Assad Is after a Foothold Independent of Iran
Why is Syrian president Bashar Assad so keen on developing his own power base in Baghdad when his close ally Tehran is already well entrenched there among the ruling Shiites? And what impelled George W. Bush to strike at Syria’s expansionist project now?
These questions linger in the aftermath of the US special operations raid of a Syrian farm al Sukkariya near Abu Kamal in eastern Syria on Sunday, Oct, 26. The operation succeeded in hitting its target, Abu Ghadiyah, Syrian head of a network funneling fighters, weapons and money into Iraq for the past three years (as reported in the first article in this issue.)
The Syrian known only by his nom de guerre “Abu Ghadiyah” served Syrian Gen. Jama’a Jama’a, commander of the eastern sector of the Syrian-Iraqi border, as recruiter of combat strength for the Iraqi Sunni Islamic Army and the Mujaheddin Army insurgent groups.
These groups have been cast as Damascus’ instruments for stirring up terror in Baghdad in furtherance of its ambition for a foothold in Iraq before the American army departs.
So how is Assad going about his master plan?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s analysts offer three optional scenarios, stressing that each promises far-reaching reverberations on Middle East and counter-terror policy-making in the post-Bush White House after January 2009.
Iran and Syria agree to stymie the US-Iraq security accord
One: Syria and Iran appear to be cooperating in the first section of Assad’s master plan, the building of operational links with violent Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups. Both want to prevent Washington and Iraq finalizing their security accord and speed up the American army’s departure from Iraq.
Up to this point, there is a division of labor between the two allies: Tehran is pressuring the Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government to keep the draft accord up in the air and unsigned, with the backing of Shiite parliamentary factions and their assorted militias; Damascus is hoping to work through Sunni insurgent groups, made possibly more compliant by their shared Iraqi-Syrian Baath roots, to sow enough violence to disrupt the negotiations.
Both have assigned generals to run their side of the project:
Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimeni, commander of the al Qods Brigades, which has evolved from a branch of the Revolutionary Guards into an autonomous intelligence-cum-terror organization for covert operations in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.
Gen. Jama’a is his Syrian counterpart. He is a seasoned terrorist handler from his years in Beirut when Damascus ruled the roost and was strongly suspected of a leading role in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005.
The two generals have worked together in Lebanon and with Palestinian terrorist organizations.
Damascus acts to overturn the Awakening Councils’ dominance of Anbar
Two: Damascus owns interests in Iraq’s Anbar province just across its border, which US forces succeeded in purging of al Qaeda’s reign of terror. This dramatic triumph was achieved with the help of the 100,000 combatants of the Sunni tribal Awakening Councils, which the US army established and fielded.
Syria’s interests were not addressed in the process.
Of the roughly 50 Anbar tribes, 40 joined the Awakening Councils, including the big Dulaimi, Shumer and Rashidi. These tribes are nomadic; for them, the Iraqi-Syrian border is just a line on a Western map. The Syrian border districts of Abu Kemal and Eir Azur are as much a part of their ancestral domains as Iraqi Anbar.
Assad was never happy about the rise of the armed Awakening Councils movement on his border. But in 2006 and 2007, when they were fighting shoulder to shoulder with American soldiers to beat al Qaeda, he let them get on with it. As that battle dies down in Anbar, Syria finds itself up against a large Sunni army athwart its eastern border over which it has no control.
Lacking the resources to take on this US-armed might, the Syrians have turned to harnessing the smaller tribes of the Iraqi province, which were left out of the Awakening Council structure.
What the Americans see with trepidation is the Syrians building a new, hostile operational Sunni structure to suck in tribal and Baathist insurgent elements and counter the Awakening Council’s dominance of Anbar.
This development was seen by US commanders as a threat to one of their signal achievements and so they were eager to nip it in the bud.
Tehran and Syria playing opposite sides in Iraq
Three: While willing to walk alongside Tehran part of the way to its destination, Damascus is playing its own hand in Iraq, aiming to build an independent power base. Iran has a clear stake in bolstering Shiite domination of Iraq and displacing Sunni power, whereas Syria is playing the opposite side of the Iraqi chart.
For the first time, a potential conflict of interests is developing between the two allies – and not only in Iraq.
(See separate item on Iran’s emerging Afghan strategy.)
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington report that all three options – and their potential overlap at some points – figured large in the discussion held by the US National Security Council, the Pentagon and the intelligence community. It ended in the decision to stage Sunday’s cross-border raid into Syria to disarm the mainspring of Assad’s Iraq project.
Some of the participants suggested negotiating a deal that would leave Syria in control of a limited number of Sunni fighting groups for the sake of widening its conflict of interests with Tehran.
But the US president’s security advisers finally agreed on the necessity to cut short Syria’s meddling in Iraq by a small-scale military action, before it blew up into a firestorm in western Iraq’s nearly pacified cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, followed by Baghdad.