How Significant is Syria’s Role in Iraq?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 19

When U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns arrived in Damascus on September 11 to discuss the continuing infiltration of terrorist operatives from Syria into Iraq with President Bashar Assad, he found the country’s obstinate young ruler to be almost exuberantly cooperative. Assad’s sudden change of heart was inspired by the UN Security Council’s approval early this month of a resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. The American message – surrender Iraq or surrender Lebanon – was clear and persuasive. The Syrian regime’s interests in Iraq pale in comparison to the benefits it derives from occupying its smaller neighbor (e.g. remittances from over one million Syrian workers living in Lebanon, highly favorable asymmetric trade relations, and kickbacks from institutionalized corruption).

Ironically, one of the driving forces behind Assad’s intervention in Iraq was his assumption that it would increase Syria’s bargaining position on Lebanon and other issues of American concern. The young dictator may now have realized his mistake, but whether he is truly committed to, or capable of, halting the flow of foreign operatives, arms, and finance into Iraq remains to be seen.

Although Iraq has been plagued by suicide bombings for the past year, the country is not a breeding ground for terrorists – the vast majority of these bombings have been carried out by non-Iraqi jihadis entering the country from Syria. The central figure in this network is Ahmed al-Khalayleh, a Jordanian national better known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Before 9/11, Zarqawi ran a terrorist camp in Herat. Following the US-led ouster of the Taliban, he began relocating his men through Europe to northern Iraq, where the Kurdish Islamist group Ansar al-Islam controlled a small autonomous enclave. This is where Syria came into play.

An April 2003 report stated that Italian investigators had found Syria to be a “hub” for the relocation of Zarqawi’s operatives to Iraq. “Transcripts of wiretapped conversations among the arrested suspects and others paint a detailed picture of overseers in Syria coordinating the movement of recruits and money between Europe and Iraq,” the report noted. [1] Some reports indicate that Zarqawi fled from northern Iraq to Iran just ahead of the US-led invasion last year and met with Muhammad Ibrahim Makawi (Saif Adel), bin Laden’s military chief, who placed him in charge of coordinating the entry of al-Qaeda operatives into Iraq. [2] Once again, Syria served as a major hub.

Further details about Zarqawi’s network in Syria have been made available by Jordanian intelligence. In April 2004, police in Amman uncovered a 10-man Zarqawi cell in the kingdom that was planning to bomb the prime minister’s office, the General Intelligence Directorate, and the American embassy – a task for which it had acquired some 20 tons of chemical explosives and half a dozen heavy trucks fitted with battering rams. According to Jordanian police reports and the televised confessions of four captured suspects, most of the plotters trained in Syria, entered the country from Syria, smuggled most of their equipment and funds into the country from Syria, and were acting under the direction of Zarqawi’s chief commander in Syria, Suleiman Khalid Darwish (a.k.a. Abu Ghadiyah). [3] Assad’s refusal to extradite Darwish and Jordan’s interception of several terrorist arms shipments from Syria during the summer have caused a “worrying crisis” between the two countries, a prominent Jordanian official recently told the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat. [4]

However, the main focus of Zarqawi’s network in Syria has been Iraq, not Jordan. This may be less of a personal preference for Zarqawi than a reflection of where his funding is coming from. Syria is home to a number of exiled Iraqi Baathists involved in financing and equipping operatives fighting coalition and government forces in Iraq. The “main money man,” according to U.S. officials, is Fatiq Suleiman al-Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein and former officer in the Special Security Organization who fled to Syria last spring and is assumed to still be living there. [5] Fatiq al-Majid, who works closely with two of his cousins and an unknown number of associates, was reportedly the recipient of suspicious cash transfers into Syria detected by American intelligence in recent months and is suspected of using the funds to provide weapons and logistical assistance to both Zarqawi operatives and indigenous Sunni Iraqi insurgents.

Former regime elements are also active in Syrian-occupied Lebanon. American officials say that Iraq’s former charge d’affaires in Beirut, Nabil Abdallah al-Janabi, remains in Lebanon and has financed the travel of foreign militants into Iraq. According to the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, the Bush administration recently confronted the Syrians with video surveillance footage of former regime elements jogging on Beirut’s Ein Mreisseh seaside boulevard and dining at a restaurant in the Syrian resort town of Bloudan. [6]

Border Infiltration

For the past eighteen months, Syrian intelligence has appeared to be actively facilitating the infiltration of terrorist operatives across the border into Iraq, despite vigorous claims to the contrary. Vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam stated late last year that, as far as he could tell, “there are no elements trying to infiltrate Iraq from Syria,” [7] while Information Minister Ahmad al-Hasan said last month that the border is “100 per cent under control.” [8]

While senior U.S. and Iraqi officials have been careful not to explicitly accuse Syria of intentionally facilitating the infiltration of terrorists into the country, Iraqi border officials do not mince words. “Syrian intelligence is controlling Syria’s border post[s]. I can see in the Syrian custom agents’ eyes who is really in control,” says Ra’ad al-Samarrai, the chief Iraqi customs officer at the Waleed border crossing. “If they really wanted to help, they could stop any [terrorist] crossings,” concurs Colonel Aref Fanus, head of Anbar’s border police. [9]

