Fighter Infiltration from Syria into Iraq" by Abdullah Ta'i
Fighter Infiltration via Abu Kamal, Syria into Iraq
By Abdullah al-Ta’i
November 15, 2005
Written for “Syria Comment” thanks to the Apamea Fund
Translated by Maha Kashour
When the United States declared war on Iraq on 19 March 2003, Muftis in several Arab countries announced that jihad in the defense of Iraq was a direct obligation (fard ayn) for each and every Arab Muslim. Syria was the first Arab country to declare jihad, when Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmed Kaftaru issued a fatwa proclaiming that “Jihad in Iraq is an fard ayn for every Muslim.” His motive was political for it coincided with the opening of the Syrian-Iraqi boarder to whoever wanted to fight in Iraq.
Fighters from all regions of Syrian and most Arab countries gathered in Abu Kamal because it has the closest and easiest access to Iraq. Some mosque preachers and religious sheikhs assumed the role of organizers, ensuring the fighters entry to Iraq and providing them with religious and practical guidance before they left. Since fighters knew little about the geography of the region this guidance was important.
A friend of mine who lives near the Syrian-Iraqi boarder in Abu Kamal told me that he once went for dawn prayer at a mosque close to his house and noticed that the mosque was full of people, which was unusual in such a small town. He wondered why there were so many worshipers. Next morning, he learned they were a group of fighters who had gathered in Abu Kamal on their way into Iraq. This situation continued until the collapse of the Iraqi regime. Since then, Abu Kamal has become infamous as the passageway to Iraq. Later on, it became the Qa’aba for fighters who found security and hospitality in it due to religious and social considerations. The closest Iraqi village is two hours walking distance from Abu Kamal, which is not the case at any other point of the Syrian-Iraqi border.
However, the situation did not continue this way much beyond the first months of the invasion. The American pressure on Syria with regard to controlling the border increased and it became a security and political burden on Syria, especially after the tension in the region resulting from the war on Iraq. This motivated the Syrian Government to intensify security surveillance at the border areas (Abu Kamal), which was noticeable to me as an inhabitant of the area.
The Syrian Authorities established two checkpoints at Shamyah and Al-Jazeera points in Abu Kamal because the Euphrates River divides it into two areas. Today, the number of security agents and employees in Abu Kamal almost equals the number of inhabitants of the town. They have frightened the people and enter into every aspect of social and political life in the border towns. It is not an exaggeration to say that they have stopped the infiltration of foreigners into the border region as well as restricting the infiltration of local Syrians across the border. Many correspondents have also been coming to the Abu Kamal over the months of October and November 2005. I have visited Abu Kamal three times since the beginning of Ramadan and each time, I have been stopped and interrogated by the mukhabarat with great care. It is impossible to make a move in the region these days without stirring up the interest and suspicion of the local police.
In the past there were corrupt government officials However, the problem is not with the Syrian Government’s measures but with the involvement of some inferior intelligence elements, who engage in corruption without the knowledge of the central authorities.
Attraction of money
Money plays an essential role in such cases. I personally have never seen corruption and the spread of bribes in Syria more than what I have seen in Albukamal, especially the intelligence elements that you can buy with only small amounts of money. These elements are bribed by illegal merchants (smugglers) between Syria and Iraq. And those smugglers export fighters to Iraq and this way the illegal trade and exporting fighters is mixed up and intelligence elements are lost in this maze without trying to differentiate between smuggling and exporting fighters.
The central problem in policing the border region during 2004 and until recently is that Abu Kamal is very far from Damascus, not only geographically, but also administratively and economically. Traditionally there has been very little central authority in the region, which has meant that resources do not reach the Jazira and there has been minimal administrative oversight. The people feel like the government ignores them and they ignore the government accordingly. Very few resources are invested in the region, which has caused disrespect for central authority. In the past many people felt closer to Iraq than to Syria. Intelligence officers in the region developed the habit of running their own show, with few controls. Before the war, there was a long history of smuggling and ignoring the border, not only by the local population, but also by the various branches of the security apparatus. The spread of corruption made it very difficult for Damascus to impose its will on the region through orders from the capital.
The government banned non-Syrian Arabs from entering Abu Kamal, without specific permission, but this did not mean that they couldn’t get through. Smugglers could often find a way to help fighters in return for large sums of money. These people can ensure the entry of fighters to Baghdad either via the Euphrates River, or via the desert far from any observation. Both ways are easy for the inhabitants since they know the geography of the area. The river route is easier as it is an unofficial point of entry and empty of any checkpoint and far from civil observation. Swimming for two hours is enough to cross the border.
I would like to add a new and important thing at the end. People in Abu Kamal are Muslim Sunni and they have a tribal belonging. In addition, they are attached to Iraq and have a high sense of belonging to it, which played an important role in pushing them to fight in Iraq. Many believed sincerely that Saddam Hussein as an Arab hero, who belonged to their tribes and traditions and who championed their interests. He spoke in their dialect and took special care with their tribal concerns, which Damascus often did not. Sneaking across the boarder for a person from the area is much easier than going to a Deir El-Zur, the capital of the Governorate, which is 125 km from Abu Kamal. When you enter some of Abu Kamal shops, you see photos of people from Abu Kamal hanging on the walls. They are even posted in the streets. They are people who died in Iraq, fighting along side their cousins.
