Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 5   No. 6 Table of Contents
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June 2003 


Is Syria Harboring Saddam?

Bashar Assad

The Bush administration is losing patience with Syrian President Bashar Assad. In addition to its failure to stop harboring terrorist groups, there is mounting evidence that Damascus still harbors senior officials of Iraq's ousted regime, possibly even Saddam Hussein and his two sons. Moreover, it appears that the former is an outgrowth of the latter. "There are still elements in the regime who are not keen on closing the Palestinian offices," said one European diplomat in Damascus. "They are clinging onto the idea that the Americans will become unstuck in Iraq and leave them alone."[1]

Having covertly armed Saddam's regime prior to the war and dispatched armed militants from Syria into Iraq to fight coalition forces, the Syrians are obstructing the hunt for Saddam Hussein and his two sons in hopes of breathing life into the Iraqi "resistance." The plan is working. American intelligence intercepts have shown that fugitive leaders of the Iraqi regime believe that Saddam is alive and have been organizing resistance to US forces in his name. Moreover, as the American administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, noted earlier this month, Saddam's continued survival makes ordinary Iraqis reluctant to cooperate with the United States. It "allows the Baathists to go around in the bazaars and in the villages, which they are doing, saying Saddam is alive and he's going to come back," he said. "The effect of that is to make it more difficult for people who are afraid of the Baathists . . . to come forward and cooperate with us."[2]

Caught Red-Handed

On June 16, US Special Operations forces apprehended Saddam's confidante and trusted personal secretary, Abid Hamid Mahmoud al-Tikriti, during a raid near Tikrit. Two days later, American officials announced his capture and said that Mahmoud had admitted spending time in hiding with Saddam and his sons in Iraq following the fall of Baghdad and then later fleeing to Syria with Uday and Qusay. It's very likely that Mahmoud admitted nothing of the sort - few Iraqi officials have been willing to divulge useful intelligence within 48 hours of their capture. The disjointed, vague nature of what was revealed about Mahmoud's "confession" (e.g. no dates) suggests that this information was gathered independently by American intelligence and then released quickly after Mahmoud's capture to give the impression that he had spilled the beans. Mahmoud had been tracked by since he returned to Syria just prior to his capture and was found in possession of several million dollars and a stack of blank Belarussian passports. Whoever he was delivering them to - presumably Saddam and his sons - would likely worry about being betrayed and go on the move as soon as they had reason to believe that Mahmoud was talking.

Sure enough, late in the evening on June 18, American intelligence detected a large convoy of trucks and SUVs headed toward the border with Syria, in violation of curfew. US warplanes and helicopters were quickly sent to attack the convoy. The details of what happened next are murky, but this much is clear: several SUVs split off from the convoy and raced across the Syrian border. Commandos from Task Force 20, an American Special Operations force set up to hunt down senior members of the ousted Iraqi regime, were sent across the border in hot pursuit of the fugitives, apparently guided by intercepted communications between the convoy and someone in Syria. The American commandos clashed with Syrian troops, five of whom were captured and brought back to Iraq for questioning.

American defense officials were outraged - the Syrians had been told that American forces reserved the right to cross the border in hot pursuit of Iraqi fugitives. For the next several days, both sides kept a lid on the incident as the State Department sought answers from Damascus. Syrian officials were reportedly evasive in explaining why the American operation was obstructed and pleaded ignorance regarding the whereabouts of the SUVs they had protected.

On June 23, as it has done previously when the Syrians have been unresponsive to private diplomatic inquiries, the Pentagon leaked details of the incident. The next day, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld brushed aside reporters' questions about where the American-Syrian clash took place, saying only that "borders are not always distinct in life." Syrian political analyst Nabil Samman told United Press International that US troops crossed into Syria as far as the area of Ghob al-Deeb - around 33 miles (53 km) from the border. Samman said that Syrian troops resisted the incursion, destroying an American tank and wounding a number of soldiers.[3]

While the exact details of what happened will probably not be known for some time, the fact that the captured Syrian soldiers were held for nearly two weeks (ostensibly for "medical treatment") is a pretty strong indication that the Pentagon believes Syrian forces deliberately assisted the escape of the Iraqi fugitives. As one defense official remarked, "their skirts are not exactly clean."[4] Presumably, the captured Syrian soldiers were interrogated for so long in order to determine whether they were acting in an official capacity and where exactly their orders came from. If they were regular Syrian soldiers or border police and their orders came through official command and control channels, this would implicate the central government in Damascus. If they were irregular forces, or soldiers under the command of a rogue officer, this would lend credence to Assad's longstanding claim that he is unaware of Iraqi officials being smuggled into the country.

