Sunday, December 12, 2004

Washington's Newest Anti-Syria Campaign

William Kristol of the "Weekly Standard" has an article summing up the Bush administration's view of Syria: "Getting Serious About Syria." After stating that Syria is a hostile nation, responsible for helping Iraqi Baathists direct the resistance, he recommends that "We could bomb Syrian military facilities; we could occupy the town of Abu Kamal ..." The second half of the article reads:

For the next 80 days, Abdullah and his unit went almost every day to attack American bases with mortars, or to man mujahideen checkpoints.
He took part in ambushes on US convoys. As a mine hit a patrolling Humvee, Abdullah fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the second vehicle.

He was transferred to Fallujah for three months, conducting raids with his unit in the neighboring Sunni towns of Samara and Ramadi. . . .

US and Iraqi officials believe the Syrian government has turned a blind eye to those supporting terrorists in Iraq, seeing the insurgency as an outlet for religious extremists to let off steam. . . .

Iraqi exiles in Damascus say there may be as many as 80 "mujahideen mosques" either in name or spirit supporting the resistance.

Several prominent mosques in Damascus, including the large Bilal al-Hashemi mosque, have reputations as staging posts for Syrian fighters, suggesting a logistical and financial operation beyond the ability of any one tribal leader. The US military believes there may be as many as 2,000 foreign fighters in Iraq, mostly from Syria.

They do not operate in a vacuum. . . . At the other end of the city, thousands of members of Saddam's regime have settled in the wealthy Mezzeh district. . . . The refugees include the three sons of the former industry minister Mohammed al-Douri, on whose farm Saddam was captured in a bolthole.

It is likely that many recent arrivals have sufficient funds to finance Syrian mosques. As members of Saddam's regime some have

been able to buy swaths of Damascene property which they rent out. Others live off their plundered Iraqi money. . . .

By Bush Doctrine standards, Syria is a hostile regime. It is permitting and encouraging activities that are killing not just our Iraqi friends but also, and quite directly, American troops. So we have a real Syria problem.

Of course we also have--the world also has--an Iran problem, and a Saudi problem, and lots of other problems. The Iran and Saudi problems may ultimately be more serious than the Syria problem. But the Syria problem is urgent: It is Bashar Assad's regime that seems to be doing more than any other, right now, to help Baathists and terrorists kill Americans in the central front of the war on terror.

The deputy prime minister of Iraq, Barham Saleh, wants to address the problem. He said last week, clearly referring to Syria as well as Iran, that "there is evidence indicating that some groups in some neighboring countries are playing a direct role in the killing of the Iraqi people, and such a thing is not acceptable to us."

U.S. military intelligence officials agree: They have recently concluded, according to the Washington Post, "that the Iraqi insurgency is being directed to a greater degree than previously recognized from Syria, where they said former Saddam Hussein loyalists have found sanctuary and are channeling money and other support to those fighting the established government."

What to do? We have tried sweet talk (on Secretary Powell's trip to Damascus in May 2003) and tough talk (on the visit three months ago by Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman and Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt). Talk has failed. Syria is a weak country with a weak regime. We now need to take action to punish and deter Assad's regime.

It would be good, of course, if Secretary Rumsfeld had increased the size and strength of our army so that we now had more options. He didn't, and we must use the assets we have. Still, real options exist. We could bomb Syrian military facilities; we could go across the border in force to stop infiltration; we could occupy the town of Abu Kamal in eastern Syria, a few miles from the border, which seems to be the planning and organizing center for Syrian activities in Iraq; we could covertly help or overtly support the Syrian opposition (pro-human rights demonstrators recently tried to take to the streets of Damascus to protest the regime's abuses). This hardly exhausts all the possible forms of pressure and coercion. But it's time to get serious about dealing with Syria as part of winning in Iraq, and in the broader Middle East.

--William Kristol

Since Faluga was pacified, a spate of news articles focusing on the leadership role of Iraqi exiles living in Syria have appeared. The Washington Post article of the 8th by Thomas Ricks is lays out the administration's concerns: "The Rebels Aided By Allies in Syria, U.S. Says Baathists Reportedly Relay Money and Support."

U.S. military intelligence officials have concluded that the Iraqi insurgency is being directed to a greater degree than previously recognized from Syria, where they said former Saddam Hussein loyalists have found sanctuary and are channeling money and other support to those fighting the established government.

Based on information gathered during the recent fighting in Fallujah, Baghdad and elsewhere in the Sunni Triangle, the officials said that a handful of senior Iraqi Baathists operating in Syria are collecting money from private sources in Saudi Arabia and Europe and turning it over to the insurgency.

In some cases, evidence suggests that these Baathists are managing operations in Iraq from a distance, the officials said. A U.S. military summary of operations in Fallujah noted recently that troops discovered a global positioning signal receiver in a bomb factory in the western part of the city that "contained waypoints originating in western Syria."

Concerns about Syria's role in Iraq were also expressed in interviews The Washington Post conducted yesterday with Jordan's King Abdullah and Iraqi President Ghazi Yawar. "There are people in Syria who are bad guys, who are fugitives of the law and who are Saddam remnants who are trying to bring the vicious dictatorship of Saddam back," Yawar said. "They are not minding their business or living a private life. They are . . . disturbing or undermining our political process."

