May 13, 2005

Syria's Role In Iraq

I was surprised to read this recently in the WaPo:

Suicide attacks are not, in all likelihood, Iraqi operations. "Thirty-five years of Saddam's brutal repression did not produce a single suicide bomber," says a former military officer who is now working as a driver.

Syria has been an important base and way station for these foreign fighters. Interviews with arrested "jihadis" and transcripts of interrogations obtained from Iraqi security and intelligence show that a typical jihadi's journey from his city in Syria, Jordan, Sudan, Yemen or any other Arab country until the moment he blows himself up goes something like this: After deciding that he wants to fight the Americans in Iraq, he contacts mosques in Damascus known for recruiting mujaheddin for the holy war in Iraq. Often these recruitment campaigns are funded by senior Syrian officials.

After deciding that a person is fit to conduct a "martyrdom operation," Syrian intelligence trains him on how to disguise his identity and how to handle explosives and ammunitions. Radical mullahs supplement this with heavy doses of hard-line religious teaching. The volunteer is then taken across the desert in eastern Syria, through the porous borders, into the Sunni triangle in Iraq, where he is housed by members of the former Baathist intelligence and security network. The second leg of the journey is to a safe house in Baghdad, where he is assigned a target to blow up or sent to certain areas to fight the Americans or the new Iraqi army and police forces.

Last year, the Iraqi government published a list of foreign fighters caught in Iraq. The father of one of the fighters contacted one of the ministers and said that when his son left home he told his parents he was going to Syria for a holiday. A month later he called his parents and said that he was in Fallujah for jihad against the Americans.

Before the American offensive in Fallujah, foreign militants used to go there to join the local insurgency in conducting conventional attacks on Iraqi police, national guards and the U.S. military. Iraqi journalists working for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reported that Syrian militias were openly operating in various areas of the Sunni triangle. One Syrian combatant told a reporter, who was posing as a local resident, that he was in Iraq fighting the United States because "if we don't fight them here, we will have to fight them in Syria."

Money also flows in from Syria. I spoke with an Iraqi journalist who recently visited Syria. He said being there felt like being back in Saddam's Iraq. "The place was heaving with sons of Baathists and former regime officials," he observed. [emphasis added]

Hiwa Osman, who penned this op-ed, is an Iraqi Kurd and thus likely not an unbiased source (Kurds aren't the biggest fans of the Syrians, of course). Still, he works for the IPWR which is a pretty reputable outfit. But to contend that Syrian intelligence is training suicide bombers headed for Iraq is a pretty damning charge. Has it been substantiated? I haven't seen such evidence, and would welcome any additional detail (in comments or via E-mail at on this point.

B.D.'s view of the Syrian angle of late? First, I think it's fair to say that the U.S.-Syrian relationship has been at something of a crossroads in recent months. A major issue was the significant misapprehension and anger resulting from the often stated accusation that Syria's border with Iraq was purposefully being left overly porous--a charge Bashar routinely denied (not always particularly convincingly). And there was the Hariri assassination, of course, which many in Washington presumed the Syrians were behind. Bashar has survived the Lebanon crisis by pulling his military and secret services out of that country. This move reduced some of the U.S. pressure on Damascus (and was certainly enough to get the French, who had been cooperating with the U.S. on the Syria account, off of Bashar's back pretty much in toto).

This leaves (putting more Israeli-centric issues like Syrian support to Hamas and Jihad Islami aside) the issue of how and whether and to what extent Syria is supporting the insurgency in Iraq. I have no doubt that Syrian Baathists have given refuge to many Iraqi Baathists, and have significant sympathies with their beleagered ideological Baathist brothers (despite the very cold relationship that prevailed between Hafez Asad and Saddam). That said, B.D. never counted himself as one who believed that some Ho Chi Minh trail was running between Damascus and, say, Fallujah. Nor was I alone in this assessment. Funnily enough, given the Bolton brouhaha of late, it bears mentioning I even got abrasive Bully John to back-down, during Q&A in London, on the extent of Syrian trouble-making in Iraq.

My bottom line on Syria? It's hard to say without access to the intel. As best I can piece information together from the press, however, I figure that Bashar could probably be doing more to make the border with Iraq less porous. That said, I'd be surprised if Syrian intelligence officers were involved in training jihadis bound for Iraq. Further, I do think Bashar has tried to make the border less porous. Even Bolton, no fan of Syria, acknowledged that to me in London. (Though this information may now be outdated as Bashar may have since changed tack. Bolton conceded that Bashar had exerted more control over the border after so-called major combat ended in Iraq. But this is an assessment now over a year old).

Finally, at the end of the day, I think Bashar is trying to please various constituencies. As a minority Alawite, he faces many resentful majority Sunnis who wish to protect their Iraqi Sunni "cousins." There are also old guard Baathists friendly to aspects of the Baathist restorationist agenda. On the other hand, the Alawite (viewed, like the Shi'a, as heretics by many Sunni) have sometimes found common cause with the Shi'a (witness Hafez al Asad's warm relationship over the years with predominatly Shi'a Iran). And, of course, Bashar must be sure not to cross any red-lines with the Americans (training insurgents, I'd have to think, is one--which is another reason I'm skeptical he would allow that). Mix all these variables up and you have, pretty much, what we are witnessing today in terms of Syrian behavior. Feelers are out to the new Shi'a-led government in Iraq, as well as Iran, doubtless. At the same time, the border is left a tad open now and again to maintain street cred with the Baathist old guard and disgruntled Sunni. Overall, however, the border is more tightly controlled than at times in the past so as to not risk incurring the wrath of the U.S., in B.D.s view (though I am open to contrary information on this score). At the same time, Bashar may be smart enough to realize that U.S. forces may, in the not too distant future, actually be protecting Sunnis from Shi'a revanchists. It's a complex brew; and there are no easy take-aways here. But I guess, in a way, what I'm saying is that I find Osman's narrative from the WaPo piece suspiciously simplistic. Alternative analyses welcome, as always, in comments.