If the Pentagon made such a determination, it has not been revealed publicly. With congressional hearings for the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Restoration Act set to begin in July, the White House is anxious to play down the incident. State department officials, who typically endorse official Syrian explanations for such incidents, have suggested that the captured Syrian soldiers may have trying to assist coalition forces in apprehending the fugitives.[5]

In any event, it is almost inconceivable that Syria will identify, much less apprehend the fugitives that crossed the border. Thus far, the Syrians have been willing to expel fugitives only after being presented with incontrovertible evidence that a particular official has been given sanctuary. Iraqi officials who are known to have taken refuge in Syria include the following:

Khaled Abdallah: Senior official in Iraqi secret police. On April 20, the Iraqi National Congress announced that he had surrendered to their organization after returning from Syria.

Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash (five of hearts): Iraqi scientist involved in Iraq's biological weapons program. Fled to Syria before the war. Captured in Iraq during the first week of May after being expelled by Syria.

Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri (king of clubs): former vice-president; Fled to Syria shortly before the fall of Mosul in April. The Sunday Telegraph quoted an Arab Gulf diplomat as saying that he is living at a base of Syria's Republican Guard near the airport.[6]

Farouq Hijazi: formerly in charge of the Iraqi intelligence agency's external operations. Fled to Syria during the war. Captured on April 25.

Khalid Hmood: commander of Saddam's security detail; On April 20, the Iraqi National Congress announced that he had surrendered to their organization after returning from Syria.

Jaffar al-Jaffar: Senior nuclear arms scientist; fled to Syria during the war, apprehended in mid-April in an unspecified Arab country (some reports say Jordan, others allude to one of the Arab Gulf states).

Fatiq al-Majid: nephew of Saddam, senior officer in the Special Security Organization; Fled to Syria on May 12, confirmed his presence in Damascus in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph.[7]

Rihab Taha: Iraqi scientist known as "Dr. Germ" for her role in developing biological weapons. Fled to Syria before the war. Turned herself in to American forces during the second week of May, apparently after being expelled by Syria.

Sabawi Ibrahim Hassan al-Tikriti (six of diamonds): Saddam's half-brother. Fled to Syria during the war. Remains at large.

Kamal Mustafa Abdallah Sultan al-Tikriti (Queen of Clubs): former secretary of the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard, a cousin of Saddam; Pentagon officials said on April 18 that he had fled to Syria. Turned himself in mid-May, apparently after being expelled from Syria.

Jamal Mustafa Sultan al-Tikriti (nine of clubs): Saddam's son-in-law; headed the tribal affairs department within the presidential office. On April 20, the Iraqi National Congress announced that he had surrendered to their organization after returning from Syria.

In light of the large number of Iraqi officials who have been captured by coalition forces after taking refuge in Syria, it is safe to assume that the Bush administration has a fairly good idea of whether the central government is responsible for giving them sanctuary. However, it has not publicly released any details about the time that these captured officials spent in Syria (e.g. where they were sheltered, who assisted them). While this silence may be intended to avoid embarrassing Syria or encouraging its congressional critics, it is probably interpreted in Damascus as a sign of weakness.

Notes

  [1] The Christian Science Monitor, 24 June 2003.
  [2] The Associated Press, 12 June 2003.
  [3] "Analysis: Syria, US Want Calm," United Press International, 27 June 2003.
  [4] The Washington Post, 24 June 2003.
  [5] The New York Times, 24 June 2003.
  [6] The Sunday Telegraph, 11 May 2003.
  [7] The Sunday Telegraph, 18 May 2003.


2003 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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