Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 6   No. 4 Table of Contents
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April 2004 

Can the Coalition Block Terrorist Infiltration from Syria?
by Gary C. Gambill


As the American occupation of Iraq enters its second year, a significant number of foreign militants are continuing to cross over the border from Syria, join insurgents battling US-led coalition forces in the Sunni triangle, and carry out horrific terror attacks against Iraqi civilians. After the repeated failure of diplomatic efforts to persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to halt the infiltration, in recent weeks the coalition has greatly increased its military deployment along the border and adopted more aggressive and proactive measures to shut down the insurgents' Syrian lifeline. Although precious manpower had been diverted and casualties have been heavy, American military officials say that the campaign to derail Syrian intervention in Iraq is beginning to bear fruit.

Until a few months ago, the scarcity of trained Iraqi personnel, the coalition's preoccupation with combating Sunni Arab insurgents, and misguided hopes that diplomacy would elicit Syrian cooperation precluded the development of an effective border security strategy. Although units of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division were deployed to the main border crossing at Al-Qaim, and two battalions of Iraqi border police took up a few dozen outposts extending roughly 15 miles in each direction, much of the Syrian-Iraqi frontier was virtually unmonitored for most of 2003.[1] While hundreds of foreign combatants were captured or killed by coalition forces in the Iraqi interior, very few were caught at the border. In November, the commander of the 82nd Airborne, Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., admitted that his forces had intercepted only about 20 foreigners trying to infiltrate across the border from Syria over a span of seven months.[2]

The coalition's difficulties stemmed in part from the increasing sophistication of terrorist infiltration networks. The initial wave of "volunteers" who crossed into Iraq during the US-led invasion of Iraq consisted largely of young, untrained zealots who boarded busses in Damascus and drove through the main border crossings. Once US forces secured these main crossings, the traffic slowed and most of the "volunteers" who survived their adventure in Iraq were eventually repatriated. By the summer of 2003, however, a second wave of infiltration was under way - this time by Al-Qaeda operatives, many of them hardened veterans of Afghanistan and Chechnya. On both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi frontier, networks of what coalition officials call "facilitators" were established to monitor security at the border, identify weak links, and transport operatives to and from the border. The second wave of infiltration was smaller than the first (operatives often crossed by foot in small groups, not large busloads) but their impact was far deadlier, as waves of suicide bombings began hitting Iraq in the fall of 2003.

Earlier this year, the Army's 82nd 101st Airborne Division built a 15-foot-high earthen barrier along 200 miles of the border to deter infiltration of foreign militants by foot. In March, the coalition unveiled a $300 million program to double the number of Iraqi border police (which then numbered less than 9,000), improve their training and purchase additional equipment.[3] That same month, the First Marine Expeditionary Force relieved the 82nd Airborne Division and increased American troop strength along the border by about a third. Although the Marines are headquartered in Al-Qaim, they have conducted operations along a much larger stretch of the border than their predecessors, including many areas where foot traffic had previously gone undetected. The number of ground sensors along the border was greatly increased, as were flights by Air Force U-2 spy planes and remotely piloted Predator reconnaissance aircraft - which, according to some reports, are now flying reconnaissance missions inside Syrian airspace.[4] The Marines have also increased proactive measures to stem the flow of foreign fighters. Following the upsurge of violence in Falluja in early April, the Marines also worked aggressively to uncover facilitator cells that transport newly-arrived operatives to Ramadi and Falluja.

According to US military officials, the Marines have succeeded in slowing the flow of militants from Syria into Iraq. "Ongoing operations along the border have significantly impacted the enemy's ability to bring in foreign fighters and equipment," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt declared in an April 7 briefing.[5] But this success has come at a heavy price. Although the Marines have a policy of withholding the location and other details about their casualties in Iraq, it is believed that at least a dozen have died in engagements along the border since March.

Publicly, American officials continue to stop just short of charging Syria with intentionally facilitating terrorist infiltration (which, according to the Bush doctrine, would be an act of war against the United States), but their warnings have become more frequent. The head of US Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, complained on April 12 of "unhelpful actions coming from Syria."[6] When the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, announced at an April 15 press conference that "significant security challenges" would require an increase in American troop strength in Iraq, he specifically cited the infiltration of foreign fighters from Syria. "We know for a fact that a lot of them for sure are coming through Syria . . . That is just not acceptable."[7]

Even the State Department, which has tended to downplay Syria's role in the insurgency, acknowledged during a March 26 briefing that Syria is the preferred country of transit for terrorist infiltrators.[8] In mid-April, the American ambassador in Damascus, Margaret Scobey, delivered a message from Secretary of State Colin Powell to Assad, urging him to prevent insurgents from entering Iraq through Syrian territory. As usual, the Assad regime categorically denied that militants are crossing the border into Iraq even as it dropped not so subtle hints that Washington had not offered the right incentive. One Syrian official had the audacity to boast that Powell's letter "shows the extent of the trap in which the U.S. has found itself and underscores American need for a Syrian role in Iraq."[9]

Even if a military or political solution were found that would stop the cross-border infiltration, the foreign terrorist presence in Iraq, estimated by American military officials to range from 1,000 to 3,000 hard-core militants,[10] will continue to have a decisive impact on the Sunni insurgency, for they are passing on their knowledge to a new generation of Iraqi terrorists and have increasingly assumed leadership of local insurgents. US military officials estimate that there are at least 200 foreign fighters holed up in Falluja, comprising about 10%-20% of insurgent forces in the city, and that their presence has played a major role in stiffening resistance by locals.[11] Fortunately for the coalition, the foreigners are not well liked by the city's residents. One reason why the campaign to re-take Falluja has been delayed is that many residents have started to come forward with information about the whereabouts of al-Qaeda operatives and the coalition is now considering a series of rapid strike surgical incursions to eliminate them, rather than a full-fledged invasion. "We'd rather take on a small number of foreign fighters than the entirety of the city, including several thousand young Iraqi men" explained James Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. "We will take this city. But we don't have to do it that way."[12]


  [1] Holding the Line, Newsweek, 16 February 2004.
  [2] "U.S. Commanders Say Increased Border Patrols Are Halting the Influx of Non-Iraqi Guerrillas," The New York Times, 20 April 2004.
  [3] "U.S. Tightens Security Measures at Iraq's Borders," The New York Times, 14 March 2004.
  [4] See "US sees Syria 'facilitating' insurgents," The Washington Times, 21 April 2004.
  [5] Coalition Provisional Authority briefing, 7 April 2004.
  [6] "'Unhelpful actions' from Syria, Iran regarding Iraq: Abizaid," Agence France Presse, 12 April 2004.
  [7] "Marines said to have tightened Iraqi border with Syria, but taken more casualties," The Associated Press, 16 April 2004.
  [8] "U.S.: Syria stemming Iraq infiltration," United Press International, 26 March 2004.
  [9] "Syria: U.S. needs us in Iraq," United Press International, 16 April 2004.
  [10] "U.S. Commanders Say Increased Border Patrols Are Halting the Influx of Non-Iraqi Guerrillas," The New York Times, 20 April 2004.
  [11] USA Today, 25 April 2004.
  [12] "Suited to Guerrillas, a Dusty Town Poses Tricky Perils," The New York Times, 25 April 2004.

2004 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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