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Analysis: U.S. Eyes Suspected Insurgents In Syria

U.S. officials said last week that they are considering increasing pressure on Syria to crack down on former Iraqi Ba'athists who they believe are orchestrating and funding the insurgency from inside Syrian territory. The pressure is part of an overall effort to put an end to the insurgency in Iraq.

Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of policy and planning at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in Qatar, told Al-Arabiyah television in a 10 December interview: "Significant work in terms of building barricades and exchanging intelligence information has been done to tighten control along the Syrian-Iraqi borders. But, the Syrian government knows that there are people who facilitate matters inside Syria. We look forward to working jointly with Syria to root out those facilitators so that the financing of the Iraqi insurgency may be stopped."

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Al-Arabiyah in an 8 December interview that the United States plans to consult with other Middle East leaders as to whether it should apply more pressure on Syria to take action against militants crossing its border into Iraq. Armitage said that former Ba'athists from the deposed Hussein regime are funding attacks against Iraqi and coalition forces from inside Syrian territory. "I would hope the Syrians would wake up and realize that they are going to have to live side by side with an Iraq, and that they had better change their behavior now so that the future relationship with the new Iraq will be one that's congenial," Armitage said.

Armitage's comments came just one day after interviews with interim Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawir and Jordan's King Abdullah II were published in "The Washington Post." U.S. officials said that the insurgency is being directed to a greater degree than previously recognized from Syria. The daily cited an unidentified State Department official as saying that U.S. officials have given Syria a list of former Iraqi officials it wants arrested or expelled. King Abdullah told the newspaper that both U.S. and Iraqi officials believe that "foreign fighters are coming across the Syrian border that have been trained in Syria to fight the insurgency."

Al-Yawir, meanwhile, told the daily that "there are people in Syria who are bad guys, who are fugitives of the law, and who are Saddam remnants who are trying to bring the vicious dictatorship of Saddam [Hussein] back." He added, "They are not minding their business or living a private life. They are...disturbing or undermining our political process."

Al-Yawir later told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in an interview published on 13 December that he is confident that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad does not want to see the kind of violence that is happening in Iraq spill over into his country. "When fire breaks out in your neighbor's house, you have to rush to extinguish it, not only for the neighbor's sake but also so you will not be forced to extinguish it in your house when it spreads to it," al-Yawir said. He also accused Iran of providing financial and logistical support to militants.

Crossing The Line?

National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i has reportedly criticized Syria for allowing terrorists to cross its borders into Iraq, and said that funds were sent to Al-Fallujah from Damascus, Al-Arabiyah television reported on 10 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 2004). "Al-Hayat" cited al-Rubay'i, in a report dated the same day, as claiming to possess documents and confessions from Syrians captured in Iraq to back up his allegations.

But it appears that the interim government does not hold a united viewpoint when it comes to Syria's apparent laxity. The above-mentioned "Al-Hayat" report also cited Hassan Allawi, Iraqi ambassador-designate to Syria, as saying that Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari have set up "a team to prevent the political escalation with Syria and the publication of the confessions of Syrians who fought in Iraq." He expressed doubts about the so-called team, saying: "For how long can the team that does not believe in escalation with Syria stand fast against U.S. information about the illegal activities of Iraqi fugitives in Syria?"

The motives of Allawi and al-Zebari are unclear but likely stem from a desire to reestablish diplomatic relations with Iraq's western neighbor. Ambassador-designate Allawi told "Al-Hayat" in an interview published on 4 December that he expected diplomatic relations to be restored "soon."

Syria and Iraq reached an agreement on border protocol on 7 November. Al-Jazeera reported the same day that Syria had beefed up security measures at the Abu Kamal (Al-Qa'im) border-crossing point, setting up sand barriers to close the crossing. An unidentified Syrian security official told Al-Jazeera that U.S. and Iraqi troops closed the crossing on the Iraqi side of the border. Baghdad's "Al-Ittihad" on 6 November cited a Syrian customs official as saying on 4 November that Iraq had closed the Al-Walid (Al-Tanf) crossing. London's "Al-Hayat" in an 8 November report (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 15 November 2004) cited growing Syrian concerns that the violence in Iraq might spill over onto Syrian soil.

The Allawi government would also like to get its hands on funds deposited by the Hussein regime in Syrian banks. Iraqi officials have said that the money amounts to some $3 billion, while Syrian officials have claimed that their banks are holding around $300 million. And, as noted, the interim government is pushing Syria to hand over former regime officials believed to be hiding there. The Syrian government has denied that any former Ba'athists took refuge in the country following the defeat of the Hussein regime, but numerous media reports dating as far back as April 2003 (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 19 April 2003) indicated that former Ba'athists, including Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, may be directing the insurgency from Syria. There was evidence that foreign fighters began entering Iraq via Syria as early as May 2003.

The Syrian Response

Syrian officials have maintained that the most recent accusations by U.S. and Iraqi officials are unfounded. Syrian Ambassador to the U.S. Imad Mustafa said that "there is a sinister campaign to create an atmosphere of hostility against Syria, "The Washington Post" reported on 8 December. "Iraqi officials were never welcome" in Syria, he added. Unidentified officials told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that al-Yawir's allegations "came as an unpleasant surprise," the daily reported on 10 December. Syrian officials cannot deny however, that despite security measures, militants continue to infiltrate Iraq from Syria. Should evidence come to light that training camps in Syria are churning out fighters for Iraq, the political consequences for Syria would be enormous, and could ultimately include some form of sanctions.

Meanwhile, reports are surfacing that Allawi may be on the verge of striking some kind of deal with former Ba'athists, reported on 11 December. The website claims that Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmad, the former official in charge of the Iraq Command for the Salah Al-Din, Al-Ta'mim, and Al-Sulaymaniyah governorates, has claimed from his base in Al-Hasaka, Syria, that he would halt insurgent attacks within six hours if his party were guaranteed participation in January's elections. The offer was reportedly made during a meeting with negotiators acting on behalf of Allawi at a recent meeting. The website cited its sister paper "Akhbar al-Khaleej" as reporting that al-Ahmad's offer was made under pressure from Damascus. The website reported that a deal could be struck soon between al-Ahmad and his Ba'athist cohorts, and Allawi's government. Should a successful agreement be reached and the Ba'athist insurgency halted, it would signal a coup for the Allawi government both in terms of dealing with security and getting Sunnis to participate in elections. However, it would likely divide the Iraqi public, many of whom are squarely against allowing Saddam loyalists a foothold in the new Iraqi government.

For more on events in Iraq, see RFE/RL's dedicated The New Iraq webpage.