From early April, some weeks before US President George W. Bush imposed sanctions on Syria, the foreign fighters crossing from Syria into Iraq were seen to be coming in larger groups with better-quality equipment. This information was relayed to DEBKA-Net-Weekly by a high-ranking intelligence source familiar with the Syrian-Iraqi border scene and al Qaeda movements in the Middle East.
He noted: “The groups crossing now consist of as many as 45 or even 60 fighters – not all al Qaeda. Some are veterans returning to the anti-US front from extended home leave in their own countries – Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Egyptians, Sudanese, Jordanians, Kuwaitis, Chechens and Bosnians. They come back loaded down with high-caliber weaponry, RPGs, some Strela anti-aircraft missiles, explosives, and huge sums of cash.” He went on to say, “You may find groups with up to a million or two million dollars in their luggage. They are couriers who hand over the bulk of this money to the heads of their units for payroll and the hiring of terrorist operatives and keep a small amount for their own needs.
“An important piece of their new equipment is satcom phones. I believe that foreign Arab guerrillas and al Qaeda have between them three times as many satellite phones as the US army and civilian contractors working in the country. These gadgets keep them in direct touch with commanders across the border in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Chechnya and in contact with other guerrilla groups in Iraq.”
The same source estimated that in addition to expert recruiters, the setting up and equipping of these large groups of combatants for Iraq required a heavy expenditure of time, hundreds of personnel, skillful staff work and wads of money. Processing needed at least 4-6 weeks as well as vehicles and safe houses set up in Syria and Iraq, flight and rail tickets for recruits gathered from half a dozen countries and fake passports.
“We know that this machine is operating smoothly out of Syria,” said the intelligence expert. “Yet officials of the Assad regime assure Washington that they have no notion of any such activity in their country.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terror sources reveal that, shortly before US sanctions were imposed, Damascus came forward with a proposition for Washington. The gist of it was this: You, the Americans, claim that most of the foreign fighters are smuggled into Iraq from our territory, that the forces we deploy along the frontier are ineffective and their commanders don’t lift a finger to interrupt the traffic of fighting men and weapons into Iraq. We therefore propose that an American military mission of intelligence officers be attached to Syria's Day az Zawr command, to study its operation. Since you have intelligence data that we lack, why not use it to advise our officers how to improve their work and, even better, when you go back to your positions on the Iraqi side use your findings to improve collaboration with our forces. A joint Syrian-American effort may not make the frontier watertight but it can substantially cut down illegal traffic.
According to our sources, Washington took the Syrians up on their proposal and a US military mission has begun advising Syrian commanders on improved ways to seal the border.
This development has produced an odd situation, whereby a US sanctions regime is in place against Syria but it is coupled with an experiment in US-Syrian military collaboration.
Since the project began, our sources report little change in the volume of illegal movement across the border. Some sources say it is too soon to draw conclusions about the efficacy of the exercise. But others suggest that the Syrians never had any intention of reducing the illegal flow into Iraq but saw their chance to take guileful advantage of the proximity of a US military mission for a study of their own. Firsthand knowledge of American methods to secure the border on the Iraqi side, when passed on to the command structures sending foreign fighters into Iraq, would give them a head start on American curbs and help them steal safely into the country.