Abdullah noted that the governments of both the United States and Iraq believe that "foreign fighters are coming across the Syrian border that have been trained in Syria."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials have previously complained about Syria's role in Iraq, but officials said the latest intelligence has given impetus to new efforts aimed at curbing the activities of the Hussein loyalists there. The U.S. government recently gave the government of Syria a list of those officials, with a request that they be arrested or expelled, a State Department official said yesterday.

"We're bringing quite a bit of pressure to bear on them, and I think some of it is working," said another official, who works in federal counterterrorism efforts. Like other officials interviewed for this article, he declined to be identified by name or position because of the sensitivity of his specialty.

One briefing slide in a classified summary of new intelligence data also says that new diplomatic initiatives are being used to encourage the Syrian government to detain or expel the Iraqi Baathists. "The Syrians appear to have done a little bit to stem extremist infiltration into Iraq at the border, but clearly have not helped with regards to Baathists infiltrating back and forth," said a senior U.S. military officer in the region. "We still have serious challenges there, and Syria needs to be doing a lot more."

What is speculation by Washington and what is really known is hard to determine. Before Faluja, Washington was certain that Syria was the major source of Mujahidiin coming across the border and was convinced that foreigners were organizing the worst attacks. Faluja dispelled this argument. Iraqi officials announced that only 4% of the captives in Faluja were foreigners. Less than 30 foreigners were taken or identified among the dead. How many were Syrian, we have not been told. One might assume 5 or 6. This evidence put a big hole in the Syrian mujahidiin theory that was peddled with such confidence before Faluja. America learned what many officers on the ground have been saying for some time - We don't know how the resistance is organized or lead.

Post Faluja the analysts decided that if the resistance was not powered by Syrians then it was lead by Iraqis living in Syria, hence the spate of articles suggesting that the Defense Department had adopted this view. It will be interesting to see if it has more staying power than the last theory.

Meanwhile, the earlier theory that Syria hid Saddam's WMD has also been abandonned. When Rumsfeld was interviewed recently in Kuwait and asked about WMD, he admitted for the first time that America was wrong. He didn't trot out the old "they're hidden in Syria line." So much for theories:

One thing is clear. Washington doesn't really know what is behind the resistance. As Ricks reported:
Not everyone with first-hand knowledge of the intelligence is convinced that the United States really has a strong grasp of the nature of the insurgency, especially the idea that the insurgency is being directed from the top down. Some Special Forces officers contend that many of the small-scale roadside attacks with bombs or rocket-propelled grenades are mounted not on orders of a hierarchical organization, but rather by Iraqis working more or less alone who feel they have been humiliated by U.S. soldiers, or who simply dislike the occupation.

"I just don't have the sense that we're getting to where we need to be," said one Defense Department official. "We don't know where the enemy is."
In the meantime, officials in Washington and Iraq are sticking to their line that the trouble is outside Iraq and fueled by "deadender Baathists."

Syria is resisting taking the next step down the road to fulfilling US demands. It has restricted the flow of Syrians and foreigners crossing into Iraq. Syrian intelligence is sharing information with Iraqi and US commanders along Syria's border with Iraq. But getting Syria to arrest or expel Iraqis, the names of whom are provided by the US, will be a tough sell. 500,000 Iraqis are estimated to have come to Syria over the last year. Controlling them will be very difficult. Syria will resist getting into a major quarrel with resident Iraqis, not to mention with local Islamists and mosque leaders. Bashar has been expending great effort to end his father's war with the "Islamic Currents" in Syria. The last thing he will want to do is reactivate it for George Bush.

All the same, it is not in Syria's interest to fight the US on this one. The US needs to do everything in its power to diminish the Iraqi resistance. Even if the latest moves to crack down on Iraqis in Syria is based largely on speculation or guesswork, it is a worthwhile strategy. Washington isn't having much luck with its other strategies for defeating the resistance and Syria has been quite cooperative in the past and will probably be so in the future. So why not mount yet another Syria bashing campaign? It is cheap, and who knows, the Defense Department might finally be right? It could be a Syrian plot after all.


At 12/13/2004 08:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think King Abdallah summed Syria's evil up the best.

Syria is part of the Shi'ite Iran-Syria-Hizballah axis that is becoming a major player.

Syria is supporting the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.

I don't know how much more evil you can get.

Of course it could be Syria is just happens to be in the crossroads, and everyone is dumping on them, but that is too simple. We must have sinister roles for the media to pounce on!

Mick Travis

At 12/20/2004 02:47:00 PM, Blogger Joshua Landis said...

If Syria is part of a Shiite axis, why would it be allowing Sunni Iraqis to operate a funding campaign to kill Shiites?

Alawis are closer to Shiites than they are to Sunnis, but both religious establishments have regarded Alawis to be non-Muslims. In the 1970s, Musa al-Sadr of Lebanon recognized the Alawis to be Muslims for the first time. Iranian and Iraqi religious authorities have never embraced this opinion, as far as I know. Most religious authorities still consider them to be extremists, who go to far in their veneration of Ali.

Hafiz al-Asad tried to get the major Alawi Shaykhs to condemn the deification of Ali. Many Alawi Shaykhs did openly renounce any such beliefs. They said they were the product of Alawi isolation in the Syrian mountains. Some shaykhs had introduced extremist notions into the religion, but they were bida` or innovations that true Alawis reject. For some time now, most Alawi Shaykhs maintain that they are nothing but Jaafari Shiites and Twelvers with some Sufi differences.

Of course, many people see this as dissimulation and an attempt by the Alawis to make themselves acceptable to the Syrian establishment. After all the Syrian constitution states that only a Muslim can be President.


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