The motivations underlying Syrian intervention are not entirely clear, it is reasonable to assume that Syria is not hoping to facilitate a Sunni Islamist takeover of Iraq. Such an outcome would be anathema to the Assad regime, which is militantly secular and dominated by Alawites, a heterodox Islamic sect viewed as heretical by most Sunnis. Moreover, unlike bin Laden, Zarqawi has an obsessive hatred of non-Sunni Muslims and has ordered a series of bombings that have killed hundreds of Shi’ite Iraqis. However, Assad knows that a Sunni Islamist takeover of Iraq is not likely to happen. Indeed, Zarqawi’s main objective is probably not to take over Iraq (at least not in the near term), but to create chaos and obstruct the rise of a secure Iraq – a goal that converges nicely with Syrian interests.

Coalition Countermeasures

Until this spring, coalition efforts to intercept foreign fighters infiltrating Iraq were woefully inadequate. Although the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division deployed units to the main border crossing at al-Qaim and two battalions of the newly created Iraqi border police manned a few dozen outposts extending roughly 15 miles in each direction, most of the Syrian-Iraqi frontier was virtually unmonitored for most of 2003.

As a result, while hundreds of foreign combatants who entered the country through Syria were captured or killed by coalition forces in the Iraqi interior during the year, very few were intercepted at the border. [10] Since most had already been trained on the outside, terrorist infiltrators posed an immediate threat once they entered the country. One operative launched a suicide attack in late 2003 just 48 hours after he crossed into Iraq from Syria (he was captured by coalition forces after his bomb failed to detonate). “It showed a very high degree of organization that you could have a guy come across the border and within two days marry him up with a rather elaborate plot . . . a thousand-pound bomb built into his car. He has the car. He knows the target. It’s quite impressive,” recalled L. Paul Bremer, the senior U.S. administrator in Baghdad, shortly after stepping down at the end of June. [11]

Since the beginning of the year, however, the coalition has increased its military deployment along the 375-mile (600km) border and adopted more aggressive and proactive measures to stop terrorist infiltration from Syria. A 15-foot-high earthen barrier was built along 200 miles of the border to deter infiltration of foreign militants by foot. In March, the coalition unveiled a $300 million program to double the number of Iraqi border police (then numbering less than 9,000), improve their training, and upgrade their equipment. Meanwhile, the First Marine Expeditionary Force relieved the 82nd Airborne Division and increased American troop strength along the border by about a third and launched a series of operations designed to dismantle “facilitator” networks on the Iraqi side of the border. In April, a coalition spokesman stated that the new measures had “significantly impacted the enemy’s ability to bring in foreign fighters and equipment.” [15]

Syria’s recent promises to cooperate with the United States in Iraq may be more than just lip service. Apart from precipitating international pressure to withdraw from Lebanon, Syria’s meddling has alienated the governing elite in Iraq (at a time when it desperately needs an expansion of bilateral trade) and strained its relations with Europe. But even if the infiltration from Syria is brought to a halt, there is already a large enough presence of foreign fighters in the country to continue deadly terror attacks for some time to come. According to U.S. officials, Zarqawi terrorist operatives in Iraq number in the low hundreds, nearly all of them non-Iraqi Arabs and most of them trained in Afghanistan, but the overall number of foreign fighters in Iraq is estimated to be anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000. Moreover, Syria’s unwillingness to expel former Iraqi regime officials and surrender illicit oil revenue stored by Saddam in Syrian and Lebanese banks means that terrorists in Iraq will have access to ready sources of cash for some time to come.


1. “Probe Links Syria, Terror Network,” The Los Angeles Times, 16 April 2004. Sebastian Rotella, “A Road to Ansar Began in Italy: Wiretaps are Said to Show how al Qaeda Sought to Create in Northern Iraq a Substitute for Training Camps in Afghanistan,” The Los Angeles Times, 28 April 2003.

2. “Al Qaeda Plans A Front in Iraq; Strategy Shift May Signal Weakness,” The Washington Post, 7 September 2003.

3. Jordanian TV 1 (Amman), 26 April 2004. Translation published by the Federal News Service, 27 April 2004.

4. Al-Hayat (London), 4 August 2004. Translation by BBC Monitoring.

5. “U.S. Aides Say Kin of Hussein Aid Insurgency,” The New York Times, 5 July 2004.

6. Al-Nahar, 21 September 2004.

7. “Syrian vice president denies al-Qaeda in his country, worried about Iraq,” Agence France Presse, 15 November 2003.

8. Al-Hayat (London), 7 July 2004.

9. “Corruption and jihad on the lawless Iraqi-Syrian border,” Agence France Presse, 27 September 2004.

10. The commander of the 82nd Airborne, Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., admitted in November 2003 that his forces had intercepted only about 20 foreigners trying to infiltrate across the border over a span of seven months. See “U.S. Commanders Say Increased Border Patrols Are Halting the Influx of Non-Iraqi Guerrillas,” The New York Times, 20 April 2004.

11. “Bremer labels Zarqawi cells hard to crack,” The Washington Times, 2 July 2004.

12. Coalition Provisional Authority briefing, 7 April 2004.