The flow of terrorists, war materials and money across the Syrian border and into Iraq is proving an enormous issue for coalition forces and the Iraqi people. The Syrians are clearly unwilling to stop it. Indeed, many contend the Syrians support the insurgents.
Last October, I joined with Rep. Sue Kelly, New York Republican, in discussing border security issues with the Syrian ambassador to the United States. We wanted to investigate the role Syria could play in securing its border and helping bring about a more stable Iraq. Despite repeated requests and moving to provide a detailed plan to stem the flow of terrorists across the border, nothing has happened.
The lack of action by the Syrian ambassador prompted me to return to the region over the holiday period. During the visit to Pakistan, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq, I spent the holidays with American troops and thanked them for their selfless efforts. The trip also let me to investigate firsthand the continued flow of terrorists, material and money through Syria into Iraq that has necessitated increased coalition operations on that border.
Syria, which opposed the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq, has walked a fine line since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Syrian statements try to steer a course between condemning the U.S. and espousing their willingness to end the insurgency. Syrian President Bashar Assad is on record expressing hope the United States would fail in Iraq.
It was apparent during my visit that the 375-mile Syrian-Iraqi border is extremely porous and remote. This and tribal migrations contribute to extensive cross-border movement and smuggling. These factors complicate U.S. endeavors to impose, or pressure Syria into imposing, effective border controls.
I believe Syria significantly contributes to the insurgency by not exerting enough pressure to interdict movement of extremists into Iraq. In testimony before the House International Relations Committee, then-Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton said, “Syria permitted volunteers to pass into Iraq to attack and kill our service members during the war, and is still doing so.”
Of particular concern to me and many of my colleagues has been the infiltration of foreign extremists into Iraq where they join terrorist groups including Islamists, jihadis, Ba’athists, and other supporters of Saddam.
Syria’s lack of cooperation resulted in congressionally imposed economic sanctions against Syria and President Bush’s proposal of the Syria Accountability Act. Mr. Bush noted at the time Syria remains “a preferred transit point for foreign fighters into Iraq.” U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad strongly criticized Syria for allowing terrorists to operate training camps that have sent hundreds of recruits into Iraq and added, “Our patience is running out.”
Syria permitted extensive two-way infiltration from and into Iraq during the major combat phase of the 2003 war. Recently, Mr. Assad has said Syria was no longer permitting “anti-American volunteers” to pass official crossings but said he was unable to control infiltration across the Syrian-Iraqi border.
There are other dimensions to Syria’s alleged support for border crossings by terrorists destined for Iraq. U.S. officials charge Syria provides a sanctuary for former Iraqi Ba’athists coordinating insurgent activities in Iraq. Terrorists obtain passports in Damascus and money collected from donors in Saudi Arabia to facilitate their travel to Iraq.
Syrian officials reject these charges. However, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, commented, “It’s hard to believe Syria doesn’t know it’s going on…. Whether or not they’re supporting it is another question. That said, you could say if Syria wanted to stop it they could stop it, or stop it partially.”
For more than two years the U.S.-led coalition has tried to shut down infiltration routes from Syria into Iraq, with little or no help from the Syrians.
These measures may need to be enhanced by a range of options. The choice may depend partly on whether Syria acts as a partner or an adversary. Options include: enhanced border surveillance and patrols, military forays into Syria targeting areas of major cross-border activity, and working with local populations. Incentives could be offered to tribal leaders on both sides of the border, particularly in the Euphrates Valley, to identify foreign terrorists.
A number of coordination mechanisms could also be introduced. One approach would organize a tripartite commission of high-ranking U.S., Iraqi and Syrian military officials to deal with border control. The commission could meet periodically to draft guidelines, exchange information, organize inspection tours of border areas, and act to resolve issues involving infiltration and border clashes.
The “pre-emption of infiltrators” is also important as terrorists come through various entry points to Syria, where local contacts (official or nonofficial) arrange their travel to Iraq.
Syrian leaders deny supporting al Qaeda, and there is no publicly available evidence proving Syria knowingly harbors members of that group. Anecdotal evidence from my recent trip to the region indicated quite clearly the Syrians do support and harbor al Qaeda and Saddamist operatives.
Syria’s support of anti-Israeli Islamic groups like the Palestinian Hamas and the Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah, lends significant weight to the claim al Qaeda operates out of Syria with the support of the Assad government.
If Syria is serious about gaining acceptance in the global community it must stop providing a haven for terrorists and turn its hollow words into tangible actions. If it does not to so, coalition forces must consider every available option.
Rep Jim Saxton, New Jersey Republican, is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Terrorism Subcommittee. He recently returned from a trip to the Middle East, where he spent the holidays, including Christmas Day, with U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.