Syria is “facilitating” the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq and helping supply them with arms, according to U.S. military officials with access to intelligence reports.
The sources said the reporting has not been clear on whether hard-line Syrian President Bashar Assad is involved directly in ordering the aid. But they say he has much to lose if Iraq becomes a pro-U.S. democratic country.
Foreign fighters from Syria have become a major stumbling block to stabilizing Iraq and turning over sovereignty by June 30.
The bloody fighting in Fallujah, for example, is inspired, in part, by well-armed foreign jihadists who crossed the Syrian border and have committed some of the most gruesome attacks against Americans and their allies.
Officials said Syrian help includes facilitating their border crossing, arming them and allowing them to return for fresh supplies.
Asked how conclusive U.S. intelligence is on Syrian aid, one official said, “No doubt about it.”
It is not clear, however, whether Damascus is actively organizing the influx. Osama bin Laden, leader of al Qaeda, has urged his followers to travel to Iraq to kill Westerners.
Publicly, the Bush administration has stopped short of accusing Mr. Assad’s socialist Ba’ath Party regime of facilitating the terrorists’ migration. But it has accused Syria of inaction in stopping the flow of foreigners along its 600-mile border with Iraq.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell last week sent a strong message to Mr. Assad through the U.S. ambassador in Damascus.
“It urged Syria to work closely with the rest of the international community to promote a stable Iraq,” said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. “It also made clear to Syria that it needs to control the transit of its border by terrorists and people supporting the insurgents in Iraq.
“It is a message that we have delivered to Syria in the past. What prompted it now, I think, is that it’s an ongoing problem. It’s something that we feel needs to be reiterated until it’s taken care of, and it’s not taken care of yet.”
Mr. Powell said last week, “Our message to President Assad is that it is in our mutual interest to deal with this problem. It is not in Syria’s interest to be seen as a base from which infiltrators can come across — come across to kill innocent Iraqis or to kill coalition troops.”
Mr. Powell faces a decision soon on whether the administration will slap economic sanctions on Syria. Congress gave the White House that power last fall in legislation that condemns Syria’s support for terror organizations and its occupation of Lebanon.
For nearly 25 years, the United States has labeled Syria a state sponsor of terrorism. Syria gives help to the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, a Shi’ite terror group set up and sustained by Iran, which also is accused of sending agents into southern Iraq to help radical cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr.
Officials said Syrian agents are aiding the Iraqi insurgency because it is not in Damascus’ interest to have a pro-U.S. country on its border. Mr. Assad fears that a free Iraq could spur a wave of democracy in his country, jeopardizing his rigid socialist rule, officials say.
Mr. Assad also realizes that Washington is limited in how it can react. The U.S. military is overcommitted globally. It would be politically difficult for President Bush to launch military strikes, thus opening up yet another front in the war on terrorism.
“The Syrians know America can bark a lot, but what else can we do?” said one military source.
The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force last month took over control of western Iraq from the 82nd Airborne Division. The Marines promptly committed more troops to the border area and have engaged in a series of deadly firefights in the border town of al Qaim and at other points.
The United States has also sent military personnel into Syria on reconnaissance missions.
“To stop the source, the Marines did put a very intense effort, and it still continues up there,” said Maj. Gen. John Sattler, chief of operations for U.S. Central Command. “We had an extreme amount of success on the front side, meaning that we did find, fix and ultimately finish a number of cells that were out there, that were facilitating this type movement.”
The State Department’s yearly report on global terrorism states, “Syrian and Iranian support for Hezbollah activities in the south [Lebanon], as well as training and assistance to Palestinian rejectionist groups in Lebanon, help permit terrorist elements to flourish.”