Syria is Not a Transit Center for Jihadists in Iraq
Ferry Biedermann, who has recently been reporting from Iraq, has an excellent story explaining how US accusations that Syria is a major transit point for Jihadists coming into Iraq are not true. This is something that Syria Comment has been covering for some time. Congrats to Biedermann for finally nailing this story with quotes from US officers on the line and with some hard evidence. Seymour Hersh writing in the New Yorker a few months ago also reported that US officers in charge of Anbar Province had not found foreign Jihadists in large numbers, as they were told they would, during recent opperations there. Nevertheless, Washington maintains they did. Hersh quotes Representative John Murtha who:
said that American soldiers “haven’t captured any in this latest activity”—theEven Abdul Halim Khaddam has denied that Syria encouraged Jihadists over the last two years and he has every reason to try to smear the Asad regime on this issue. Washington has been willfully deceptive on this story in order to target Syria for other reasons. Following the Biedermann article, I copy what Khaddam said about the border to Chris Dickey of "Newsweek."
continuing battle in western Anbar province, near the border with Syria. “So
this idea that they’re coming in from outside, we still think there’s only seven
Alleged transit of fighters from Syria to Iraq slows
By Ferry Biedermann on the Iraq-Syria border
Published: February 8 2006 18:21 Last updated: February 8 2006 18:21
Alleged infiltration of foreign militants into Iraq through Syria appears to have dramatically slowed down, according to US military officers on the Iraqi-Syrian border.
In spite of continued allegations from Washington, officials that Damascus is continuing to support the infiltration of jihadis into Iraq, the American commander in the northern border region says that in more than 130 detentions of smugglers by his troops along the border in the past 9 months, “we did not find one foreign fighter”.
Col. Greg Reilly of the 3rd squadron of the 3rd Armoured Cavalry, based at Sinjar, some 50km inside Iraq, also discounted the tales of massive financial or logistical support coming across the border. “If there was a strong relationship, we’d have found money caches or they would have tried to divert us from the border. That has not happened.” His troops control the northern 300km of the border.
Col. Reilly said he could not speak for the whole of the some 600km of the Iraqi-Syrian border. But in 2004 he served along the southern part of it, in the unruly Al-Anbar province where the cities Ramadi and Fallujah are located. He’s now liaising with the troops who are responsible for that part of the frontier and he said that it seems “to be going the right way” in the south as well.
His superior, Col. H.R. McMaster said he last caught a limited number of foreign fighters during last September’s major operation against the insurgents in Tel Afar. But he said he suspected Iraqis militants might be receiving training inside Syria, possibly without the knowledge of the Syrian government.
This is a far cry from Iraqi and American allegations of significant support for the militants coming from Syria. President George W. Bush said on January 11 that “there’s suiciders coming in from Syria into Iraq”, referring to the American assertion that most of the suicide bombers in Iraq are carried out by foreigners.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, echoing Condoleezza Rice, US Secretary of State, said also in January that Syria is “a transit point for foreign terrorists going into Iraq”.
Foreign fighters did indeed come across in large numbers in 2003. The border is also porous and smuggling, particularly of cigarettes, oil and sheep, is still going on almost exclusively from Iraq to Syria, where prices are much higher.
Col. Reilly must be one of the few senior officers who are knowledgeable about the price of sheep in the two countries, $85 to $90 in Iraq against $250 in Syria. “I’m not saying we can seal the border hermetically when there is such an incentive.”
But his men and the Iraqis patrolling the border intercept a large part of that.
Rabiyah used to be a real smugglers den. The Americans dismantled several places where forgers produced false Iraqi passports. At first, every bus crossing the border from Syria, used to harbour at least two or three people with such false passports.
Relations between the US and Syria have steadily deteriorated over the past two years, amid concerns in Washington that Damascus was helping fuel the Iraqi insurgency. Senior Iraqi officials also say that Syria provides a safe haven for insurgent leaders and have provided other Arab governments with files detailing Syrian interference.
