Thursday, February 09, 2006

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”—the
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
per cent.”
Even 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."

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?

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.
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.

Syria's Haven for Terrorists
By Jim Saxton
Washington Times
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.


At 2/09/2006 10:39:00 AM, Blogger Lebanese Pride said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2/09/2006 10:48:00 AM, Blogger Anton Efendi said...

Actually Josh, you've talked from every possible side of your mouth on this issue! From Bashar having no control or knowledge to Bashar actively seeking to let through, to the Sunni street pushing him to do it, to him screwing Khaddam on it, etc. etc. There's only one constant in your cacophony: polishing Bashar.

The thing is, only people with no understanding of US and EU policy toward Syria still think this is an issue. Only people, like you and your friend Flynt, still think that there's a "deal" to be cut over Iraq.

Can you hear the crickets?

At 2/09/2006 10:52:00 AM, Blogger Karakuz said...

Wow! You are so articulate Lebanese Pride. You should send you resume to the Bush Administration. They are looking for a few more dumbasses like yourself.

At 2/09/2006 11:10:00 AM, Blogger O.D.M said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2/09/2006 12:07:00 PM, Blogger Atassi said...

Maybe If Dr. Bashar
Can read this article in today Financial Times; Then he can get some kind of vindication. in the same time, this kind of articles should motivated him to force his regime to work harder to reestablish Syria's international and regional corrective links. He must remove any elements opposing the needs for institutional reform. To fight corruptions and enforce transparency in the county public entities. I can't stress the importance at this crossroad for the regime to work with the national figures and democratic elements in good faith, the new party law will be a lame one unless it include the needs to be reduced Baath party to allow the real oppositions groups to participate in a program of transition to a democratic and free society to facilitate a free and fair election.
Be Brave.. Abolish Decree No. 51 "state of emergency" ASAP. I DO believe time is working against the regime now. Hurry up .. Be Brave..

At 2/09/2006 12:44:00 PM, Blogger t_desco said...

And Washington continues to be "willfully deceptive", lumping together al-Qa'ida, Hizbullah and the Palestinian groups:

President Discusses Progress in War on Terror to National Guard

The courage of Iraqis is inspiring others across the broader Middle East to claim their freedom, as well. And the message is going forth from Damascus to Tehran that the future of the Middle East belongs to freedom. As liberty spreads in this vital region and freedom produces opportunity and hope for those who have not known it, the terrorist temptation will start to fall away. And as more nations claim their freedom, we will gain new allies in the war on terror, and new partners in the battle for peace and moderation in the Muslim world.

Before that day comes, there will be more days of testing. The terrorists remain brutal and determined -- and they still have some resources at their disposal. The attacks in London and Madrid and other cities are grim reminders of how lethal al Qaeda remains. Money is still flowing to radical mosques and madrassas, which are still turning out new terrorist recruits. Some countries, like Syria and Iran, still provide terrorists with support and sanctuary.

At 2/09/2006 12:45:00 PM, Blogger Ausamaa said...

