The Syrian End of the Ratline
Syria's involvement in facilitating the Iraqi insurgency has been apparent for some time. Recent intelligence indicates al Qaeda in Iraq has conducted a meeting within Syrian territory. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has accused Syria of "allowing its territory to be used to organize terrorist attacks against innocent Iraqis." Syria responded by severing military and intelligence ties with the United States and claiming that they have arrested or deported over 1,200 jihadis who were attempting to enter Iraq. The United States is just ungrateful for the efforts, according to the Syrian government. The situation along the Syrian-Iraqi border has gotten so bad there are rumors that a buffer zone will be created to seal the border.
A guide for aspiring jihadis willing to fight in Iraq surfaces on the Internet. The guide states that Syria is the main transit point, and the Syrian security services alternate between cracking down on the infiltrators and looking the other way.
"These Salafite jihadists send small groups to Iraq through Syrian territory, but be aware of the Syrian regime which has begun to make entering and leaving the country more difficult. Enter Syria through Turkey, but you will need the help of people who know the procedure," it advises.
The text also warns of potential dangers and what to do if encountered: "it is possible that you may be arrested by the Syrian forces. This is most likely to happen if you are not organised, as the Syrian regime tends to turn a blind eye to mujahadeen who use secondary roads or who make their way to Iraq passing only through border towns."
Syria is the main conduit for men, money & material to the Iraqi insurgency and al Qaeda. The Washington Post has a detailed article on the Syrian involvement in funneling terrorists to Iraq, based on the interview of Abu Ibrahim, a Syrian radical and smuggler of human cargo. Abu Ibrahim fought in Iraq himself, and details the devastating toll the foreign jihadis encountered; "In the summer of 2004, Abu Ibrahim got to go to Iraq. He crossed the dunes with 50 other volunteers, dodging U.S. patrols on the Iraqi side But when he returned to Syria after the massive U.S. offensive in Fallujah, only three people were alive from the original 50, he said. One was a suicide bomber." These are extraordinarily high casualty numbers, indicating the jihadis have little training, there is disregard for their well-being by their command, they are encountering overwhelming Coalition forces or a combination of the above. Abu Ibrahim also reports that Zarqawi is a critical leader in the insurgency.
"The man who is leading it for the most part is Zarqawi " Abu Ibrahim credited Zarqawi with revitalizing the insurgency, especially since October, when he pledged fealty to Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader. Abu Ibrahim said that union helped cement an alliance among several resistance groups in Iraq that formed a joint treasury.
"Six months ago, Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden were different," he said. "Osama did not consider the killing of Shiites as legitimate. Zarqawi did that. Anyone -- Christian, Jew, Sunni, Shiites -- whoever cooperates with the Americans can be killed. It's a holy war."
This article confirms the words of caution in the infiltration guide - the Syrians oscillate between assisting the insurgency to preventing the exodus into Iraq. The jihadi traffickers are suspicious of their Syrian hosts.
Abu Ibrahim said he now views the [Syrian sponsored cleric Abu Qaqaa] with suspicion, suggesting that he is helping Syrian authorities track jihadi "rat lines," as U.S. commanders refer to the smuggling chains. The same suspicion was voiced last autumn by a Yemeni fighter interviewed in Fallujah.
"The Syrians are in an awkward position," Abu Ibrahim said. "On one side they want to do whatever the Americans want them to. And on the other side they want to fight the Americans."
The Syrians have the ability to track and arrest the leaders and foot soldiers of the insurgency. Assad runs a police state and has no compunctions about using the security services in the interest of the state. He has demonstrated in the past that he has the capacity to arrest high value targets such as Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan al-Tikriti, number 36 on the deck of cards and 29 other members of his group.
But the time for half measures is coming to an end. The Iraqi government is coming to an understanding that it is necessary to secure Baghdad, push westward to secure the Anbar province and close the Syrian border to defeat the insurgency. The American government is losing patience with Syrian double-dealing. The war is pushing closer to the Syrian border, and the "awkward position" of the Assad regime may evolve into an uncomfortable one if the United states decides to engage in hot pursuit across the Syrian border, strike camps and other targets in Syrian territory or occupy Syrian land to stem the flow of the fighters in Iraq.