Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 5   No. 4 Table of Contents
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April 2003 

Syria's Proxy Forces in Iraq
by Ziad K. Abdelnour

Although the rapid demise of Saddam Hussein's regime and the deployment of American forces along the Syria-Iraq border may have led to a suspension of Syrian assistance to the Iraqi war effort, the effects of Syria's most decisive contribution to the Iraqi war effort will likely be felt for months to come. Efforts by Syrian President Bashar Assad to mobilize thousands of non-Iraqi "volunteers" to fight the United States and facilitate their entry into the Iraqi theater through Syrian territory have a striking historical precedent - his father's successful war by proxy against US and European peacekeepers in Lebanon during the early 1980s. The goal of that campaign - to prevent the restoration of Lebanese democracy - bears an eerie resemblance to Syria's objective today.

In early March, Iraqi intelligence opened a training camp for Arab "martyrs" near the town of al-Khalis, 40 miles north of Baghdad. Over the next few weeks, Syrian-backed political and terrorist organizations undertook a massive mobilization campaign in Syria and Syrian-occupied Lebanon.

Mounir Maqdah

In late March, the Nazareth-based Palestinian weekly Assennara quoted a Syrian-backed Palestinian leader in Ain al-Hilweh as saying that "hundreds" of volunteer Palestinian fighters in the camp had been sent to Iraq to carry out suicide bombings against US and British coalition forces. "Resisting the American aggression on Iraq supports the Palestinian people and the intifadah," said Col. Mounir Maqdah, a dissident commander of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement in Lebanon. "What is happening in Iraq is the battle of the Palestinian people first and the Arab and Muslim nation second."[1]

After his remarks were quoted by the English-language Jerusalem Post, Maqdah denied that he himself had dispatched the suicide bombers, saying that they had traveled independently to Baghdad from camps in Lebanon. However, he acknowledged that he had encouraged Palestinians in the camps to fight in Iraq. "We wish we are all in Iraq fighting the Americans" he said. "Why fight Israel, when you can go and fight their boss [the Americans] in Iraq."[2]

It is doubtful that any substantial mobilization of Palestinian fighters to fight in Iraq could have taken place without Maqdah's direct involvement, and it is virtually inconceivable that the dissident Palestinian leader would undertake such a mission without approval from Damascus. Although he is officially a member of Fatah, Maqdah owes his influence in Ain al-Hilweh almost entirely to Syrian patronage. Because of his strong ties to Syrian intelligence, most of the competing factions in the camp respect his de facto authority and he often mediates dispute between rival Palestinian groups in much the same way that Syrian officials referee Lebanese politics. In September 2000, Maqdah was convicted in absentia by Jordan's State Security Court of providing military training to an Al-Qaeda cell that planned to carry out terrorist attacks against Western targets in the kingdom. Despite persistent Jordanian demands for Maqdah's extradition, Assad refused to allow Lebanese security forces to enter Ain al-Hilweh and arrest him. During the past two years, Maqdah has reportedly funded and directed suicide attacks in Israel by members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

On March 30, the Palestinian Islamist group Islamic Jihad announced that a force of "martyrs" from its military wing had arrived in the Iraqi capital "to fulfill the holy duty of defending Arab and Muslim land." Although Islamic Jihad officials declined to specify the origin of these "martyrs" or how they entered the Iraqi theater, there are only two possibilities: they either came from the West Bank and entered Iraq through Jordan, or they came from training camps in Lebanon and Syria and entered Iraq through Syria. Islamic Jihad's Lebanon representative, Abu Imad al-Rifai, later said that the suicide squad had not come from Palestinian territories.[3] The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which is less influenced by Damascus, has not launched any similar initiatives.

