A moribund Middle East territorial dispute suddenly sprang to life this week in consequence of Washington's renewed campaign to force Syrian president Bashar Assad to live up to his end of a deal to stop the flow of fighters, weapons and funds across his country's border into Iraq.
(See DNW 174, September 24, “Is Assad Serious About Controlling Illicit Traffic?”).
Only last month, a secret agreement was reached during a visit to Damascus by assistant secretary of state William Burns, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs Peter Rodman and brigadier general Mark Kimmit, on bilateral military cooperation to seal the border to illicit traffic into Iraq.
However, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources, cooperation is the last thing that has happened. The al-Qaim and Tigris River routes in western Iraq remain wide open. Not only has the stream of Iraqi insurgents, Arab fighters and al Qaeda terrorists into Iraq not dried up; it has increased.
A frustrated United States turned to its ally, Jordan, for help to lean on Damascus from a different direction. Washington dredged up long-standing demands by Jordan for Syria to quit territory it seized during the Palestinian 1970 Black September revolt and never returned.
Thirty-four years ago, Syrian president Hafez Assad sent his 5th armored division into northern Jordan to intervene on behalf of PLO leader Yasser Arafat's forces, who had staged a revolt against the throne. The Syrian division was to help Arafat topple King Hussein, Abdullah’s father.
The Jordanian monarch sent in the Arab Legion’s 40th armored division to confront the Syrian invaders while secretly asking Israel for help to repulse them.
The late Yigal Alon, then Israeli foreign minister, promised King Hussein an Israeli air umbrella and air strikes too against any Syrian tanks breaching Jordanian lines. Ultimately, the Jordanians got the upper hand and managed to destroy a good number of Syrian tanks. But the Syrians retreated only several kilometers, leaving Damascus in control of some 125 square kilometers (48 square miles) of Jordanian territory.
Prior to his death in 1999, King Hussein made several demands of Syria to return his land, but to no avail. Some 20,000 Syrian settlers now occupy the site under the protection of Syrian soldiers and police.
Washington seized on the old land dispute between the fathers of the incumbent rulers when US intelligence caught wind that Damascus was two-timing. On September 27, after the military cooperation accord was supposed to have gone into effect, Syrian vice president Abdel-Halim Khaddam paid a secret visit to the Syrian frontier town of Abu Kamal, across from Iraq's al-Qaim.
(See DNW 175, October 1, “Khaddam: “The Knave in the Syrian Pack”)
Mortar fire from Syria against US-Iraqi troops
He was found to be putting his head together with the chiefs of the big Arab smuggling tribes on ways of getting around the US-Syrian accord so as to keep up the free flow of gunmen and deadly contraband. Even more brazenly, Syria has since allowed the deployment of 82mm mortars by Iraqi Baath insurgents and anti-US tribesmen for shooting up the US and Iraqi forces patrolling the al-Qaim frontier. On October 15, positions of the 1st Battalion 7th Marine Regiment came under mortar attack near the Iraqi city of Husaybah. The barrage, which lasted several hours, came from Syrian territory.
“Who exactly is firing these mortars, we do not know,” said Lt. Col. Chris Woodridge, the battalion's commander. “But we do know that their point of origin is on the Syrian side of the border.”
Washington was furious.
New warnings were issued of the economic sanctions facing Syria, including a freeze on the US bank accounts of senior Syrian officials and leaders. At the UN Security Council, a joint US-French policy statement called on Syria to remove its 14,000 troops from Lebanon at once. Secretary general Kofi Annan was assigned with delivering a progress report every six months.
Finally, despairing of diplomacy, Washington hit the history books and dusted off Jordan’s territorial claim against Syria.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Amman report that, attached to Jordan’s revived formal application to Syria to restore stolen territory is a 1923 map clearly showing that the disputed land belongs to Jordan.
Now that the United States is involved, the dispute may grab some headlines.
Its revival could bear heavily on Syria's demands for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which were captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
In their first informal comment on Jordan's demands, senior Syrian figures told Arab diplomats that the Hashemite Kingdom cannot suddenly wake up and revive an issue dormant for three decades. Jordan must also consider what is to befall the 20,000 Syrians who now call the disputed border area home.
Jordan had its riposte ready: Israel uses the identical argument in refusing to cede the Golan Heights and evacuate the 17,000 Israelis living there.
Golan “linkage” is the last thing Syria needs as tensions with Jordan heat up.