It took Syrian Bashar Assad almost five years to see the light.
All that time, he protested that the Syrian-Iraq frontier was impossible to seal against the passage of of Iraqi insurgents, weapons, explosives and cash, the main elements fanning the flames of the anti-US insurgency since 2003.
Then, suddenly, ten days ago, the impossible happened: Damascus locked the border with Iraq,
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources reveal that the traffic, except for a few minor incursions, dried up almost overnight. It must be said that Syria won an instantaneous bonus: the exodus of Iraqi refugees into Syria was halted after some two million who have already crossed the border threaten to become a destablizing factor in Damascus.
Before Syria, Jordan shut its border with Iraq two months ago and is further tightening its controls. And this week, Saudi Arabia activated a new electronic fence along its border with Iraq, manning a row of observation towers along its length.
The padlocks on Iraq’s borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia restack the cards heavily in favor of the American military effort in Iraq by sharply cutting down the availablity of reinforcements and replenishments of explosives and cash to Sunni insurgent groups and al Qaeda. Smuggling now carries high risks. It may be too soon to calculate the effects of these closed borders, but if the shutdown is maintained for any length of time, US forces should start feeling a drop in casualties by the second half of September.
Iran leaves its border open to deadly EFPs
For now, Iran is the single neighbor of Iraq still allowing fighters and weapons to infiltrate the embattled country from its territory, which no doubt accounts for the telling new statistics released by the US No. 2 commander Lt. Gen Raymond T. Odierno on Tuesday, Aug. 7.
He reported that attacks on American-led forces using a lethal type of roadside bomb [the dread EFP – Explosively-Formed Penetrators], said to be supplied by Iran, reached a new high in July. Of the 69 members of the American-led forces killed in action in July, the lowest toll in months, 23 died as a result of attacks with the devices. Of the 614 allied troops who were wounded that month, said the general, 89 were hit in penetrator attacks.
Washington and the US command in Iraq are trying to convey toTehran that following the near-closure of the borders of Syria, Jordan and Saud Arabia to hostile incursions, American forces are free to devote all their efforts to blocking dangerous imports from Iran.
At the same time, if Tehran is serious about seeking a dialogue with Washington and working in concert to improve security in Iraq – and even possibly Afghanistan, it must first line up with Iraq’s other three neighbors and seal its border against the influx of the deadly EFPs.
None of these developments is plain sailing for various reasons:
1. No one can tell for how long Syria will stick to keeping its border inaccessible to illicit traffic. Assad is capable of reopening the door to Iraqi guerrilla fighters, including suicide bombers, as suddenly as he locked it. Many insurgents and terrorists are standing by at training centers in Syria cities, including Damascus, waiting to go through.
Third round of US-Iranian security talks leads nowhere
2. The third round of talks between US ambassador Ryan Crocker and Iranian ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi at prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Baghdad residence Monday, Aug. 6, produced no progress and led nowhere.
What apears to keep the talks going is a kind of inertia and an effort to show dialogue is still alive.
3. Wednesday and Thursday, Aug 8 and 9, an international meeting took place in Damascus on security in Iraq, particularly along its borders with Iran and Syria, and the promotion of Iraqi national reconciliation. Present were representatives from the United States, the UK, Kuwait, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Iraq and the Arab League. The meeting was a continuation of the Sharm el-Sheikh Iraqi conference last May. The American delegation was headed by the senior diplomat in Damascus, Charge d’Affaires Michael Corbin, whom Washington later classified as an obsever rather than a delegate.
Syrian interior minister Lt. Gen. Bassam Abdul-Majid told the conference his government had installed measures along its borders with Iraq, including fixed checkpoints and patrols. It had also restricted passage for people under the age of 30.
Abdul-Majid reported the arrest of a large number of infiltrators, who tried to cross the borders. Syria had handed them over to the authorities in their own countries. It was not clear which nationals he referred to.
The occasion was marred by the absence of any Saudi representetative.
At the last moment Riyadh decided stay away. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in the Gulf report this gesture was another symptom of the dissonances between the US and Saudi Arabia on the situation in Iraq – and not only Iraq. Riyadh has broken away from US policies on the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, Iran and Lebanon, preferring to strike out on its own independent path.