Tuesday, July 06, 2004

What is Syria Doing in Iraq?

Several good Journalists have reported recently on the role that Syria may be playing in the resistance in Iraq. They do not directly assert that the Syrian government has a hand in organizign the resistance, but the suggestion that it is not doing enough to clamp down on the movement of people and money across the border is strong. Iraq's foreign minister recently rebuked the Syrian government, suggesting that relations between the two country's would deteriorate rapidly if something was not done.

Nir Rosen in the New Yorker, learnt the following about foreign fighters in Faluja:

Several people in Jolan [the militant neighborhood] said that the foreign fighters—Saudis, Tunisians, Moroccans, Yemenis, and Lebanese, directed by Syrian militants—had been crucial to the defense of the neighborhood. The groups of mujahideen who hung around mosques included men who looked to me like Arabs from the Gulf. Most of them were dark, with angular features, and they had long, well-groomed beards. Their dishdashas were short, in the Wahhabi style, ending a little below their knees. Friends of mine who had been held by mujahideen told me they had heard men speaking with accents from the Gulf, Syria, and North Africa.
Douglas Jehl of the New York Times, writes in an article entitled, "Saddam's kin aiding terror,"
A network of Saddam Hussein's cousins, operating in part from Syria and Jordan, is actively involved in the smuggling of guns, people and money into Iraq to support the anti- American insurgency, say American government officials and a prominent Iraqi.

The operations involve at least three cousins from the Majid family who now live in Syria and in Europe, the American officials said. A leading figure among them is Fatiq Suleiman al-Majid, a cousin of Hussein's and a former officer in Iraq's Special Security Organisation who fled from Iraq to Syria last spring and may still be living there.

The view that the cousins are helping finance the insurgency developed fairly recently and is described in intelligence reports, the American officials say.

They said the conclusion was based in part on suspicious recent movements of money and goods, including the transfer of cash into Syria, that were detected by American intelligence.
Juan Cole criticizes the Jehl conjectures on his site, Informed Comment:
Al-Hayat says that Syrian sources are categorically denying a New York Times report that Saddam Hussein's cousins from the al-Majid clan are directing the insurgency from Syria and Europe. Likewise, the Jordanians say they have no such information. The cousins named also denied the charges to al-Sharq al-Awsat. The Syrians are speculating that the story is a plant by US and Israeli intelligence aimed at preventing good relations from developing between the Allawi government and Damascus. Actually, it seems to me indisputable that the al-Majid clan is involved in the insurgency, it is just that it doesn't need to be abroad to do so. And as the Jehl article acknowledges, the insurgency comes from circles well beyond Saddam loyalists.
The Christian Science Monitor has a good assesment of the situation in today's issue by Ann Scott Tyson pointing out how hard policing the border is.
Along the Syrian border, tribes such as the Shamar, Al Jubouri, and Al Fawzil migrate back and forth from Iraq. Many of the Iraqi border guards are tribal members with family on either side of the border, and often turn a blind eye to such smuggling, according to US and Iraqi officials. No computer database currently exists for tracking the passage of people and goods across the border, they say. Meanwhile, border guards driving two-wheel-drive vehicles are often outrun by people crossing illegally in four-wheel drive Land Cruisers. Also, a long dirt berm built by US military engineers to delineate the Syrian border is easily transversed in many places by vehicles like Toyota pickup trucks, they say.
She points out that Under-Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz has been leading the charge in focusing on Syria's role in the resistance, which does not exactly inspire confidence. Wolfowitz still believes that Syria is hiding Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

The charge that Syria is hiding Iraq's chemical weapons, by the way, has its origin in accusations made by Nizar Nayouf, the Alawite Syrian opposition member who has been working closely with the US Defense Department. He showed US intelligence a hand drawn map of three sites in Syria he said concealed the weapons. See the long interview with him in January 2004 in French at the following site. It includes the maps and also states that Rumsfeld supported him, whereas, Powel distrusted him and tried to deny him an American visa at the time of the Washington conference held by the US sponsored Democratic Reform Party. How trustworthy is Nayouf? Powel obviously thinks he is another Ahmad Chalabi.

"Syria and Iran Should Support the Multinational [read US and British]Force in Iraq" Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said.
During an interview on Dubai's Al Arabiya television Allawi said, "I think that the heads of states of brother Syria and Iran should revise their positions for the interest of Iraq. At the very least, they should support the multinational force." Syrian President Bessar Asad and Islamic Republic of Iran President Mohammed Khatemi had earlier called for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq.

Continued Allawi, "No occupation force exists in Iraq. The multinational forces are here upon the demand of Iraq and the Iraqi government. They are here primarily for providing security. If they left now, before forming the basis of the Iraqi armed forces and security, it would be a disaster for Iraq."
Syria's "multinational" force in Lebanon is also not an "occupation force" so I am sure it will understand Iraq's security needs! In all fairness to Syria, it has been receiving delegations of Iraqis eager to normalize relations. On the other hand, Syria's passage of a bill sanctioning the US and its recent high-profile diplomacy with Iran all point to heightened Syrian displeasure with the US. I doubt the Syrian government wants chaos in Iraq, as Wolfowitz has recently suggested. Having Islamic militants ruling Iraq would be worse than the Allawi government from a Syrian perspective. All the same, the strong US presence in the neighborhood rankles, especially at a time when the US refuses to acknowledge legitimate Syrian interests in the region.

Perhaps the important question is how much control Bashar has over the border. There are many conspiracy minded Syrians who will see the Kurdish situation [read last post] and US pressure on the Syrian economy as a serious effort to destabilize the country. There are also many Iraqi families connected to Saddam's regime who moved to Syria or sent their families across the border just before the outbreak of war last year. My wife said two Iraqi colonels rented apartments in her neighborhood in Latakia just before the war and have moved their families there. I doubt the Syrian government could control all of them or keep them from contacting resistance members in Iraq even if it wanted to. Bashar has been warning about the destabilizing effects of the war - how weapons and people from Iraq have been coming into Syria, creating a dangerous situation for him. I don't think he is not just being cute about these warnings.

On another note, a recent article by Robert Blecher - "Engage, don't alienate, Syrian reformers" - on the difficulties Bush policy has been creating for Syrian reform activists is worth reading.

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