Dear Josh, good article by Biedermann.. however, to many who tend to read most what appears daily regarding those matters, it brings nothing new. It has always been known, and of course by the Bush/Gobbles admin that such inflitrations thru Syria were not as they were represented to be.. That was thus, mainly because Syria -in my beliefe-was making a consciouse dicision to limit them because their tghinking runs contrarry to Syria's thoughts and intereststo say the least. Had Srya really wanted to open the border and to support the inflitrators, things would have been a real mess. Is it also too wiecked to wonder wether allowing active duty US service men and officres to "substabtiate" the truth despite being contrary to the US Admin official line now mean something? like signaling a "change of position" to Syria for some reason?).Anyway,...we will see.
On another "front", and touching base on an old favourite issue dear to the hear of believers in the "US-Syria-deal-theory" who were until recently claiming that such an almost done deal which would require Syria to do four things so that the Bush Admin "allows" the Syrian regiem to remain in power:1)Cooperate in Iraq,2)Cut ties with Hamas and Jihad,3)Disarm Hizbullah and 4)..I really forgot what it was since it kept changing (was it the truth about Harriri, or Democracy or ...what, I really forget) My point now is, whatever has happened to such a deal and such demands now..?
1-Iraq has become more of an Iranian and Syrian card rather than a a "scary US punishing post",
2-Hamas has won by a landslide and many would now be running to carry favor with it,
3-Hizbullah/ Amal seem to have become the King Makers and the Saviours of the "uniuque Lebanese formula", and the Harriri invistigation/accusations against Syria seem to be in either the ICU or powdering its nose near the end of the party. AND, it the seems the ones who are on the strategic defensive now are the US and its allies..
Who has outfoxed whome. Or who has taught a new lesson in the middle eastern facts of real politique to whome???
Or are some "Democracy and Progress" lovers still waiting the for the US tanks to roll into the Ommayad Square via Beirut's Martyrs Square-Quraitem-Mukhtara maybe????

My God, things are so different today from months ago... and again I repeat something I was rapped for saying on this post before: The blind sees only what the blind wants to see.... Well, time for them to buy new shirts as usual.Heck even the Saudi and Jordanian brothers seem to have had a change of mind -or a vision -perhaps.
To me, it seems that certain decision making circles in the US administration are taking a serious turn about somewhere in the area...or "reassessing the situation and the availlable options" as the educated ones say...

God bless you Josh, please apply for a public post in the foriegn policy arena... at least you know more and could provide better advioce about Syria (East and West)now "Jeff" in Bierut or Faith in DC.

At 2/09/2006 01:22:00 PM, Blogger abraxas1320 said...

Biedermann states that "[a]lleged infiltration of foreign militants into Iraq through Syria appears to have dramatically slowed down." How does this support your claim that "Syria is not a transit center for jihadists in Iraq?" The border between Syria and Iraq is historically porous and difficult to secure; even moreso since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Col. Reilly's claims are likewise absurd, and show a stunning lack of perspective. His unit is based in Sinjar, and their area of operations only covers the northern 300 km of a border that is roughly 600 km in length. What about the numerous border crossings (both official and unofficial) along the southern portion of the Syrian border? Reilly claims that things "seem to be going the right way" there, whatever that means; he would probably say the same about Operation Iraqi Freedom, as well. Let's not forget that the Syrian government has a history of providing deniable support to terrorist organizations (e.g. Hizbollah) that they like while working to wipe out terrorist groups that pose a threat to the al-Asad regime (e.g., Syrian Muslim Brotherhood). Foreign fighters with Syrian passports - complete with visas issued by the Iraqi consulate in Damascus - were turning up in Iraq during the opening weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and many more foreign fighters have been captured or killed in the months since. If there has been a decrease in the number of foreign fighters transiting from Syria into Iraq, it is probably because of the diplomatic pressure that the Bush Administration has placed upon Bashar Asad and his corrupt regime. American allegations of Syrian support to the insurgency are a critical part of that pressure, and have thus far served their purpose. The apparent decrease in foreign fighter traffic supports this idea, and vindicates - at least in part - the Bush Administration's approach to the Syrian problem.

At 2/09/2006 01:50:00 PM, Blogger 10452 said...

Josh, are you ever objective? A serious question, have you ever NOT taken the defense of Syria and Bashar?

Even the most fervent defenders of Syria's cause disagree with some aspect of the situation, but you blindly give in to any news or rumour that serves your cause!

You scour the internet trying to find evidence of a great conspiracy against Syria, but you fail to find and settle for the next best thing!

While I disagree with some of the folks who come here insulting you, I understand their frustration in reading every single one of your posts. Like "The pushed against the wall theory" that you defended so fervently.

May god help your soul!

At 2/09/2006 01:55:00 PM, Blogger EHSANI2 said...

