This Time, Syria Helped US Anti-Insurgency Offensive
Syria seems to have executed an epic about-face. The same Assad government which for two years was deaf to demands to stem the free flow of Baathist guerillas, foreign fighters, terrorists, weapons and cash into Iraq to fight US forces, is now working the other side. The Syrian army pitched in with support for “Operation Matador”, the ongoing U.S. assault against insurgents along the Iraqi-Syrian border, tipping the scales in favor of the Americans. As a result, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources in an exclusive report from Iraq, US forces were able to hit the terrorists where it really hurt.
Thanks to Syria’s cooperation, American troops were for the first time able to come up from behind on Iraqi and Arab insurgents and al Qaeda gunmen, including followers of Abu Mussab al–Zarqawi.
From launching pads on Syrian soil, units of the 2nd Marine Division, 2nd Marine Expeditionary drove into Iraq and executed a west-to-east sweep of terrorist bases (as you will see on the special map accompanying this article).
The US operation was two-pronged: one drew a 15 square-mile square around a patch of al Jazira Desert in the al Qaim region. It was delimited by the Syrian frontier town of al-Hary and the Euphrates River, the area around the Iraqi town of Ar Rabit, on the northern bank of the river, and the Iraqi cities of Khutaylah, Sadah and Karabilah on the southern bank.
Simultaneously, the Americans drove southeast for a systematic purge of insurgent lairs along the centuries-old smuggling route from the Syrian border. They cut through a corridor more than 200-mile (320-km) long, winding from the Syrian border town of Abu Kemal, crossing through the Syrian Desert and ending near the Shiite shrine town of Karbala in central Iraq. Numerous Arab and al Qaeda sanctuaries and launching-pads were mopped up along the route.
Insurgents in double mouse-trap
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, Syria deployed an armored brigade between Abu Kamal and the Syrian banks of the Euphrates to cover the US Marine operation around and inside Al Hary. The brigade was under orders to shield the Marines from insurgent attack on the Syrian side of the border and to cut the guerillas’ links via the Euphrates to their comrades on the Iraqi side of the border.
The dense reeds, bushes and vegetation provide perfect cover on the river banks for armed ambushes and hideouts. Syrian forces undertook to cut off the guerrillas’ escape route back into Syria while the Marines hammered these riverside lairs.
As the operation got underway, the Syrians closed all but two of their border crossings into Iraq – Tenap, 575 miles (920 km) north of the battle zone, and Arubiya, 950 miles (1,520 km) further north.
The Syrian military umbrella left the Marine Force and the Army’s 814th Multi-Role Bridge Company free to construct a pontoon bridge across the Euphrates and cross safely into Iraq. US forces and Syrian troops then formed a defensive perimeter around the area.
Upon reaching the northern bank, the Marines began their offensive in Iraq, coming at the guerrillas from the rear and forcing them to flee toward western Syria – where they were stopped. Finding themselves running into the arms of Syrian troops, they turned south and took the smugglers’ corridor bound for Karbala. Here they were trapped by the second prong of the US clean-up operation. Those able to flee headed east. Most reached Iraqi towns and villages along both banks of the Euphrates at points north of Ramadi and Fallujah in the Sunni Triangle.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report three big battles in the week of the first phase of the offensive. The biggest and fiercest was fought on the lands of the large Syrian-Iraqi Sunni tribe, al-Qaimiya. Straddling the border, these tribesmen were well placed to provide al Qaeda and Baathists with a logistical base for pumping their men from Syria into Iraq. The tribe is dispersed across the Al Jazira Desert, some settled in large farming villages, others nomadic.
The second major battle occurred on the territory of another Sunni border tribe, the Baroz, which too has holdings along the Euphrates.
Cleanup a sore blow, but how long will it last?
Even after the fierce battles, in which the Marines killed 150 insurgents while suffering 11 dead, US commanders do not believe they managed to completely clean out all parts of the al Qaim border region or the entire length of the Abu Kemal-Karbala smuggling corridor. But the insurgents and their allies, Arab fighters and al Qaeda followers of Zarqawi, were dealt a harsh blow.
Most of their bases and exit points from Syria to Iraq and in al Qaim in the north and in Karabilah, Saadah, Khutaylah, Ar Rabit, Rumana and Obeidi in central Iraq were destroyed, eliminating their staging areas for attacks on Ramadi, Falluja, Baghdad and Mosul. But they will return in a flash as soon as the US eases the pressure (see special map).
This holds good also for Syria’s landmark military cooperation with the United States: Bashar Assad’s change of policy was no change of heart. He succumbed to a final ultimatum from Washington to stem the flow of guerrillas into Iraq – or else. But his operational relations with the Baathists and al Qaeda are as good as ever. (Assad’s double game is outlined in next article in this issue.)
As for Zarqawi, as the Marine assault force launched its offensive, intelligence reports indicated the terrorist commander was in the al Qaim area, without precise information on his whereabouts. Several US troops saw pictures taken by overhead surveillance drones that picked up an injured man who looked like Zarqawi, assisted by more escorts than usual. The man then disappeared from their screens and it is possible that the Iraqi hospital doctor in Ramadi was correct when he claimed to have treated him briefly there before he vanished again.