"The Case for Border Co-operation" by James Denselow
James Denselow has contributed an important article below. He recently returned from a conference held in Jordan on Iraq's borders. It was attended by high security officials from Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, the UK and US. Syria and Iran were excluded. Syria was eager to send a high level committee to the conference, but was excluded by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld himself. This leads James to ask how many US soldiers and Iraqi citizens will be killed as a result of the West's policy of isolating Syria.
The Case for Border Co-Operation
by James Denselow, King's College, London, and Researcher at Chatham House
September 24, 2005
Written for "Syria Comment."
Flint Leverett described the mechanisms of a US policy of regime change on the cheap in Syria; its cornerstone is the twisting of indirect pressure points to further isolate and weaken the regime. Such pressure points include WMD proliferation and the support of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Lebanese Hizbullah (what the US administration describe as the ‘A’ team of terrorism). However today the greatest threats to the Syrian regime come from accusations of direct involvement in the assassination of Hariri (initial verdict out on the 25th of October) and US accusations of ‘allowing forces’ to cross the border into Iraq to fuel the continued insurgency that plagues the country.
Several commentaries have argued (includes this blogs much featured Michael Young) that Syria’s ephemeral control of its border with Iraq represents its last remaining ‘card’ before an ‘insignificance ensuing from absolute concession’. It is this argument that US policy makers are seemingly pursuing too. Its faith lies in the effectiveness of pressure; as far as the administration sees it, further isolation leads to further pressure which is the only form of politics that will succeed in forcing the Syrians to take increased action on its border and stop ‘bleeding’ the US in Iraq. At its most simple, this policy ignores the fact that the heart of the insurgency is Iraqi, the Centre for Strategic International Studies estimating that the foreign elements of the insurgency as ‘vastly overblown’, and that there are only 550 Syrian fighters in an insurgency over 30,000 strong.
Yet the heat that the Syrians are feeling over the border issue has been steadily increasing since the 2003 invasion. Syria has found itself at the epicenter of the 'Iraqi blame game'. In 2003, in line with both Syria's public opinion and geo-strategic interests at the time, President Assad was the regions biggest critic of the US invasion. This lack of support led to the country being labeled a junior member of the axis of evil and having direct links to support of the Iraqi insurgency. In December 2004 President Bush urged Syria to 'stop the flow' of jihaid's across the border. In January 2005 the then Iraqi Minister of National Security accused Iran and Syria of being 'two naughty boy's' in being directly involved in assisting fighters transit into Iraq. The 2005 February 14th assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri simply turned up the heat of these accusations.
In Condoleezza Rice's June tour of the region this year, she accused Syria of 'directly supporting groups committed to violence in Iraq'; while a state department official warned that Syria 'was in the worlds crosshairs'. Meanwhile President Assad has consistently argued that it is impossible to completely control its border. Assad has also emphasized Syria's potential role as being 'key to the solution of Iraq's problems', saying that the country has done 'everything within their capacity which could preserve the stability of Iraq'.
Despite Secretary Rice's persistent accusations of Syria being 'out of step' with where the region is going, it has been cleared of a number of accusations. In April this year the Iraqi Survey group cleared Syria of possessing Iraqi WMD and in May the spokesman for Iraqi PM al-Jaafari admitted that Iraq 'doesn't think that Syria actively supports the transit of fighters', but instead is 'not doing enough to make sure there is effective control there'. This theme is now used regularly against the Syrians, as Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in late May: "there are responsibilities of the Syrian government to hamper and prevent the flow of terrorists from coming across".
So this is the situation we come to today. The Syrian regime has gone from allowing the border to stay open in 2003, as reports in Damascus emerged of large numbers of fighters being transferred from the Iraqi consulate, to reacting to seal the border under relentless US pressure. The timing of the actual shift can be traced to the June 10th Ba'ath Party conference, where it is believed there was a change in personnel responsible for the Iraq file and that while official rhetoric would continue to highlight the legitimacy of resistance to an occupation, all possible measures were taken to fundamentally alter the identity of the borderland, to change it from a line in the sand to a manifestation of actual sovereignty. Yet time is running out, this month US Ambassador to Iraq Khalilzad threatened that ‘US patience is running out and that ‘all options are on the table’.
One option that is not on the table is co-operation with the Syrians in securing the border. This raises the question ‘is Syria is being set up to fail?’ and is the price of this set-up Iraqi and US casualties?
The Iraqi-Syrian border is a difficult and harsh environment, 376 miles in length stretching from the Turkish to the Jordanian tripoints. Since the borders creation it has never existed as a zone of separation despite the woeful relations between the two states. As Abdullah Taa’i reported on “Syria Comment”, 97% of residents in Syria’s Eastern provinces have relatives in Iraq. Before the 2003 invasion a black market economy across the border set up a network that’s worth was estimated at $2bn annually. Although today’s illegal trade is a fraction of pre-war times it still keeps afloat a desperately poor local economy, where people earning 10$ a month are easily tempted into smuggling people across into Iraq (CSIS estimated Saudis crossing the border to be willing to pay thousands of dollars). To fundamentally alter the dynamics of such a border requires a long-term policy with a cornerstone of communication between the respective sides.
Such communication is glaring in its absence. At a recent conference in Jordan concerning Iraqi border security, Donald Rumsfeld personally vetoed the attendance of the Syrian delegation. At a tactical level there is a complete absence of communication between the Syrian and US/Iraqi border patrol. Syrians bemoan this fact, as President Assad has asked 'who to cooperate with? If you go to the border there are only Syrian guards on our side. But if you look at the Iraqi side there is nobody'. Certainly the Iraqi's it seems are another one and 1/2 to two years away from total border guard deployment following Paul Bremmers ill-fatted decision to disband the Iraqi armed forces including a 35,000 strong border guard.
A simple incident highlights the absence of communication. When US forces closed al-Qaim crossing last year after taking fire from both sides of the border, they communicated the borders closure by using a catapult to send the message to the Syrian side of the border. What is more, it seems that a decision has made banning local level communication from Syrian border guard until state-to-state relations are improved.
Such an absence of communication has inevitably led to failures of joint-intelligence. The Syrians claim that over 100 incidents have been recorded of US/Iraqi border guards targeting Syrian forces by accident. In such incidents the Syrian report 6 killed and 17 injured, it is difficult to put precise estimates on the deaths caused by foreign fighters in Iraq, but surely the number is enough to warrant a tempering of ideological animosity in favor of technical realism.
If the US hopes to fully stabilize Iraq it needs to isolate the battlefield and cooperate with the country’s neighbors. This means formulating a coherent policy that can prove to the Syrians that all the US is seeking is ‘a change in behavior and not regime’ (C,Rice). The Syrian regime has neither the means nor the know-how to unilaterally secure its border with Iraq. What is required is a systems-approach to border security between Syria and Iraq/US, this encompasses regular meetings, exchanges, technical (night-vision ?) and consultative working groups based on the bedrock of a mutuality of interest. However for such a process to begin both sides must stop catapulting rhetoric at each other and come to recognize the primacy of negotiations.