US Policy in Syria Muddled
America is making a muddle of its policy along the border with Syria. It insists on Syria solving the problem in Western Iraq as it pulls out its troops from the region, leaving foreign fighters a free hand in the border region. What is going on?
Imaad Mustafa, Syria's ambassador in Washington says that there is a complete breakdown in US - Syria cooperation. He has gone to great lengths to explain that it is not Syria that has cut intelligence and defense sharing, but the US. Washington is refusing dialogue and cooperation, he insists.
The US has insisted that Syria arrest a list of Iraqis living in Syria who they suspect of working with the Iraqi opposition. Syria handed over several Iraqis to the Iraqi authorities over a month ago but refuses to turn over the entire list Washington demands. Instead, Syria says it is not a "charitable organization" and Imaad Mustafa has called for a tripartite committee of Americans, Iraqis and Syrians to meet regularly to manage relations. Mustafa says the Americans won't meet him and don't want to open the door of mutual cooperation and political deal making. This is where relations have come to a stand still.
Salim Abraham, one of Syria's best reporters, has written an excellent article in the L.A. Times about the current tug of war going on across the border with Iraq. He tries to explain why the United States has selected Syria as its whipping post even though Iraq has six borders over which foreign fighters pass into the country and even though the US admits that most of the foreign fighters come from Saudi Arabia. To be fair to the US, however, the Syrian border does seem to be quite porous and Syria is not sure how to respond.
Syria government officials are now discussing the possibility of imposing entry visa requirements on foreign Arabs to safeguard Syrian security.
All the same Syria has announced that it has arrested 1,200 foreigners trying to infiltrate across its border into Iraq and Saudi has confirmed that at least 30 of its nationals have been sent by the Syrians to Riyadh.
Meanwhile, The US seems to be abandoning the west of Iraq to foreign fighters. There are approximately 2,100 Marines there now, compared with about 3,600 last year. Despite launching operation Matador in the region a month ago, in which nine Marines were killed and 40 were wounded, the US is withdrawing troops and ceding the ground to the foreign fighters that have congregated there.
Here is a very interesting article from the L.A. Times
Insurgents Flourish in Iraq's Wild West
The center of the rebel movement has shifted to Al Anbar province, near the border with Syria. But the U.S. has been moving its forces away.
By Mark Mazzetti and Solomon Moore
May 24, 2005
WASHINGTON — The U.S. military's plan to pacify Iraq has run into trouble in a place where it urgently needs to succeed.All of this begs the question of whether the US has a larger game plan for the border with Syria. Many US officers insist that the Syrian border and foreign fighters are a big problem. They want Syria to police the border, but won't give them anything in return for their help and cooperation. At the same time, the US is unwilling to commit itself to policing the Iraqi side of the border and is drawing down its troops. The result is that no one is doing the job and western Iraq has become a staging ground and free zone for mujahidiin of all types.
U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad agree that Al Anbar province — the vast desert badlands stretching west from the cities of Fallouja and Ramadi to the lawless region abutting the Syrian border — remains the epicenter of the country's deadly insurgency.
Yet U.S. troops and military officials in the embattled province said in recent interviews that they have neither enough combat power nor enough Iraqi military support to mount an effective counterinsurgency against an increasingly sophisticated enemy.
"You can't get all the Marines and train them on a single objective, because usually the objective is bigger than you are," said Maj. Mark Lister, a senior Marine air officer in Al Anbar province. "Basically, we've got all the toys, but not enough boys."
The Pentagon has made training Iraqi troops its top priority since Iraq's national election in late January. But in Al Anbar province, that objective is overshadowed by the more basic mission of trying to keep much of the region out of insurgent hands.
Just three battalions of Marines are stationed in the western part of the province, down from four a few months ago. Marine officials in western Al Anbar say that each of those battalions is smaller by one company than last year, meaning there are approximately 2,100 Marines there now, compared with about 3,600 last year.
Some U.S. military officers in Al Anbar province say that commanders in Baghdad and the Pentagon have denied their repeated requests for more troops.
"[Commanders] can't use the word, but we're withdrawing," said one U.S. military official in Al Anbar province, who asked not to be identified because it is the Pentagon that usually speaks publicly about troop levels. "Slowly, that's what we're doing."
Such reductions are especially problematic because U.S. commanders have determined that it is the western part of the province to which the insurgency's "center of resistance" has shifted. The insurgency's base of operations was once the eastern corridor between Fallouja and Ramadi. Now, Pentagon officials say, it is in villages and cities closer to the Syrian border.
Commanders also believe the insurgency is now made up of a larger percentage of foreign jihadists than the U.S. military previously believed, an indication that there are not enough U.S. and Iraqi troops to patrol miles of desert border.
Some Pentagon officials and experts in counterinsurgency warfare say the troop shortage has hamstrung the U.S. military's ability to effectively fight Iraqi insurgents.
This was evident during this month's Operation Matador, the U.S. offensive near the Syrian border designed to stem the flow of foreign fighters and their weapons into Iraq. For seven days, Marines rumbled through desert villages and fought pitched battles against a surprisingly well-coordinated enemy.
On the first day of the operation, insurgents appeared to be willing to stand their ground and fight the Marines, but U.S. military officials now believe that may have been a tactic to delay U.S. troops from crossing into the Ramana region north of the Euphrates River. This delay, officials said, could have given many of the insurgents time to escape into Syria.
"It's an extremely frustrating fight," said Maj. Steve White, operations director for the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment. "Fighting these guys is like picking up water. You're going to lose some every time."
A military news release declared the mission a success, saying that U.S. troops had killed more than 125 insurgents. Nine Marines were killed and 40 were wounded during the operation.
Yet as soon as the operation concluded, the Marines crossed back over the Euphrates River and left no U.S. or Iraqi government presence in the region — generally considered a major mistake in counterinsurgency warfare.
"It's classically the wrong thing to do," said Kalev Sepp, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who last fall was a counterinsurgency advisor to Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. general in Iraq. "Sending 1,000 men north of the Euphrates does what? Sometimes these things can be counterproductive, because you just end up shooting things up and then leaving the area."
Military officials in Iraq and Washington said there was little reason to expect that insurgent fighters would not return to the villages....
Washington threatens Syria with regime-change, or more accurately, implied regime change. But who will take Washington seriously. Regime change will surely create more chaos in Syria and hence along the border. It is daydreaming.
Now that Syria is out of Lebanon, it does not have to bend to the US game of threats. The world has little interest in punishing Syria for an unruly Iraqi border that it largely blames on the US. Because Europe and the UN are not invested in the success of Iraq as the US is, they will not put the squeeze on Syria to make it follow US policy - especially since most Europeans secretly believe Washington is wrong not to offer Bashar al-Asad a carrot from time to time. They all grumble about the way Washington has taken the Golan off the table, won’t offer to end economic sanctions, and refuses to assist Syria’s economic reforms.
Because the Europeans believe US policies are stubbornly fixated on the stick, Bashar al-Asad will walk the delicate line between them. Europeans cannot see the end-game of US policy. Bashar is trying to convince Washington that should no longer count on a policy of pure pressure with nothing given in return. This will lead to a clash of wills in the next month or so as Washington and Damascus play chicken.
The temporary arrest of the Atassi 8, the death of the outspoken Kurdish Muslim religious leader Sheikh Mohammed Maashuq al-Khaznawi while under investigation (see comments on last post), and the arrest of other human rights leaders and opposition members has cast a chill over Damascus.
Reporters are now pouring into Damascus for the Baath Party conference to be held on 6 June and everyone is spinning.