Despite criticism from Washington, Syria appears to be increasing pressure on Islamist militants attempting to cross its borders into Iraq, as evidenced by a series of recent clashes. In early September, Syrian security services made in-roads against reputed Tanzim Jund al-Sham cells (“Organization of the Army of Greater Syria”), an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organization originally set up in Afghanistan by Syrian, Palestinian and Jordanian militants. (On the question of the identity of Jund al-Sham, see Terrorism Focus Volume II, Issue 12).
On September 3, Syrian anti-terrorism forces killed five suspected terrorists, said to be affiliated with Jund al-Sham, in a shootout at the group’s hideout near the northern city of Hama. At the same time, in a move which has brought the regime condemnation from human rights groups, three wives were held by security forces in order to pressure members of the group to give themselves up. Further clashes with Jund al-Sham militants occurred on September 8 in Hasaka, in northeastern Syria with claims that the group was “planning bomb attacks in Damascus.”
Syria has come under increasing pressure from Washington over its position on Islamist militants. On September 12 American Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said Washington was running out of patience with Syria’s continuing role in Iraq’s violence. The same day Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari also warned against allowing insurgents to penetrate Iraq. Despite the accusations, the Syrian state-run Tishrin newspaper said in an editorial Wednesday that Syria rejected the claim as “incapable of providing even one piece of actual evidence” (www.teshreen.com).
The Syrian view appears to be borne out by statements made by militant sympathisers, judging from comments posted on the Syrian jihadi forum Minbar Suria al-Islami (www.nnuu.org). On September 16, a posting titled “A Call to the People of Islam from the Outpost Warriors in the Land of Greater Syria: the Alawites have become Arrogant,”—addressed to a Saudi salafist readership— criticises their tacit support for the Saudi regime and calls for them to help the Syrian mujahideen against the Syrian government which is “employing all its forces in an attempt to prevent them aiding their brothers in Iraq.” The Syrian government, the author claims, is interested in “a stable Iraq and the withdrawal of American forces from it,” so President Assad is “licking the American boots” and has stepped up the campaign against the mujahideen over the last few weeks with “many clashes and sieges and arrests of large numbers of brothers.” The publication on September 23 of the second issue of the Minbar Suria al-Islami web journal supports the point by highlighting the clashes with Jund al-Islam, and the 70-odd Arabs of differing nationalities arrested while attempting to infiltrate into Iraq. It reproduces the claim of the Syrian Foreign Ministry to have arrested in all over 1248 Arabs attempting to cross into Iraq (www.nnuu.org/vb/showthread.php?t=1203).