Monday, October 27, 2008

US raid on Syria highlights foreign fighter issue

Yesterday’s raid by US special forces on the Al Sukariyya Farm near the Syrian border city of Abu Kamal highlights a long-festering issue between the US and Syria – the flow of “foreign fighters” from Syria to Iraq.

The raid, and its timing, are interesting for several reasons. First, it’s the first such attack (at least released to the public) by US forces on Syrian soil. A similar raid occurred on June 18, 2003, when a US task force attacked a convoy of SUV’s believed to be carrying senior Iraqi Ba’athists 25 miles inside Syrian territory. That raid was carried out under the rules of “hot pursuit,” which allows security officials to cross international boundaries to apprehend criminals.

Second, the raid raises questions about recent Syrian claims that Damascus has changed course on Iraqi border security. A group of Syrian academics in good favor with the Syrian regime (whose activities are often referred to as “track 1.5 talks” in Damascus) visiting Washington last July claimed Syria had shifted its policy and now secured the border “to the best of our abilities.” One delegation member, apparently trying to put to rest doubts on this subject, said Syria now has “its own interest to play a stabilizing role” and that Syria had done a “very good job” on policing the border. They claimed that “several US field commanders” at the border had even shared such kudos with Syrian officials.

Such claims – which are hard to verify – come in sharp contrast to official military statements before and after yesterday’s raid. A US military official – who declined to give his name due to the political sensitivity of cross border raids, told AP that the US was “now taking matters into its own hands” and that of all efforts to shut down the ‘rat lines’ of fighters into Iraq, “the one piece of the puzzle we have not been showing success on is the nexus in Syria.” This was supported by statements last Thursday by U.S. Maj General John Kelly who said that Syria’s border was “uncontrolled by their side” and was a “different story” from the security situation on Iraq’s borders with Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which apparently have been tightened substantially.

US military officials (including Gen Petraeus) admit that the flow of foreign fighters has declined substantially (now estimated at about 20 per month), but it remains unclear how much of this is due to US and Iraqi efforts and how much is attributable to a genuine change in Syria’s efforts at “border security.”

Third, the raid comes as the US is negotiating its Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq that would allow US forces to stay in Iraq and carry out operations from there following there. As Katherine Zoepf points out in today’s New York Times, Syria and Iran strenuously oppose the SOFA “because of concerns that the United States might use Iraqi territory to carry out attacks on them.” Zoepf also mentions that another sensitive issue, Iraq’s oil and gas law, had been sent to parliament after being held up for over a year and a half.

Finally, the raid is the latest example of the capacities of the US military’s increasingly sophisticated intel and analysis of foreign fighter flows. Over the last few months the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point has released some very interesting reports analyzing foreign fighter flows across the Syrian frontier into Iraq. The most recent report, Bombers, Bank Accounts and Bleedout: Al-Qaeda’s Road in and Out of Iraq, analyzes al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI’s) operations from spring 2006 to the summer of 2007 – around the time when the Bush Administration’s “surge” and “sahwa” (Awakening) campaigns were implemented. Their work is based on the “Sinjar Records” – documents coalition forces in Iraq seized during a raid on a suspected al-Qaeda safe house in Sinjar, a western Iraqi town ten miles east of the Syrian frontier. It’s a fantastic read.

Particularly interesting for Syria and Lebanon watchers, the latest report warns that “There is a strong risk of blowback from Iraq. Relatively small numbers of Jihadis will “bleedout” to fight elsewhere, but they will likely be very dangerous individuals.” This could shed light on some of the possible perpetrators behind the recent car bombing near a Syrian military facility outside Damascus. But the report indicates that the threat generated by these fighters goes beyond Syria’s borders as well:

‘The Iraq war has increased Jihadi radicalization in the Muslim world and the number of Al-Qaeda recruits. Foreign fighters in Iraq have also acquired a number of useful skills that can be used in future terrorist operations, including massive use of suicide tactics, organizational skills, propaganda, covert communication, and innovative improvised explosive device (IED) tactics. Some AQI fighters that have already trickled out of Iraq have bolstered violent movements in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. This trend will likely continue. Although the threat to Europe and North America is real—French officials have tracked 24 fighters from France that have traveled to Iraq—fighters are most likely to join established Jihadi groups in areas of weak government control, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Lebanon.”

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