Syrian officials have said the border can never be completely controlled, but that they have made efforts to step up surveillance. Analysts say the co-operation has improved as Syria has sought to ease international pressure over its role in Lebanon, where it is also accused by the US and European governments of meddling in another country’s internal affairs.
Abdel Halim Khaddam on Iraq
Khaddam was one of, if not the main architect of Syria's Iraq policy during much of 2003 and part of 2004. He is now an enemy of Bashar and the Asad regime so his testimony about what has been happening on the Syrian-Iraq border is of interest.
He readily admits that Jihadists were welcomed through Syria at the onset of the War in Iraq - placing their number in the thousands - but argues that when the war was over in 2003, Syria began closing the border. On the subject of border crossings, he told Chris Dickey of Newsweek that:
I can assure you no insurgent crossed the border from Syria to Iraq by the decision or with the knowledge of any [part of the] Syrian government. There were some border crossings for sure...Is Khaddam bending the truth in Syria's favor. Perhaps a little, after all he had a great say over Syria's Iraq policy and doesn't want to make himself look anti-American. All the same, he has every interest in stirring the Americans up against Bashar. There is no better way to do this than to claim that Bashar is helping to kill Americans and not merely Lebanese. He doesn't do it. Most likely because Syria is not helping jihadists cross the border as I have often reported. In particular, see the article by Abdullah Ta'i published by Syria Comment.
Here is the extended quote from Khaddam's Newsweek interview on Iraq:
One of the dossiers you handled was Iraq. NEWSWEEK has reported from the ground that many insurgents have gone through Syria. We believe a lot of Iraqi Baathist money has come into Syria. How would you describe the relationship between Syria and the Iraqi insurgency, both Baathists and jihadis?Here is an article recently published in the Washington Times by Rep Jim Saxton, New Jersey Republican, who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Terrorism subcommittee.
I followed the Iraqi file closely until 2004. The point of concern for us in Iraq was the partition of Iraq and the creation of religious friction in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites. Accordingly, our effort was to ease up the religious conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites. And I personally met with many Iraqi delegations [after the U.S. invasion] and those delegations were diversified. There were some pro-American and some anti-American, some pro-Kurd and some anti-Kurd, Sunnis and Shiites. And our message was the same: Iraqi unity. I met with members of the governing council, and most of them were allies of Syria. We used to deal with them in order to bring down the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Second, as far as the Baath Party was concerned, there were no communications or contacts between the Baath Party of Iraq and the Baath Party in Damascus. There were open relations between the two governments for economic reasons, but not at the political or at the Baath level in any way.
The issue of border crossing? Look, I’m outside Syria now. I’m in conflict with the present regime. But I can assure you no insurgent crossed the border from Syria to Iraq by the decision or with the knowledge of any [part of the] Syrian government. There were some border crossings for sure. We have a Syrian law that any Arab passport holder can get into Syria without a visa. Maybe there were some Arab nationals who got into Syria and illegally crossed the border to Iraq. During the war, there were a lot of Syrians who went into Iraq for jihad. Some thousands. But what happened with them? They came back, and they said they were deceived by the very bad treatment they received from the people of Saddam Hussein.
Syria's Haven for Terrorists
By Jim Saxton
Published January 15, 2006
The flow of terrorists, war materials and money across the Syrian border and into Iraq is proving an enormous issue for coalition forces and the Iraqi people. The Syrians are clearly unwilling to stop it. Indeed, many contend the Syrians support the insurgents.
Last October, I joined with Rep. Sue Kelly, New York Republican, in discussing border security issues with the Syrian ambassador to the United States. We wanted to investigate the role Syria could play in securing its border and helping bring about a more stable Iraq. Despite repeated requests and moving to provide a detailed plan to stem the flow of terrorists across the border, nothing has happened.
The lack of action by the Syrian ambassador prompted me to return to the region over the holiday period. During the visit to Pakistan, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq, I spent the holidays with American troops and thanked them for their selfless efforts. The trip also let me to investigate firsthand the continued flow of terrorists, material and money through Syria into Iraq that has necessitated increased coalition operations on that border.
