif Hawatmeh, earlier this
month said that Syria indirectly supports some of the militant factions
inside Fatah, the main PLO faction, through the Lebanese Hezbollah
movement. "Everybody knows Syria and Iran support Hezbollah. Well,
Hezbollah supports some of the groups in the Palestinian territories,
not only the Islamic ones but also some inside Fatah such as the Al
Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades," said Hawatmeh, who is the leader of the
Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and has been based in
Damascus for decades.
Persistent Israeli claims to the same effect may have been
exaggerated, but even Palestinian sources inside the West Bank, from
all the important factions, agree that Hezbollah is involved, and Syria
is blamed for instructing some factions to serve its own needs.
The Palestinian Islamic groups are also a concern for Mahmoud Abbas,
the new PLO leader and the leading candidate in the Palestinian
elections. He visited Damascus in December and met with the political
leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal. A Hamas source said that the visit
yielded little agreement and that the elections for the leadership of
the Palestinian Authority were not even discussed. Meshaal rejected a
Hamas cease-fire. After the meeting between Abbas and Meshaal, Hamas
increased its attacks on Israeli targets in and around the Gaza strip.
At a press conference in Damascus -- after a meeting between President
Assad and the Palestinian leadership, led by Abbas -- Syria's foreign
minister, Farouk Shara'a, indicated where Syria's interests lay. He
said that coordination between the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon over
peace moves was a "demand" of all the Arab states. Abbas also said he
wanted coordination but did not make any firm commitments.
Syria is trying hard to prove that it is needed in the regional
equation, that it cannot be ignored. In Damascus, critics of the
government agree that Assad's government, even though it is reaching
out to the rest of the world, is up to its old tricks. Where they
differ is on the question of whether the regime will be prepared to
abandon its practices at a price, or whether it never will because its
very survival is bound up with them.
About the writer: Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Israel.