Regardless of whether the alleged transit of fighters from Syria to Iraq has slowed down, increased or stayed the same, there is no denying the fact that the U.S. views Syria’s role in Iraq as “unhelpful”. If my memory serves right, Rumsfeld is the one that coined this term and it perfectly describes Washington’s mindset.

Just like Iran, Syria has done its best to make sure that the U.S. military gets bogged down in Iraq. To a certain extent, this broad strategic decision by Syria is what is critical to the U.S., and not whether Syria has/not slowed the transit of fighters from its soil.

I did post a follow-up comment on the Khaddam-Moslem Brotherhood alliance story in the earlier post. I continue to think that this is an important development that is worth watching.

At 2/09/2006 02:22:00 PM, Blogger EHSANI2 said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2/09/2006 02:27:00 PM, Blogger Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

Joshua, you're taking the defence of the regime again. I feel like a déja-vu. The Iraqi government itself, controlled by Iran's proxies, is accusing Syria of involvement with the terrrorists.

At 2/09/2006 03:47:00 PM, Blogger abraxas1320 said...

I'm not the moderator here folks, but let's avoid attacking Dr. Landis on a personal level. My intention is to learn what I can from this great website while occasionally speaking up to ask a question or - in today's case - air a personal / professional opinion. Dr. Landis' soul is not up for discussion or debate here, and neither is the nationality of his wife. I know that I would not appreciate anybody bringing personal aspects of my life into this kind of forum; let's agree to extend the same courtesy to Dr. Landis.

At 2/09/2006 04:11:00 PM, Blogger ActiveListener said...

Careful, let's not get into overcorrection and sterilization of this site.

Abraxas, I agree about personal attacks, but Dr Josh's personality and personal circumstances are very much part of his site and what makes it uniquely engaging. Last year he posted some very interesting pieces drawing on his in-laws' experiences and opinions.

And the politicization of American academia is not a taboo debate topic - quite the contrary. One interesting flipside to what's been said above by Ehsani2 is that some of the most "notorious neocons" like Wolfowitz etc allegedly climbed into the government policy arena after failing to get jobs in academia because they were not sufficiently liberal for current selection standards.

At 2/09/2006 04:17:00 PM, Blogger ActiveListener said...

Ehsani, clearly I don't feel it was necessary for you to withdraw your comment, as I note you just did. In fact, I felt it was overall complimentary and sympathetic to Dr Josh.

At 2/09/2006 04:42:00 PM, Blogger EHSANI2 said...


I did delete my message as you noted. I think the issue ought to be about Syria and its future. Dr. Landis's background ought not be the focus of our discussions. I have made similar obervations in the past which were similar to what i had written earlier. this is why I decided to delete the message.


At 2/09/2006 09:37:00 PM, Blogger norman said...

I do not know why anybody blames Syria for deffending itself by making the US busy in Iraq when the US was planing to implement a turn left plan to push into Syria after the fall of Bagdad ,as you all know Ramsfeld was stting the stage by claming that Syria is suplying night vision equepment which they did not have to Iraq during the war.

At 2/10/2006 04:34:00 AM, Blogger Jasmine said...

I think Ehsani return to the MB- Khaddam meeting is an important topic. Could this be a new start for Syria and if so what are the implications. I think if Asad was to be removed from power a new start for Syria could be possible. But this is only the beginning of a long and hard road for Syria, and I think most Syrians fear this road. And are afraid of change; despite the price they are paying. The mentality of Syrians needs to be changed in order for a new and better Syria to emerge. In order for a better Syria, which I know many wish for desperately, a new mentality needs to be sown from the ground up. Corruption, for example, has become a way for life for ordinary citizens. This is just one aspect that needs to be changed from the grassroots.

At 2/15/2006 03:46:00 PM, Blogger Lionheart said...

The Muslims will always fail, because the first thing they do is kill each other. Its their religion stupid.


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