Syria, which opposed the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq, has walked a fine line since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Syrian statements try to steer a course between condemning the U.S. and espousing their willingness to end the insurgency. Syrian President Bashar Assad is on record expressing hope the United States would fail in Iraq.
It was apparent during my visit that the 375-mile Syrian-Iraqi border is extremely porous and remote. This and tribal migrations contribute to extensive cross-border movement and smuggling. These factors complicate U.S. endeavors to impose, or pressure Syria into imposing, effective border controls.
I believe Syria significantly contributes to the insurgency by not exerting enough pressure to interdict movement of extremists into Iraq. In testimony before the House International Relations Committee, then-Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton said, "Syria permitted volunteers to pass into Iraq to attack and kill our service members during the war, and is still doing so."
Of particular concern to me and many of my colleagues has been the infiltration of foreign extremists into Iraq where they join terrorist groups including Islamists, jihadis, Ba'athists, and other supporters of Saddam.
Syria's lack of cooperation resulted in congressionally imposed economic sanctions against Syria and President Bush's proposal of the Syria Accountability Act. Mr. Bush noted at the time Syria remains "a preferred transit point for foreign fighters into Iraq." U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad strongly criticized Syria for allowing terrorists to operate training camps that have sent hundreds of recruits into Iraq and added, "Our patience is running out."
Syria permitted extensive two-way infiltration from and into Iraq during the major combat phase of the 2003 war. Recently, Mr. Assad has said Syria was no longer permitting "anti-American volunteers" to pass official crossings but said he was unable to control infiltration across the Syrian-Iraqi border.
There are other dimensions to Syria's alleged support for border crossings by terrorists destined for Iraq. U.S. officials charge Syria provides a sanctuary for former Iraqi Ba'athists coordinating insurgent activities in Iraq. Terrorists obtain passports in Damascus and money collected from donors in Saudi Arabia to facilitate their travel to Iraq.
Syrian officials reject these charges. However, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, commented, "It's hard to believe Syria doesn't know it's going on.... Whether or not they're supporting it is another question. That said, you could say if Syria wanted to stop it they could stop it, or stop it partially."
For more than two years the U.S.-led coalition has tried to shut down infiltration routes from Syria into Iraq, with little or no help from the Syrians.
These measures may need to be enhanced by a range of options. The choice may depend partly on whether Syria acts as a partner or an adversary. Options include: enhanced border surveillance and patrols, military forays into Syria targeting areas of major cross-border activity, and working with local populations. Incentives could be offered to tribal leaders on both sides of the border, particularly in the Euphrates Valley, to identify foreign terrorists.
A number of coordination mechanisms could also be introduced. One approach would organize a tripartite commission of high-ranking U.S., Iraqi and Syrian military officials to deal with border control. The commission could meet periodically to draft guidelines, exchange information, organize inspection tours of border areas, and act to resolve issues involving infiltration and border clashes.
The "pre-emption of infiltrators" is also important as terrorists come through various entry points to Syria, where local contacts (official or nonofficial) arrange their travel to Iraq. Syrian leaders deny supporting al Qaeda, and there is no publicly available evidence proving Syria knowingly harbors members of that group. Anecdotal evidence from my recent trip to the region indicated quite clearly the Syrians do support and harbor al Qaeda and Saddamist operatives.
Syria's support of anti-Israeli Islamic groups like the Palestinian Hamas and the Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah, lends significant weight to the claim al Qaeda operates out of Syria with the support of the Assad government.
If Syria is serious about gaining acceptance in the global community it must stop providing a haven for terrorists and turn its hollow words into tangible actions. If it does not to so, coalition forces must consider every available option.
Rep Jim Saxton, New Jersey Republican, is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Terrorism Subcommittee. He recently returned from a trip to the Middle East, where he spent the holidays, including Christmas Day, with U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.