Global Policy Forum

GI's and Syrians in Tense Clashes on Iraqi Border


James Risen & David E. Sanger

New York Times
October 15, 2005

A series of clashes in the last year between American and Syrian troops, including a prolonged firefight this summer that killed several Syrians, has raised the prospect that cross-border military operations may become a dangerous new front in the Iraq war, according to current and former military and government officials.

The firefight, between Army Rangers and Syrian troops along the border with Iraq, was the most serious of the conflicts with President Bashar al-Assad's forces, according to American and Syrian officials. It illustrated the dangers facing American troops as Washington tries to apply more political and military pressure on a country that President Bush last week labeled one of the "allies of convenience" with Islamic extremists. He also named Iran.

One of Mr. Bush's most senior aides, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said that so far American military forces in Iraq had moved right up to the border to cut off the entry of insurgents, but he insisted that they had refrained from going over it.

But other officials, who say they got their information in the field or by talking to Special Operations commanders, say that as American efforts to cut off the flow of fighters have intensified, the operations have spilled over the border - sometimes by accident, sometimes by design. Some current and former officials add that the United States military is considering plans to conduct special operations inside Syria, using small covert teams for cross-border intelligence gathering.

The broadening military effort along the border has intensified as the Iraqi constitutional referendum scheduled for Saturday approaches, and as frustration mounts in the Bush administration and among senior American commanders over their inability to prevent foreign radical Islamists from engaging in suicide bombings and other deadly terrorist acts inside Iraq. Increasingly, officials say, Syria is to the Iraq war what Cambodia was in the Vietnam War: a sanctuary for fighters, money and supplies to flow over the border and, ultimately, a place for a shadow struggle.

Covert military operations are among the most closely held of secrets, and planning for them is extremely delicate politically as well, so none of those who discussed the subject would allow themselves to be identified. They included military officers, civilian officials and people who are otherwise actively involved in military operations or have close ties to Special Operations forces.

In the summer firefight, several Syrian soldiers were killed, leading to a protest from the Syrian government to the United States Embassy in Damascus, according to American and Syrian officials. A military official who spoke with some of the Rangers who took part in the incident said they had described it as an intense firefight, although it could not be learned whether there had been any American casualties. Nor could the exact location of the clash, along the porous and poorly marked border, be learned.

In a meeting at the White House on Oct. 1, senior aides to Mr. Bush considered a variety of options for further actions against Syria, apparently including special operations along with other methods for putting pressure on Mr. Assad in coming weeks.

American officials say Mr. Bush has not yet signed off on a specific strategy and has no current plan to try to oust Mr. Assad, partly for fear of who might take over. The United States is not planning large-scale military operations inside Syria and the president has not authorized any covert action programs to topple the Assad government, several officials said. "There is no finding on Syria," said one senior official, using the term for presidential approval of a covert action program. "We've got our hands full in the neighborhood," added a senior official involved in the discussion.

Some other current and former officials suggest that there already have been initial intelligence gathering operations by small clandestine Special Operations units inside Syria. Several senior administration officials said such special operations had not yet been conducted, although they did not dispute the notion that they were under consideration.

Whether they have already occurred or are still being planned, the goal of such operations is limited to singling out insurgents passing through Syria and do not appear to amount to an organized effort to punish or topple the Syrian government.

According to people who have spoken with Special Operations commanders, teams like the Army's Delta Force are well suited for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering inside Syria. They could identify and disrupt the lines of communications, sanctuaries and gathering points used by foreign Arab fighters and Islamist extremists seeking to wage war against American troops in Iraq.

What the administration calls Syria's acquiescence in insurgent operations organized and carried out from its territory is a major factor driving the White House as it conducts what seems to be a major reassessment of its Syria policy.

The withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon earlier this year in the wake of the assassination in February of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, in Beirut led to a renewed debate in the White House about whether - and how - to push for change in Damascus.

With no clear or acceptable alternative to Mr. Assad's government on the horizon, the administration now seems to be awaiting the outcome of an international investigation of the Hariri assassination, which may lead to charges against senior Syrian officials. Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor in charge of the United Nations investigation of the killing, is expected to complete a report on his findings this month. If Mr. Mehlis reports that senior Syrian officials are implicated in the Hariri assassination, some Bush administration officials say that could weaken the Assad government.

