Home inFocus Can Syria Change? (Spring 2009) Syria’s Role in the Iraq Insurgency

Syria’s Role in the Iraq Insurgency

Raymond Tanter and Stephen Kersting Spring 2009

On October 26, 2008, U.S. Special Forces launched a cross-border helicopter raid into the eastern Syrian town of Sukkariya. During the ensuing assault, the American soldiers killed Badran Turki al-Mazidih, known by the nom de guerre Abu Ghadiyah, along with several of his top lieutenants. Most of those targeted in the raid were identified by the U.S. Treasury Department in early 2008 as al-Qaeda affiliates. Abu Ghadiyah was an Iraqi Sunni from Mosul who, since about 2005, had been moving, arming, and funding foreign jihadists traveling through Syria into Iraq in cooperation with al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi.

The raid was an indication that the U.S. had grown frustrated with the policies of the regime in Damascus. Syria-based jihadists continue to wreak havoc in Iraq. Yet, the regime turns a blind eye to their presence. In some cases, the regime even provides support.

Undermining Iraq

Insurgents have been transiting through Syria into Iraq since the launch of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. As U.S. forces raced toward Baghdad during March and April 2003, Syrian security personnel waved buses of foreign volunteers across the border into neighboring Iraq to fight the Americans. At the same time, Iraqi Baathists still loyal to Saddam Hussein fled in the opposite direction, finding safe haven in sparsely populated eastern Syria. There, they established the New Regional Command, a headquarters from which to raise funds, procure weapons, and train personnel for the insurgency in Iraq. The base was critical because it ensured they would be free from harassment by U.S. forces.

For two years, Syrian personnel facilitated the activities of foreign jihadists and Saddam loyalists with the implicit approval of Damascus. The regime had two major incentives.

First, in the same way the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia disposed of its most fervent jihadists by sending them to Afghanistan during the 1980s to fight and die against the Soviets, Iraq was a fortuitous outlet for Syria’s own Islamist opposition, based mainly in and around Aleppo, in the country’s northwest corner. The strategy was, at best, a short-term success. Syria will now be forced to contend with battle-hardened jihadists returning from Iraq. The Saudis experienced a similar “blowback” when it struggled to digest returning Saudis from the Afghanistan war against the Soviets.

Second, Syria had a strategic interest in tying down U.S. forces in Iraq and preventing the rise of a stable Iraqi government allied with the United States. Despite the significant animosity that existed between Damascus and Saddam’s Iraq, the regime in Damascus determined that chaos in Iraq was preferable to the rise of a stable U.S. ally to Syria’s east. Such a state would only strengthen the United States and its stalwart regional ally, Israel.

Window Dressing

In late 2004, Washington began to ratchet up pressure on Damascus to crack down on jihadists and Baathists exploiting Syrian territory. In response, Damascus feigned compliance, arresting hundreds of suspected insurgents. The arrests made headlines, but Syria quietly released the vast majority of the alleged insurgents in the days that followed.

In early 2005, Syria came under increased international pressure as evidence mounted linking Damascus to the February 14 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, as well as a February 25 suicide bombing by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Tel Aviv that killed five people. This added international pressure may have influenced Syria’s March decision to arrest and turn over to the new Iraqi government about 30 Iraqi Baathists, including Saddam’s half-brother, Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan al-Tikriti. The arrests again generated good public relations for Syria. However, Damascus still failed to put forth a good faith effort to shut insurgents and jihadists out of Syrian territory.

In May 2005, Syria’s ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, claimed that Syria had arrested about 1,200 foreign fighters destined for Iraq. When U.S. officials criticized Syria’s efforts as insufficient, Damascus cut off all military and intelligence cooperation with Washington and claimed offense at Washington’s lack of appreciation. As one U.S. military official noted, “our sense is that they protest a bit too much and that they are capable of doing more.”

U.S.-Syrian relations deteriorated further over the summer of 2005 when U.S. Army Rangers found themselves in a firefight with Syrian soldiers while conducting operations to stem the flow of foreign fighters from Syria. Although the U.S. military did not report any casualties, several Syrian soldiers were killed, prompting protests from the Syrian government to the U.S. embassy in Damascus.

Syria continued to be the main transit point for foreign jihadists and a base of operations for Iraqi Baathists. The regime occasionally arrested high profile Iraqi Baathists in Syria, such as Yasir Sabhawi Ibrahim, a nephew of Saddam and “the most dangerous man in the insurgency,” according to one intelligence official. However, documents recovered following the October 2007 killing of an al-Qaeda leader near the Iraq-Syria border revealed a multitude of jihadist activities in Syria. Included among the documents were the names of 500 al-Qaeda members that entered Iraq via Syria, pledges signed by fighters, and even expense reports, revealing the high level of organization made possible by the Syrian safe haven.

In 2006, as sectarian tensions between Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis flared, Western attention shifted to the Iran-backed Shiite militias that were dragging Iraq to the brink of civil war. Quietly, Syria’s role in facilitating the Iraq violence continued.

During the first half of 2007, Iraqi insurgents held conferences outside Damascus culminating in the formation of a coalition of seven groups, including the 1920s Revolution Brigades and Ansar al-Sunna, with the explicit goal of opposing and seeking to overthrow the Government of Iraq.

