The US commando attack on June 18 against a convoy suspected of ferrying high ex-officials of the deposed Saddam Hussein regime from Iraq is important because of 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, three of them wounded, occurred at a border post east of the Syrian town of al-Dulaym, only about 17 miles (27 km) from the Syrian city of Abu Kamal, 365 miles south of Damascus.
The US troops taking part in the operation were no ordinary American soldiers or even regular commandos – and they did not stray across the border in error. They belong to Task Force 20 designed expressly for two well-defined missions: 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.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources describe this top-secret contingent as composed of special operations forces drawn from key branches of US intelligence – the CIA, DIA and NSA. It is equipped with and supported by every high-tech toy in the US arsenal – satellites, surveillance planes, ultra-sensitive sensors, Predator drones and Hercules aircraft-gunships.
They hope to trap 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 locate Iraq’s unconventional weapons where the task force’s commanders believe them to be stashed in western Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Meanwhile, the commandos are there to cut down on the influx from Syria into Iraq of Arab fighters, mostly Syrian, who are boosting anti-American resistance in the country.
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; their movements are normally governed by season and the availability of water and grazing. One of the largest population groups in the world still adhering to the migratory life style, their 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
These Bedouin speak Iraqi or Syrian Arabic. Traditional breeders of sheep, camels and horses, their menfolk are proud of their fighting prowess and their superior knowledge of every fold and hollow of their harsh terrain. Afforded VIP treatment in Damacus, 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. They are moved less by loyalty to the former Iraqi dictator for whom they had little love and more by championship of their Sunni Arab brethren in central Iraq for whom Saddam and his family still constitute symbols of Iraqi Arab nationhood, rallying points to fight the American invader. Their Syrian allies feel duty bound to fight alongside their Iraqi brothers, help the deposed ruler and his kinsmen find safe haven and secure their passage through tribal lands ranging from Tikrit in the east to Damascus in the west. Because of their support, the central Iraqi heartland remains effectively under the dominance of the Saddam Hussein clan and faction.
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.