Every time Syria has been caught out aiding, backing or harboring Iraqi Baath guerrilla commanders by allowing them to smuggle weapons, cash and fighting men into Iraq, the Bush administration has considered military action. Top-level discussions have turned on whether to launch a broad military campaign or strike select military targets inside Syria that would inflict enough pain on Bashar Assad and his regime to prompt them to rein in the anti-US forces operating from their soil. The two leading opponents of military action were outgoing secretary of state Colin Powell and ex-CIA director George Tenet. They argued that a military offensive against a second Arab nation so soon after the Iraq invasion would finally topple all of Washington’s political and intelligence positions in the Arab world.
Washington therefore preferred to serve Assad with one ultimatum after another. He just as consistently flouted each one.
On September 24, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 174 carried the first disclosure of a US-Syrian military cooperation agreement for curbing the two way traffic of smuggled guerrillas, terrorists, arms and money through the Syrian-Iraqi border.
This was Washington’s first experiment in working with Assad instead of against him.
The accord was concluded in Damascus between a visiting American delegation made up of Peter Rodman, US assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and Brigadier General Mark Kimmit, former US military spokesman in Iraq, and the Syrian chief of staff General Ali Habib. US Major General Peter Chiarelli, commander of the Baghdad-based 1st Cavalry Division had previously prepared a nine-point plan that was ready to go.
The main difficulty pinpointed at the time was the Arab smuggler-tribes who for time immemorial have ruled the border regions and were liable to fiercely resist any attempt to bring them under control.
And indeed, on October 1, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 175 revealed Damascus’s first breach of its brand-new accord with Washington.
Back to square one on the Syrian-Iraqi border
Less than a week after it was signed, Syrian vice president Halim Khadam was discovered at the Syrian-Iraqi border town of Abu Kamal in a secret huddle with the chiefs of those very tribes.
Two months later, the Assad regime’s conduct on this issue can be summed up by six points:
1. Damascus has opted out of its military accord with the Americans on the tired old pretext that the 400-mile frontier is too long and too full of holes to be sealed and, anyway, Syria lacks the manpower to control the smuggler-tribes.
2. The volume of fighting forces and war materiel crossing from Syria to Iraq has increased rather than diminished.
3. Armed bands of tribesmen, among whom Iraqi insurgents, al Qaeda and Hizballah terrorists mingle, have expanded their control of broad regions on the Iraqi side of the border and aggressively attack any American force or vehicle venturing on their turf.
4. Just before the Fallujah campaign last month, interim Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi announced the closure of the Iranian and Syrian borders with Iraq. This was a paper exercise. The border with Syria remained open and outside Iraqi or American control.
5. The Anaza tribe and branches of the Shamar dominate the border region. They receive a handsome weekly fee from Iraqi Baath headquarters in Damascus to exercise control of the border. The Damascus center is the hub of the 4,000 ex-party leaders and army chiefs living in Syria. It awards the tribes a bonus for every attack they mount against American or Iraqi forces in the border vicinity, as well as a rake-off for every illegal transfer of weapons or explosives.
6. Also on the take of these deals are Syrian regime high-ups, top military brass and officers stationed on the border.
In these circumstances, there is not the slightest chance of sealing the Syrian-Iraqi border to illicit traffic or of “starving” the Iraqi insurgency by winding down its supply of fighting personnel.
The tale of Syria’s hostile actions dates back to before the conquest of Baghdad. But US forces have not been altogether idle.
On March 19, 2003, US fighter craft fired missiles at a bus carrying Hizballah fighters to Baghdad when it was still in Syria. They had come from Lebanon and been trained in Damascus as a group to fight against the Americans in Iraq. At least 10 were killed in the burning bus.
On June 18, 2003, there was a fierce battle on the Syrian side of the border opposite al Qaim between American troops who had crossed over to stop large concentrations of armed guerrillas from entering Iraq. Syrian soldiers joined the fray. American forces took some of their wounded prisoner.
On September 14, 2003, straight after US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Iraq, the 101st Airborne Division launched a series of operations against the Arab tribes roaming the border districts between Syria and Iraq. A special raider force took prisoner the chief of the Anaza tribe, Sheikh Ibrahim Hanjari with his aides.
These Bedouin tribal chiefs enjoy a special status in the Arab world and no one dares infringe their immunity. The Saudi royal family boasts of its tribal origins.
But the unconventional action paid off.
In the Anaza encampments, the American raiders discovered huge quantities of weapons, ammunition, mines, recoilless grenade launchers and explosives – all carefully packed for delivery to their destinations in Iraq. They also found dozens of locked metal suitcases containing millions of dollars in cash. In one, they counted $1.6 million dollars in 100 dollars bills. In one group of tents, 80 Saudi and 48 Syrian, Yemeni, Egyptian, Pakistani, Indian, Sudanese and Palestinian combatants were hiding.
Limited US military action has gone full course
In 22 months, American units have operated quietly in similar fashion to hold down to some extent the flow of guerrilla reinforcements into Iraq. Their efforts have petered out because of a single contrary factor: the Syrian president’s refusal to rein in the Syrians and Iraqis who from Damascus and the border towns of al-Qamishli and Az-Sawr keep the smuggler-tribes fully employed with illicit human and military transfers.
But now, the chief opponents of direct military action, Powell and Tenet, are either going or gone. Bush is moreover safely embarked on his second White House term and has less to fear from ebbing Arab support. The military option has again risen to the surface.
Another pressing reason for considering offensive action against Syria is the very real danger of the gains from the Fallujah campaign draining away. Two weeks ago, shortly after the fighting died down, the Americans noticed that many of the Sunni guerrillas who fled the embattled town towards the Syrian border found sanctuary with the Anaza tribes, were awarded new identities, money and arms and returned to Fallujah among the returning refugees. These infiltrators now threaten to reverse the US purge of Fallujah as the central base of insurgents and terrorists.
The Bush administration and the US military in Iraq are in no mood to let this happen. On the other hand, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources see four key factors that complicate any clear decision:
A. Air or ground strikes against limited targets in Syria will not destroy the various smuggling networks operating on the Iraqi border. Whether or not the Assad regime comes to harm is of little concern to them. The Baathist exiles based in Syria will not be impressed either. They may even count the expansion of the Iraq war into Syria a success. Above all, such attacks are unlikely to persuade Assad to take action against the tribes with whom he and his clan have maintained ties for generations.
B. Late December and early January are inappropriate for a military operation against Syria. The Palestinians go to the polls on January 9; the Iraqis on January 30. Both might be adversely affected.
C. Such action would deeply antagonize Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, whose diplomatic and financial backing the Bush administration is seeking at the moment to further its plans for an accommodation between Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians.
D. Some of the Syrian targets on US war planners’ drawing board have an Iranian component – whether in the form of a financial investment or the presence of Iranian military or civilian liaison personnel. Tehran, which fears an US-Israel strike against its nuclear plants, will be watching closely to gauge how far the Americans are willing to go in their military punishment of Syria. This will teach the Iranians, first, the limits of American patience with them, and, second, how to prepare for a possible American strike against nuclear targets in Iran.