Syria’s Pivotal Role in Iraqi Resistance Is Glossed over in Washington

The cat was out of the bag – almost – as a result of Operation Peninsula Strike, the massive US crackdown against a lethal brew of anti-American resistance forces which have been bedeviling US troops north of Baghdad. A substantial quotient of foreign combatants from Arab countries – Saudis, Yemenis, Egyptians, Jordanians, Syrians and Palestinians from Syria or Lebanon – was discovered to be mixed in with the Fedayeen Saddam, Baathists and former Republican Guards officers mounting lethal ambushes against US troops in and around Baghdad. At the same time, no one says where they are coming from.
No central command structure directing those ambushes has been detected inside Iraq. So the question is where do the resisters gather for action, train and jump off? Who pays them? And who is funneling them into Iraq in a steady stream since the early days of the war, that is four months ago?
The answer, according to debkafile‘s intelligence and military sources, is quite simply the head of the only Baath regime extant after Saddam Hussein’s downfall: Syrian president Bashar Assad, along with chiefs of his military intelligence which runs Syria’s terrorist connections and Firas Tlas, son of defense minister Mustafa Tlas. Last week debkafile named Firas Tlas for the first time as the organizer of the clandestine removal and concealment of Iraq’s unconventional weapons.
The makeup of the “foreign Islamic legion” Syria is pumping into Iraq to fight against the American presence strongly resembles the al Qaeda combat force deployed on northern Iraq’s Afghan border, in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Dubai and Chechnya, as well as Syria and Lebanon.
Syrian military intelligence is raising this combat force in three places:
1. South Lebanon where several Qaeda operatives have foregathered as guests of Hizballah and Palestinian terrorist groups.
2. The hundreds of medressas springing up in the poor districts of Damascus. Some Middle East intelligence sources estimate that at the speed they are sprouting, by the end of the year Damascus will become the Middle East Peshawar, the Pakistani city whose Islamic academies were Osama bin Laden’s main manpower reservoir in 2000.
3. The Muslim tourists crowding into Damascus to take advantage of the only Arab city with no entry controls for Islamic traffic, whether it hails from the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan or the Far East. Today, Damascus international airport bustles, a travel hub for Muslim travelers worldwide and the perfect crossroads for the use of al Qaeda, Taliban and radical Islamic groups from Morocco to the Philippines who prefer their movements to be unobserved. According to debkafile‘s counter-terror sources, the Syrian government recently turned down a discreet request from Washington to control some of this traffic; the pretext was that the Damascus authorities have no way of telling from a traveler’s papers whether he is a bona fide tourist or a terrorist.
However, Syrian military intelligence has no difficulty in making this distinction for the recruitment of volunteers for its anti-American legion in Iraq. Additional troops are mustered from among Syria’s Sunni Muslims who are glad of temporary employment especially when it comes with insurance for their families if they come to harm.
In mid-April, when DEBKA-Net-Weekly exposed the despatch of Syrian fighters to Iraq, US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned Damascus against sending foreign fighters into Iraq. The Bush administration was then on the verge of attacking Syria but pulled back at the last moment and the subject dropped out of the headlines. It cropped up again this week when the influx of anti-American combatants from Syria into Iraq turned out never to have been interrupted, any more than the smuggling of weapons, cash and maps marked with US targets – despite the Asad government’s promises to US secretary of state Colin Powell.
The units going across, no more than five or six men at a time, are often equipped with large quantities of arms, mines, explosives and rocket propelled grenades for distribution among Iraqi groups fighting in the northern, western and central regions of Iraq.
They cross through two main routes. One is the borderland west of Mosul, an area populated by nomadic Sunni tribesmen who have been roaming for hundreds of years between Iraq and Syria, some wandering into Jordan and Saudi Arabia as well. The other route goes through the al Qaim region of western Iraq which is still not fully under US military control.
The Syrians have thrust their foot through the Iraqi door partly with an eye on a spot in the oil-rich Mosul region and the prevention of an American presence being established along the Iraqi-Syrian frontier; partly to curtail the spread of Kurdish influence in this strategic region. However, a less known motive, discovered by debkafile‘s military sources, is that Bashar Assad, stripped by the Iraq war of his main source of foreign revenue, is exploiting the same smuggling routes serving him and Saddam Hussein for their contraband trade of weapons and oil, to replace his lost source of revenue with a new one.