The Pentagon Weighs In

From 2005 to 2008, Syria was cited in successive quarterly Department of Defense reports, titled “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” as a factor for instability. The May 2006 report, for example, points directly to Syria as a significant source of foreign fighters in Iraq and highlights “Syrian government assistance [to insurgents] before and during Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The August and November 2006 reports identified Syria, along with Iran, as contributing to ethno-sectarian tensions that undermined the fledgling government in Iraq.

March 2007 provided the most comprehensive criticism of the Syrian role in Iraq’s insurgency:

…Damascus appears unwilling to cooperate fully with the GOI [Government of Iraq] on bilateral security initiatives. Syria continues to provide safe haven, border transit, and limited logistical support to some Iraqi insurgents, especially former Saddam-era Iraqi Baath Party elements. Syria also permits former regime elements to engage in organizational activities, such that Syria has emerged as an important organizational and coordination hub for elements of the former Iraqi regime. Although Syrian security and intelligence services continue to detain and deport Iraq-bound fighters, Syria remains the primary foreign fighter gateway into Iraq. Despite its heightened scrutiny of extremists and suspected insurgents, Damascus appears to want to appease Islamist extremist groups. Damascus also recognizes that Islamist extremists and elements of the former Iraqi regime share Syria’s desire to undermine Coalition efforts in Iraq.

Two reports later, in the September 2007 installment of “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” the Pentagon provides instructive metrics:

Approximately 90% of suicide bombers in Iraq are foreign fighters, and most continue to use Syria as their main transit route to Iraq. This network funnels about 50 to 80 suicide bombers per month into Iraq to conduct operations. Since January, there have been nearly 280 suicide attacks, accounting for nearly 5,500 deaths, mostly of innocent Iraqi civilians. [authors’ emphasis added]

Improvements in Iraqi security since 2007 are the result of developments on the Iraqi side of the Syrian border, including the U.S. troop surge, a new counterinsurgency strategy, and Sunni Iraqi disgust with al-Qaeda that led to the formation of “Awakening Councils” through which tribal leaders cooperate with Multi-National Forces.

Contrary to Syrian claims, the stability in Iraq has very little to do with the minimal cooperation Damascus has offered. Indeed, the regime has tolerated the continued presence of jihadists and insurgents. Coupled with Iran’s sheltering of radical Shiite groups, such as that of Muqtada al-Sadr, jihadists and insurgents in Syria constitute a sword of Damocles hanging over Iraq.

The Way Forward

Looking forward, U.S. President Barack Obama will need a multi-pronged strategy of focusing on Iraqi security, occasional covert operations across the border against high value targets in Syria, and outreach to Damascus. But, expectations should be tempered. Even at the height of U.S. leverage in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination, Syria was unwilling to undertake serious efforts to curtail the activities of jihadists and insurgents on its soil.

As David Schenker of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy observes, Damascus continues to resist “a strategic reorientation away from Iran toward the West.” Such Syrian intransigence indicates another roadblock to cooperation on Iraq, not to mention peace with Israel.

Ultimately, the Iraqi government may have more influence over Damascus, given Syria’s desire to expand economic relations between the two countries. When Iraqi President Jalal Talabani made his first official visit to Damascus in January 2007, topping Syria’s agenda was the signing of agreements related to economy and oil, which Damascus believed should precede agreements on security issues. In late 2007, the two countries agreed to begin repairing a defunct crude oil pipeline from Kirkuk in northern Iraq to the Syrian port of Banias. A March 2008 memorandum of understanding between Iraq and Syria established plans to build a new pipeline to transport natural gas from the Akkas field in northwest Iraq to Syria for domestic consumption.

Syria also seeks relief from the economic stress of its Iraqi refugees. According to December 2006 statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are between 600,000 and one million Iraqi refugees in Syria. This has created upward pressure on the prices of food, real estate, and consumer goods. Iraq has a unique opportunity to ensure that its security demands are met before moving forward with Syria on these issues that are critical to the Syrian economy.

Syria’s Achilles Heel

What may ultimately doom the jihadist and Baathist operatives in Syria is the domestic headache they give Damascus. Just as Saudi Arabia suffered the effects of jihadists returning from the Afghanistan front in the 1980s, a new generation of foreign fighters driven out of Iraq may yet challenge the Syrian regime.

However, the Islamist opposition has been down this road before. The late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad brutally crushed a challenge to the regime from the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 in the town of Hama, killing some 20,000 people. Thus, as journalist Thomas Friedman wrote in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, those who seek to challenge the Syrian regime should be prepared to play by “Hama Rules,” which would prompt Damascus to neutralize the Islamists whenever they pose a threat to the regime’s survival.

Syria’s role in the Iraqi insurgency consists of an alliance with jihadists and insurgents, but the longer these militants are forced to cool their heels in Syria, the more likely they are to become a thorn in the side of the Syrian regime. The more Damascus perceives foreign jihadists and Iraqi insurgents as threats, the easier it will be for Washington and Baghdad to coerce Damascus to shut down the Syrian border as a transit route for violence in Iraq.

Raymond Tanter, a former senior staff member of the U.S. National Security Council, is a visiting professor at Georgetown University and president of the Iran Policy Committee. Stephen Kersting is the lead researcher of the Iran Policy Committee.


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