Posted by Gregory at May 13, 2005 02:13 AM | TrackBack (3)

Seems like a pretty fair analysis to me - or at least as realistic as any other I've seen. I don't claim to be in any better position than yourself in terms of divining just what's going on.

It seems to me that the million dollar question is what to do if Syrian involvement is as bad as the most hardline thinkers on this issue claim. Talk of manufacturing some sort of democratic uprising in Syria seems to me to be a pipe dream as these things don't actually come made to order and according to a convenient timetable. Similarly the notion of direct military intervention, as occasionally forwarded by Bill Kristol in his more fevered moments, strikes me as pure tea room fantasising.

My personal stance on the matter (subject to change) is that having finally figured out what Syria's role is we need to do a means/ends assessment regarding the viability of employing heavily technology-based interdiction along the Iraq-Syrian border a la a 21st century Morice Line. I suspect that the chances of this being viable are not high (the original Morice Line took up an enormous chunk of manpower to man it and I'll be interested to see whether 50 years of technological advances would allow this to be cut down significantly) but it seems to me to be the most practical option to be looking at at this stage.

Posted by: Anthony at May 13, 2005 03:36 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"But to contend that Syrian intelligence is training suicide bombers headed for Iraq is a pretty damning charge. Has it been substantiated?"

That's a charge that comes directly from the "Terrorists in the Hands of Justice" program that the Special Police Commandos are running on Iraqi TV. It gets dialed up whenever we want to pressure the Syrians, methinks.

Did you notice, btw, that Syria announced the arrest of 117 Saudis last week? It's been widely reported that at least 2,500 Saudis have gone to Iraq through Syria. They land there and get hooked up with hardcore salafi mosques, who then pay off tribals along the iraqi border to smuggle them across.

note also that in your linked reference to the ho chin minh trail, that the 101st airborne was in ninevah province and not in anbar.

my view is that assad is behaving just like Dad, in viewing the border issue as something he will only tamp down on when the US is willing to offer him something in return. it's one of his few cards. the other time he acts is when the bush admin and centcom dial up the threats a notch, which is why the 117 were arrested after abizaid made some comments and the sanctions were about to get renewed. he wasn't able to hold off on the sanctions, though.

Posted by: praktike at May 13, 2005 04:08 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

. . . the Alawite (viewed, like the Shi'a, as heretics by many Sunni)

The Alawi are a Shi'a breakaway group, much more liable to considered heretics than the mainstream Shi'a:

Theologically, Alawites today claim to be Twelver Shiites, but traditionally they have been designated as “extremists – ghulat” and outside the bounds of Islam by the Muslim mainstream for their deification of Ali ibn Abi Talib or Ali. (Wikipedia)
Posted by: Robert McDougall at May 13, 2005 05:31 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I suggest you head over to Belmont Club and look for the posts re Operation Matador- they may affect your assessment.

Posted by: rosignol at May 13, 2005 07:33 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

This whole story appears to be based on the premise that the suicide bombers are not Iraqis, and that consequently they are coming from somewhere else.

And that premise is based on the "evidence" that there were no suicide bombers when Saddam was in power. Given that the situation in Iraq has changed radically, the "evidence" is really not terribly relevant.

Because the US is so cautious in placing American soldiers lives in danger, Americans seem to forget that throughout history the willingness to sacrifice one's life for one's country has been an essential part of the military mindset. The presumption that "suicide bombing" is somehow incompatible with a "nationalist" Iraqi insurgency is simply not valid.

This becomes even more true when "patriotism" and "jihad" are conflated. Baathists remained Muslims, and still believed in concepts like jihad. "Patriotism" (a war against a foreign occupier) and "jihad" (a war against the "infidels") are all that is required to create suicide bombers out of Iraqis.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 13, 2005 11:40 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Though I have no actual information, from a strictly logical standpoint it makes perfect sense to doubt that the suicide bombers are Iraqi. Only certain motivations spawn suicide bombers and it's hard to see how any of those motivations are in play for Iraqi insurgents.

Obviously, they're not fighting for their country, they're fighting against popular government in favor of some form of autocracy. And it's not likely an islamist autocracy because then they would have been fighting Saddam as well, which, as noted, they weren't. They want power for themselves, not for Iraq as a nation and suicide tactics require total sacrifice of earthly interests.

The Syrian connection (if accurate) would seem to fit well with some of the analysis during the early Lebanon crisis, which concluded that no one person currently runs Syria and Assad is something of a figurehead. The thought was that several powerful government agencies are acting independently within their own sphere, leading to seemingly self-contradictory activites (particualrly Assad trying to increase cooperation with the US while his security forces continued to act against US interests, undermining his efforts).

Posted by: byrd at May 13, 2005 06:18 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Here's a scenario for a Clancy novel: suppose the Iraqi govt grabs a few of these guys in their safe house, gets them disoriented and then sends them to pull the cord in downtown Damascus. See how long the eye doctor puts up with this crowd then.

Posted by: topcat at May 14, 2005 01:12 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'm glad the Iraqis think things will work out for them.

However, Bush is running for President of the United States, not Iraq. All this stuff about helping Iraqis is besides the point. Since when do Republicans go in for foreign aid?

The problem with the Kerry campaign is that they're too politically correct to really make this an issue. They've taken an occasional swipe at Bush over this, but fundamentally, they're too "decent" to push the sort of xenophobic buttons that a Jesse Helms or Pat Buchanan would.

Posted by: Hann at May 23, 2005 03:13 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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