There is evidence of money continuing to flow from Iraq to Syria. The new money-spinning venture for the Assad regime is run by the same Firas Tlas. In May, American forces intercepted two trucks laden with gold bullion worth hundreds of millions of dollars heading for the Syrian border – one west of Mosul and the second at al Qaim. debkafile‘s sources report that the treasure came from hideouts in which Saddam Hussein and his sons and agents salted away their cash and other valuables before the war broke out. There is every reason to believe that most of the gold trucks went through to their destination and the amount captured by US forces was a pittance in comparison.
The same sort of surreptitious traffic is being conducted by Syrian intelligence from Syria and Lebanon to the Palestinian areas of the West Bank. A steady trickle of fighters, funds, weapons and explosives was revealed in the past by debkafile as streaming from the meeting point of the Syrian, Jordanian and Israeli borders through the Golan Heights and the deep dry gullies cutting through the West bank from Wadi Haramiya up to the environs of Ramallah, Yasser Arafat’s stronghold. There, the incoming men are taken in and sheltered by his Fatah and al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades militias and other groups under his command.
debkafile‘s intelligence reveal that, shortly before the Aqaba summit of June 4, the Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas secretly sent a high-ranking aide to Damascus to ask Syrian officials to put a stop to this flow of fighters and weapons to Palestinian areas controlled by Arafat. He was rebuffed.
American and Israeli intelligence, like members of the Abu Mazen administration, are certain that Syria is the primary source of weapons and explosives nourishing the hard-line Palestinian terrorist organizations. This source is complemented by contraband deposited on the Gazan coast by sea and brought in through illicit tunnels from Egyptian Sinai.
All these smuggling routes are under Arafat’s exclusive thumb. This fact tends to render the efforts resumed by Israeli and Palestinian security officials Saturday night, June 4, to put a stop to Palestinian terrorist strikes, more or less pointless. It is in Arafat’s power to torpedo any agreements reached, particularly since he also retains control over the bulk of the Palestinian Authority’s security forces. The same fate awaits the mission the US monitoring force headed by State Department official John Wolf begins on Sunday, June 15. When they put their heads together on ways and means of halting terrorism, the Americans, Israelis and Palestinians will be aware that Arafat is calling the shots and that he is fully equipped for this role with the supplies delivered from Damascus.
While Syria’s involvement in Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can no longer be denied, it is hard to understand why the Bush administration refrains from fingering a regime that continues to covertly send combatants to join the Iraqi resistance threatening US servicemen and actively sabotages Washington’s plans for a new Middle East.
“Foreign fighters” has been uncovered by Peninsula Strike in the Sunni enclave along the Tigris River delimited by Fallujah, Tikrit and Balud north of Baghdad. Seventy-four people captured near the northern town of Kirkuk are suspected active al Qaeda members. Many of the 82 people killed in a combined US air and land assault on a “terrorist training camp” near Balud were non-Iraqi.
Army Lt.Gen. David McKiernan, US ground commander in Iraq, reported cagily that while no sign of a central command has turned up in Iraq, “There’s certainly the probability that there are financial trails that lead to other parts in Iraq, and there might be communications that go to other parts.”
On March 21, DEBKA-Net-Weekly revealed the existence of a massive guerrilla army created by Saddam’s eldest son Uday in almost a year of preparation for the American invasion, made up mainly of Baath militias and Fedayeen Saddam. The speed of the US advance took Uday’s army by surprise. Only now, are these units that kept their heads down in the first part of the war coming out to strike the US presence, acting on directives from outside the country – Syria the obvious location.
Yet Washington still hopes against hope that relentless economic and diplomatic pressure on Damascus will have the effect to disarming the Syrian-Hizballah front in the event of a US-Iran showdown. The Bush administration is also banking on the same deterrents to hold the Syrians back from meddling in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Thus far, those deterrents have had as much effect as water off a duck’s back; Assad continues to stir both pots. The most likely explanation for US patience with the Syrian ruler is the perennial tug of war in the Bush team between the pro-diplomacy secretary of state on the one hand and vice president Richard Cheney and Rumsfeld, who are pressing for a tough line against both Syria and Iran, on the other.

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