Syria's closest Lebanese allies have also participated enthusiastically in the mobilization of "martyrs" for Iraq. The Lebanese branch of Syria's ruling Baath Party, headed by MP Assem Qanso, launched a major recruitment drive in the eastern Lebanese city of Baalbak.[4] According to sources cited in the Lebanese press, around 200 young men from the village of Arsal, 35 from the village of Nahleh, and a few others from in and around Baalbak have traveled to Baghdad.[5]

According to US officials, members of the radical Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah have also entered Iraq from Syria, although the movement denies having sent its fighters into the country.[6] According to a report in the London-based daily Al-Hayat, six members of Hezbollah were recently captured by coalition forces.[7]

In addition, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, "Syria has functioned as a hub for an al-Qaeda network that moved Islamic extremists and funds from Italy to northeastern Iraq," where they fought alongside the Ansar al-Islam terrorist group - eradicated by US and Kurdish forces in late May. According to Italian court documents, wiretapped conversations and interrogations of seven al-Qaeda suspects arrested in Italy in early April showed "a detailed picture of overseers in Syria coordinating the movement of recruits and money." Although no solid link to the Syrian government has yet come to light, Italian investigators say it is doubtful that Syria's formidable intelligence services were unaware of the network.[8]

On March 31, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri boasted that "more than 5,000" volunteers had traveled to Iraq from across the Arab world to fight coalition forces.[9]. Although Syrian Information Minister Adnan Omran publicly claimed that non-Iraqis have not been allowed to cross the border to join the fight against US-led forces, there is overwhelming evidence that most Arab volunteers in Iraq passed through Syria. A correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald in the Syrian capital reported that "busloads of people are leaving each night from outside the Iraqi embassy in Damascus bound for Baghdad," with volunteers converging on the Syrian capital "from all over the Arab world."[10] By the end of March, the volume of Arab volunteers entering Iraq through Syria was so high that the Egyptian and Jordanian authorities were restricting travel to Syria by fighting-age men.

Other indications of Syrian complicity include a March 30 broadcast by Qatar's Al-Jazeera satellite television station showing what it said was a group of Syrians who had arrived in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul to fight coalition forces.[11] According to one report, at least 1,000 Palestinians from the Yarmouk refugee camp outside of Damascus volunteered to fight in Iraq.[12] The Times of London reported that four busloads of suspected suicide bombers arrested by British Special Air Service (SAS) commandos in Western Iraq "all carried Syrian passports."[13] On the first day of the war, March 20, a Palestinian member of the Arab Liberation Front (ALF) who had traveled to Iraq from Lebanon was killed in a coalition air strike. On April 1, Agence France Presse reported the death of a Palestinian volunteer whose bus was attacked by a US Apache helicopter on the road from the Syrian border to Baghdad. Dozens of Syrians have been killed by coalition forces in Iraq and many more captured.

As Iraqi resistance crumbled in mid-April, many Syrian-backed militants attempted to leave the country. Most recently, US forces captured "59 military-aged men" in a bus at a checkpoint near the Syrian border, according to Centcom spokesman Brig.-Gen. Vincent Brooks. Among their possessions were letters offering rewards for the killing of American soldiers and bundles of one hundred dollars bills, totaling around $630,000. Nevertheless, US military officials say that foreign "volunteers" still constituted a significant threat to coalition forces and that the "bulk" of them are Syrian.[14] On April 12, a man with Syrian identity papers shot and killed a US marine guarding a hospital in Baghdad.

Until all Arab "volunteers" and their local contacts are accounted for, a substantial danger remains. On April 12, US forces discovered around 300 suicide vests, filled with C-4 explosives and sophisticated detonators, inside an Iraqi school - and it is believed that 80 more vests had recently been moved from the site and are likely in the hands of foreign fighters.


  [1] The Jerusalem Post, 30 March 2003.
  [2] The Daily Star (Beirut), 31 March 2003.
  [3] The Daily Star, 31 March 2003.
  [4] The Daily Star, 2 April 2003.
  [5] The Daily Star (Beirut), 31 March 2003.
  [6] The New York Times, 15 April 2003.
  [7] Al-Hayat (London), 12 April 2003.
  [8] The Los Angeles Times, 16 April 2003.
  [9] Agence France Presse, 31 March 2003.
  [10] See "Arab neighbours queue for ticket to martyrdom," The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 April 2003.
  [11] Agence France Presse, 1 April 2003.
  [12] The Guardian (London), 3 April 2003.
  [13] The Times (London), 2 April 2003.
  [14] Associated Press, 15 April 2003.

2003 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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