Is Assad Serious about Controlling Illicit Traffic into Iraq?

The United States and Syria sealed a unique and unexpected military cooperation accord on Saturday, September 11 during a two-tier US mission to Damascus.

While assistant secretary of state William Burns was seen talking to president Bashar Assad, and delivering a stiff lecture – termed in Washington a “strong and detailed message,” on Syria’s political and military interference in Lebanon – his colleagues, Peter Rodman, US assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and Brigadier General Mark Kimmit, the former US military spokesman in Iraq, were very busy, very quietly in another part of the presidential palace. They were talking turkey with general Ali Habib, the Syrian chief of staff and one of the few top officers in Syria with a command of the English language.

By the end of the daylong sessions, the United States and Syria had wrapped up an agreement. This week, US Major General Peter Chiarelli, commander of the Baghdad-based 1st Calvary Division, has already spent time on the Syrian side confering with his counterparts on getting the new nine-point arrangement moving:

A. Washington will circumvent US economic sanctions against Damascus and find international financing for a 500-mile (800-km) road that Syrian construction companies will build the length of the Syrian-Iraqi border for the exclusive use of Syrian military patrols. It will run from the Syrian-Iraqi-Turkish border junction in the north to the Syrian-Jordanian border meeting point in the south.

B. Military operational sectors on the Syrian side of the border with Iraq will correspond to the US sectors on the Iraqi side. The US Signals Corps will set up direct telephone and radio communication links between American and Syrian sector commanders.

C. US and Syrian commanders will meet when necessary to coordinate any military operations on either side of the border necessary to choke off the illicit passage of Arab fighters, smugglers, al Qaeda men and military equipment between Syria and Iraq. Prearranged crossings for coordinating sessions may take place both ways by US sector commanders into Syria and Syrian sector commanders into Iraq.

D. An Arabic-speaking American liaison officer will be assigned to each Syrian command center to facilitate communications. Most Syrian officers do not speak English.

E. United States aerial reconnaissance missions will fly over the border area and enter Syrian airspace to a depth of 20 miles (32 km) if operationally necessary. The Americans undertake to notify Syrian authorities of such incursions but this notice may be relayed in the course of a mission or after it ends. Aerial photographs will be shared with Syrian sector commanders and results of their analysis discussed at joint sessions of US and Syrian officers.

F. When spotting any suspect cross-border movement of terrorists or smugglers, American officers will pass the word to their Syrian counterparts with complete intelligence data. The Syrian side is obliged to take immediate action against the trespassers without checking first with their


G. Coordinated patrols and ambushes will keep the new road and frontier constantly monitored and secured. US officers may call on Syrian backup for American ambush teams. If all these provisions work in practice, a group of terrorists which runs up against a waiting US patrol on the Iraqi side of the border and retraces its steps will fall into the hands of a Syrian ambush. There will also be joint operations by US and Syrian units.

H. Each side will share with the other the data it acquires on the people, weapons, explosives and money it intercepts and the results of any interrogations. American and Syrian officers are both entitled to visit prisoners and question them in the area of their capture. US officers may cross into Syria to interrogate traffickers or terrorists captured by Syrian patrols while Syrian officers may cross into Iraq to question those detained in US sectors

I. The US military will meet Syrian army equipment needs for these border security missions, sector by sector.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military experts stress that the only other Middle East deal comparable to the US-Syrian border cooperation pact is the one governing traffic across the Jordan River boundary between Israel and Hashemite Kingdom. That accord, which seals the border to terrorist infiltration with great efficiency, provided the basic model for the provisions outlined in Washington’s agreement with the Syrians. Nonetheless, the new pact leaves key questions unanswered:


What if Assad is shamming again


  1. The Americans accepted the Syrian argument that a new patrol road is necessary along the Iraqi frontier, where large areas have been inaccessible to vehicles. But they strongly suspect that the project, which Syrian construction companies will need at least seven to nine months to complete, may be a delaying tactic that would push back to early summer 2005 the start of operations to seal the border. For that reason, Washington demanded that patrols begin immediately in areas that are currently accessible.

  2. The orders Damascus issues to its officers and troops in the border zones, and how far they cooperate with US forces, will tell Washington whether Assad is truly committed to diplomatic and military teamwork along the US-Syrian-Egyptian-Israeli axis.

  3. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and military sources, US intelligence has identified 35 armed terrorist and guerrilla groups currently active in Iraq. More than half have links in Syria. Even if US-Syrian cooperation takes off satisfactorily along the Iraqi frontier, what about the terror-masters orchestrating from inside Syria the lawlessness targeting its neighbors, like the Hizballah and al Qaeda? What does Damascus propose to do about Arab border tribes which have made their living for centuries by smuggling goods across the borders of Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia? Last but not least, what is to be done with the Iraqi Baath party elite who have made Syria their home and whom the Assad regime shows no inclination to throw out.

Hizballah operatives come and go at will through the Syrian-Iraqi border region, as do al Qaeda members. But our counter-terrorism experts report al Qaeda has begun to scent a change in the air between Damascus and Washington. Syria-based operatives and birds of passage have consequently been advised to stay away from Syrian military intelligence and work only with the clerics appearing on a special list that has been distributed.

Syria also has taken small steps against the thousands of former Iraqi Baath officials who live in major cities, such as Damascus and Aleppo, and work out of the border towns of al Azor and Abu Kamal, to oversee the transfer of funds and weapons to guerrilla cells in Iraq. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources, an order has gone out to these Baath overseers to report to local Syrian military intelligence commanders. In one such “friendly” meeting, a Baath official was asked to keep a journal of his daily activities and contacts. It need not be presented as a daily report, but a monthly summary delivered to military intelligence offices would be greatly appreciated. That is the sum of Syrian demands of its Iraqi guests.

A more intractable problem is posed by the Arab smuggler-tribes divided into tight clan-gangs who consider themselves he sole legitimate authority in the border districts. They were treated with respect and caution by the Iraqi and Syrian armies even during the Saddam Hussein period. Both used them for special missions such as smuggling oil and weapons as did Western and Eastern European intelligence agencies – the Russians in particular.

A tribal gang may consist of from 10 to 20 members to hundreds of fighting men. They will not willingly cede control of their stamping grounds to the Americans or the Syrians. It is anyone’s guess whether the Syrian border units working in harness with US units in Iraq will be prepared to get into fights with these tribal gangs on orders from Damascus.

It would not take much to stir these fierce border people who are familiar with every inch of the terrain into opening up a fresh guerrilla front against US forces deployed on the Iraqi side of the frontier.

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