Syria – New Line on Washington’s Iraq War Map

Damascus filed only a mild protest at Washington’s tardiness in repatriating the five Syrian soldiers captured by US troops when on June 18 when they attacked a convoy suspected of carrying Saddam Hussein in flight to Syria. The Syrians, three wounded, were handed back Monday, June 30. The Bashar government did not make too much of a fuss over the incident, inhibited by reasons set forth in the account carried in DEBKA-Net-Weekly on June 27:
The importance of the US commando attack on June 18 lies in its location – inside Syria. A US official indeed admitted the American force may have pursued part of the convoy across the Iraqi border into Syria. In fact, the subsequent clash, in which five Syrian border guards were captured, occurred at the Syrian border post of Abu Kamal, 365 miles south of Damascus. The convoy was destroyed.
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Our military sources reveal that the Syrian side lost between 25 and 30 dead in their first encounter with US combatants. Syrian president Bashar Assad and Syrian military chiefs monitored the incident from the war room of general headquarters in Damascus. He ordered the ground troops to fight, but was wary of an air engagement and halted all Syrian military traffic when US warplanes crossed into his country’s airspace.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources note that American anti-Syrian military action – widely expected last March when Syria was found to be pushing Arab fighters into Iraq to fight against the United States – was launched in fact on June 18.
Fighting on the American side was the elite Task Force 20 set up to hunt down Saddam Hussein and his sons Uday and Qusay and unearth Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
Both these missions necessitate deep thrusts into Syria, for which Pentagon authority has been given – initially for the border regions. The US commandos lie in wait for senior officers of the deposed Saddam regime on their way to and from Syria, a path well trodden since in the end of the war, and seek leads to Iraq’s unconventional weapons where the task force’s commanders believe them to be stashed: in western Iraq, northern Syria and eastern Lebanon. The also attempt to cut down on the influx from Syria into Iraq of the Arab fighters, mostly Syrian, boosting anti-American resistance in the country.
Of late, Task Force 20 commanders suspect Saddam – and possibly his two sons – are back in Iraq. Theoretically, their presence in a limited search area ought to make them easier to snare.
US intelligence and Task Force 20 are now convinced – as debkafile reported exclusively during the Iraq war – that on the night of March 27, Saddam left Baghdad and crossed into Syria. They believe he spent up to ten or twelve days in Syria before Assad, fearing discovery and reprisal by the Americans, cut the visit short. Where did he go from there?
debkafile and DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported that Saddam and at least one of his sons made a beeline for Minsk, Belarus. Then, in late May, our sources reported signs of his presence in Libya. Since then, discreet American checks discovered that the bird has flown from there too ahead of pursuit. On Monday, June 16, his personal aide and confidant, Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti, was picked up while traveling from Damascus through Syrian Arab tribal territory to Tikrit, provided evidence of the first leg of his boss’s flight. Found on him were several dozen blank Belarusian passports – evidence that top Iraqis have been traveling to Minsk via Syria.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources stress that Task Force 20 and the US government have no concrete proof that Saddam and his sons are indeed back in Iraq – only indications. If they are, they are thought to have gone to ground in one the secret underground tunnel systems dug in the late 1990s as safe hideouts for the Iraqi leadership and their forbidden arsenals.
One is situated at al Qaim on the Iraqi-Syrian border. Still a place of mystery, this region’s deep canyons has been intensively explored by American, Australian and British commandos, but US intelligence believes that undiscovered corners still hold secrets. In their strike against the suspect convoy on June 18, the Americans therefore threw all their air power against the three vehicles as they raced for the border through al Qaim. US intelligence is eyeing two additional underground systems that could accommodate Saddam: the city of Ar Ramadi and an area between Tikrit and Samara.
US intelligence estimates that even after handing over some 15 high Iraqi officials and military commanders to the Americans in April and May, between 70 and 100 top Iraqis still enjoy a safe haven in Syria. Their presence outside Damascus enables President Assad to take a chance on protesting that the entire Iraqi elite has departed the country, when in fact a few are living quietly in Aleppo and the main body, several dozen fugitives, have been fixed up with havens in Alawite tribal villages and towns with kinship ties to Assad.
Among them, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources say, is a heavy sprinkling of Iraqi Special Republic Guards officers who oversaw the shipment of the portion of Iraq’s prohibited weapons that was interred in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley.
It is clear therefore that the capture of elite Saddam officials would be an important key to the discovery of his forbidden weapons. Task Force 20 has a standing order to attack any unidentified Iraqi convoy in motion in the region on either side of the Iraq-Syrian frontier.
The US administration has repeatedly pressed Damascus to surrender the Iraqi officers or expel them and so expose them to American capture.
Task Force 20 commanders are also aware that prohibited weapons are moving around through secret paths inside Iraq itself. According to some intelligence reports, certain unconventional arms were kept back for the protection of Saddam, his sons and the city of Baghdad. In March, the arsenal was shifted to the al-Anbar area of Iraq and buried deep underground. It was transported by the same tankers that carried other portions of the arsenal to Lebanon.
The al-Anbar region stretches from west of al-Ramadi up to al-Qaim and lies athwart the primary Syria-Iraq route traversed by the Syrian Arab tribesmen. US intelligence believes that this interfacing is deliberately planned to confuse US special forces watching out for weapons of mass destruction smuggled out of the country.
Saddam’s Syrian Bedouin Allies
The US military in extending the Iraqi battlefield to Syria the US military has found the border region inhabited by a hostile population of some two million Arab Bedouin nomads who have little regard for lines on the map and whose wanderings take them from Syria across the Jordanian desert as far south as the Saudi Arabian Nejd. Their tribal range in Syria covers the al-Azor and al-Jazeera areas up to the eastern outskirts of Damascus; on the Iraqi side, it runs west from the Jabal Sinjar area in the north, south to Mosul and the Euphrates river banks, to encompass the Al Qaim region abutting the Syrian border as well as the Saddam clan’s Iron Triangle defined by the towns of Ramadi, Samara and Tikrit north of Baghdad
Afforded VIP treatment in Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad and Riyadh, the Arab aristocracy of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia is honored to establish marital ties with these Bedouin chiefs. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, for example, is married to a tribal chief’s daughter.
Sunni Muslims, these Syrian tribesmen are defined most of all by their Arab identity and allegiance. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources in the region have discovered them, even more than Saddam diehards, spearheading the guerrilla assaults on US forces in the Tikrit-Fallujah-Mosul Sunni enclave and blowing up northern Iraqi pipelines. Because of their support, the central Iraqi heartland remains effectively under the dominance of the Saddam Hussein clan and its supporters.
US military planning, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources, had counted on first capturing Baghdad, then moving in on the “iron triangle” to sever the land links between the Syrian Bedouin and Iraqi Sunni Arab tribes.
This has not happened. American troops hold the centers of main Iraqi towns – or more realistically their military headquarter compounds and quarters as well as Iraq’s few main highways – but not the interior, which is ruled by Syrian Bedouin tribal fighters and Saddam loyalists. Belatedly, US tacticians have come to realize that the alliance between the two groups is too tightly-knit to be successfully unraveled at only one, the Iraqi end; the Syrian end, the Sunni Bedouin tribes must also be attacked in order to unclench Saddam Hussein’s grip on a large slice of territory in central Iraq.

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