Is Syria to Blame for Suicide Bombings in Iraq
Americans and Iraqis have always accused Syria of encouraging foreign fighters to go into Iraq across the border. Last week, the Iraqi Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi claimed that Syria was providing training camps for Jihadists and helping them to cross the border with booby–trapped cars. He insisted that nine-tenths of all suicide bombers in Iraq were foreign fighters and that most came through Syria. Two days later, 6 Iraqis from his own clan of the Dulaimi confederation of Ramadi blew themselves up in three Jordanian hotels, killing and wounding 200 innocent Jordanians and Syria’s most famous movie producer, Moustapha Akkad. To Syrians it is clear that Iraqi officials are trying to blame Syria for their own failings and an internal Iraqi situation that they have no means of controlling and do not seem to understand. They cannot even control their own families.
Time Line of Syrian Cooperation
This does not mean that Syria has been totally innocent. If we are to draw a time line of Syrian cooperation on the border, we can say that during the first months of the war, Syria did actively encourage militants to go to Iraq. By May and June of 2003, this policy changed, due to American pressure and Syria's realization that it would not itself be invaded by America. During much of 2004, there was no active support by the government, but local officials did little to hurt the local smugglers and population who were sympathetic to the cause of the Iraqi resistance or involved in corrupt practices. Some local officials were also involved in this corruption, making it difficult for the government to bring it under control.
By 2005 and particularly after the murder of Hariri, when US pressure intensified, more and more security officials were sent to the Abu Kamal region to set up road blocks and to police the corrupt officials. Many people from the region who traveled to Iraq to fight during the first months of the war, and subsequently returned, have been arrested or are followed and scared by the secret police.
Over the last four or five months, the security presence in the region has been vastly increased and the local population has become too scared to even think about smuggling people into Iraq. During the spring, one still heard people in the region boast about the money they had made by helping foreigners get to Iraq. This is no longer the case. Everyone is frightened and the tribal shaykhs have warned their people to follow the law and be careful.
We cannot say that there is absolutely no infiltration across the border by foreign fighters today, but what does take place must be done very secretly and with great skill. It also must cost the fighter many thousands of dollars. The American campaign on the Iraqi side of the border during the last several months has also created much fear among the Syrians of the border towns. A number of local inhabitants have been killed by American fire across the border. People from the region are scared of the Americans and of their own secret police.
The Syrian measures have stopped many from sneaking across, but it requires cooperation and liaison at the American end. There are still almost no Iraqi or American border guards and this is two and a half years after the American invasion. America has many more resources than Syria. Many believe that if the US really believed infiltrators from Syria were a major source of the violence in Iraq, they would have found a way staff their side of the border and would cooperate with Syrians. Nothing is impossible, and these things are can be accomplish.
Today, Syrians are frightened that their country will become like Jordan, a target for Iraqi terrorists and extremists; they are also frightened that more Syrians will be killed by Americans soldiers. Even worse, they worry that their government is being targeted by America though the Security Council and this will eventually increase the instability in the region. When Americans say that Syria is not cooperating on the Iraq border, this is not true. Either the Americans do not know what is happening at the border or they refuse to admit that Syria is helping them. If there are still fighters infiltrating into Iraq through Abu Kamal, they must be very few, smart and rich.
Also See "Living, and dying, for one's country," by Sami Moubayed on a smiliar topic. He ends his article with this:
The fact the suicide bombers in Amman were all Iraqi citizens proves that Iraq is no longer an importer of terrorism, as Bush accused it of being under Saddam Hussein. It has now become a leading manufacturer and exporter of terrorism. As with Afghanistan under the Taliban, it is a base from which al-Qaeda can train troops, launch operations and destabilize both Iraq and its Arab neighbors.
In April 2004, a group of terrorists who had been to Iraq crossed the border into Syria and launched a terror attack at a UN building in Damascus. In June this year, Kuwait caught militants trying to smuggle explosives into the country from Iraq. After meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak this month, Iraqi National Security Advisor Mouwafaq al-Rabii accused Damascus of facilitating the influx of foreign fighters through its borders to fight the Americans in Iraq. He said, "We don't have the slightest doubt that nine out of 10 suicide bombers are Arabs that cross the border from Syria."
Yet Iraq is in a shambles because some Iraqis, Saddam's leftovers and Zarqawi's terrorists, do not want Iraq to become a pro-Western democracy. Syria happens to be located at the crossroads, and happens to share very long borders with Iraq (605 kilometers). The number of eloquent Syrians who can convincingly defend its stance and plead innocence is very limited, and given that Damascus is still ruled by the Ba'ath Party, it's even easier to accuse Syria of working with ex-Iraqi Ba'athist officials.