"I think the administration is looking at the Mehlis investigation as possibly providing a kind of slow-motion regime change," said one former United States official familiar with Syria policy. The death - Syrian officials called it a suicide - on Wednesday of Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan of Syria, who was questioned in connection with the United Nations investigation, may have been an indication of the intense pressure building on the Assad government from that inquiry.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States ambassador to Iraq, issued one of the administration's most explicit public challenges to Damascus recently when he said that "our patience is running out with Syria."

"Syria has to decide what price it's willing to pay in making Iraq success difficult," he said on Sept. 12. "And time is running out for Damascus to decide on this issue." Some hawks in the administration make little secret of their hope that mounting political and military pressure will lead to Mr. Assad's fall, despite their worries about who might succeed him. Other American officials seem to believe that by taking modest military steps against his country, they will so intimidate Mr. Assad that he will alter his behavior and prevent Syrian territory from being used as a sanctuary for the Iraqi insurgency and its leadership.

"Our policy is to get Syria to change its behavior," said a senior administration official. "It has failed to change its behavior with regard to the border with Iraq, with regard to its relationships with rejectionist Palestinian groups, and it has only reluctantly gotten the message on Lebanon." The official added: "We have had people for years sending them messages telling them to change their behavior. And they don't seem to recognize the seriousness of those messages. The hope is that Syria gets the message."

There are some indications that this strategy, described as "rattling the cage," may be working. Some current and former administration officials say that the flow of foreign fighters has already diminished because Mr. Assad has started to restrict their movement through Syria.

But while he appears to be curbing the number of foreign Arab fighters moving through Syria, the American officials say he has not yet restricted former senior members of Saddam Hussein's government from using Syria as a haven from which to provide money and coordination to the Sunni-based insurgency in Iraq. "You see small tactical changes, which they don't announce, so they are not on the hook for permanent changes," a senior official said about Syria's response. "They are doing just enough to reduce the pressure in hopes we won't pay attention, and then they slide back again."

In an interview with CNN this week, Mr. Assad denied that there were any insurgent sanctuaries inside Syria. "There is no such safe haven or camp," he insisted. In this tense period of give and take between Washington and Damascus, the firefight this summer was clearly a critical event. It came at a time when the American military in Iraq was mounting a series of major offensives in the Euphrates Valley near the Syrian border to choke off the routes that foreign fighters have used to get into Iraq.

The Americans and Iraqis have been fortifying that side of the border and increasing patrols, raising the possibility of firing across the unmarked border and of crossing it in "hot pursuit." From time to time there have been reports of clashes, usually characterized as incidental friction between American and Syrian forces. There have been some quiet attempts to work out ways to avoid that, but formal agreements have been elusive in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust.

Some current and former United States military and intelligence officials who said they believed that Americans were already secretly penetrating Syrian territory question what they see as the Bush administration's excessive focus on the threat posed by foreign Arab fighters going through Syria. They say the vast majority of insurgents battling American forces are Iraqis, not foreign jihadis.

According to a new study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, intelligence analysis and the pattern of detentions in Iraq show that the number of foreign fighters represents "well below 10 percent, and may well be closer to 4 percent to 6 percent" of the total makeup of the insurgency. One former United States official with access to recent intelligence on the insurgency added that American intelligence reports had concluded that 95 percent of the insurgents were Iraqi.

This former intelligence official said that in conversations with several midcareer American military officers who had recently served in Iraq, they had privately complained to him that senior commanders in Iraq seemed fixated on the issue of foreign fighters, despite the evidence that they represented a small portion of the insurgency. "They think that the senior commanders are obsessed with the foreign fighters because that's an easier issue to deal with," the former intelligence official said. "It's easier to blame foreign fighters instead of developing new counterinsurgency strategies." Top Pentagon officials and senior commanders have said that while the number of foreign fighters is small, they are still responsible for most of the suicide bombings in Iraq. Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of United States Central Command, said on Oct. 2 on the NBC News program "Meet the Press" that he recognized the need to avoid "hyping the foreign fighter problem."

But he cautioned that "the foreign fighters generally tend to be people that believe in the ideology of Al Qaeda and their associated movements, and they tend to be suicide bombers." "So while the foreign fighters certainly aren't large in number," he said, "they are deadly in their application."

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