Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Inside the "Rat-Lines": Syria's role in Iraq

With operation "Matador" it seems like the U.S. and Iraqi forces were trying to shut down the Syrian border. From the accounts below that fluid border is a serious problem and it must be shut down if the Iraqis are going to have a chance at restoring order to their society. The tale of the Syrian getting infected with Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and then transporting the violence to Iraq is all too familiar. The American people need to know how our enemy views us and what they are willing to do to try and defeat us. Naivete and a hesitance or inability to recognize evil are not traits that sustain civilizations for long

Read these excerpts from a Washington Post article:
Outside Iraq but Deep in the Fight
Syria's role in sustaining and organizing the insurgency has shifted over time. In the first days of the war, fighters swarmed into Iraq aboard buses that Syrian border guards waved through open gates, witnesses recalled. But late in 2004, after intense pressure on Damascus from the Bush administration, Syrian domestic intelligence services swept up scores of insurgent facilitators. Many, including Abu Ibrahim, were quietly released a few days later....

Those interviews also echoed earlier accounts of Iraqi insurgents, including descriptions of the role of a Syrian cleric known as Abu Qaqaa in promoting a holy war, or jihad, against the West. Since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, the notion of jihad has "had a galvanizing impact on the imagination and reflexes" of many young Muslim men, especially those with the means and resources to travel, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group, based in Brussels.
"They think jihad will stop if they kill hundreds of us in Iraq," Abu Ibrahim said with a note of defiance. "They don't know what they are facing. Every day, more and more young men from around the Muslim world are awaking and coming to the jihad principle.
"Now the Americans are facing thousands, but one day soon they will have to face whole nations."...


A year later, he went to Saudi Arabia, a kingdom founded on Wahhabism, a puritanical form of Islam in the Salafi wing.

For seven years he worked in Riyadh, the capital, trading textiles. In his spare time, he studied the Koran and gathered at people's homes with young men so militant in their beliefs they were barred from preaching in public.

At a private Saudi production company that specialized in radical Islamic propaganda, he said, he learned video editing and digital photography. The work channeled the rage of young Arab men incensed by the situation in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, angered by U.S. foreign policy and chafing under the repression of secular Arab rulers.
Their goal, he said, is restoration of the Islamic caliphate, the system that governed Muslims before the rise of nation states. Abu Ibrahim said he regarded Afghanistan during the Taliban rule as one of the few true Islamic governments since the time of Muhammad.
"The Koran is a constitution, a law to govern the world," he said.


Such views were unwelcome back in Syria, governed by the Baathist Party as a secular nation. But in 1999, after Abu Ibrahim returned to Aleppo, he heard a sermon delivered by a Syrian cleric who was widely known in the region. Abu Qaqaa, a lanky, charismatic sheik born Mahmoud Quul Aghassi, preached the same radical message that Abu Ibrahim had taken to heart in Riyadh.
"Abu Qaqaa was preaching what we believed in. He was saying these things: 'People with beards come together.' I was so impressed."
Abu Ibrahim said he became Abu Qaqaa's right-hand man. He helped tape his sermons, transfer them to CDs and distribute them clandestinely. They traveled together to Damascus, the Syrian capital, and Saudi Arabia. By 2001, Abu Qaqaa had attracted a determined following of about 1,000 young men.
"No one knew about us," Abu Ibrahim said. "But September 11 gave us the media coverage. It was a great day. America was defeated. We knew they would target either Syria or Iraq, and we took a vow that if something happened to either country, we would fight."...


Worried that it would be Washington's next target, Syria opposed the military coalition invading its neighbor. State media issued impassioned calls for "resistance." The nation's senior Sunni cleric, Grand Mufti Ahmad Kaftaro, undid his reputation for moderation by issuing a fatwa endorsing suicide attacks.
In Aleppo, Abu Ibrahim went door to door encouraging young men to cross the border. Volunteers boarded buses that Syrian border guards waved through wide-open gates, witnesses recalled.
Saddam Hussein's government embraced the volunteers, handing them weapons and calling them Arab Saddam Fedayeen. But ordinary Iraqis were often less welcoming, pleading with them to go home; some Syrians were shot or handed over to the invading Americans.
At the request of his Iraqi counterparts, Abu Ibrahim stopped ferrying fighters for a time. "They said there were Shiites everywhere, Americans, and they couldn't do anything."
By the summer of 2003, however, the insurgency began to organize itself, and the call went out for volunteers...


Safe houses were established. Weapons were positioned. In the vast desert that forms the border with Iraq, passages through the dunes long used to smuggle goods now were employed to funnel fighters.
"We had specific meeting places for Iraqi smugglers," Abu Ibrahim said. "They wouldn't do the trip if we had fewer than 15 fighters. We would drive across the border and then into villages on the Iraqi side. And from there the Iraqi contacts would take the mujaheddin to training camps."...


Because Syrian men already had served two years of compulsory military service, most of them skipped the training. "It's mostly the Saudis who need the training," Abu Ibrahim said.
Afterward, the fighters were sent to join small cells usually led by Iraqis. They planted booby traps for U.S. convoys and laid ambushes.


"Once the Americans bombed a bus crossing to Syria. We made a big fuss and said it was full of merchants," Abu Ibrahim said. "But actually, they were fighters."
In the summer of 2004, Abu Ibrahim got to go to Iraq. He crossed the dunes with 50 other volunteers, dodging U.S. patrols on the Iraqi side.
In Iraqi society he moved without drawing attention. He would not discuss much of what transpired during the subsequent months. But when he returned to Syria after the massive U.S. offensive in Fallujah, only three people were alive from the original 50, he said. One was a suicide bomber.


"Young men are fighting with zeal and passion," Abu Ibrahim said. "There are Saudi officers, Syrians, Iraqis. But not those who fought for Saddam. The man who is leading it for the most part is Zarqawi."
Abu Ibrahim was interviewed before reports surfaced that Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian who leads an organization called al Qaeda in Iraq, had been seriously wounded -- a report later disputed in an Internet message purportedly recorded by Zarqawi. Abu Ibrahim credited Zarqawi with revitalizing the insurgency, especially since October, when he pledged fealty to Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader. Abu Ibrahim said that union helped cement an alliance among several resistance groups in Iraq that formed a joint treasury.
"Six months ago, Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden were different," he said. "Osama did not consider the killing of Shiites as legitimate. Zarqawi did that. Anyone -- Christian, Jew, Sunni, Shiites -- whoever cooperates with the Americans can be killed. It's a holy war."
Change
In January, shortly after Abu Ibrahim returned to Syria, he was summoned to Amn Dawla headquarters along with scores of fellow jihadi cell leaders. The security agents said the smuggling of fighters had to stop. The jihadis' passports were taken. Some were jailed for a few days. Abu Ibrahim's jailers shaved his beard.
Also in January, Richard L. Armitage, then the U.S. deputy secretary of state, visited Damascus. After long lambasting Syria for supporting the insurgency, Armitage brought praise. "We have seen a lot of improvement regarding foreign fighters who were using Syria to enter Iraq," he said. "And this is a good thing."
The timing was fortuitous, Abu Ibrahim said. Recently, he said, his contacts in Iraq have said they were not in need of fighters, but money. He said he personally carried cash, provided by sympathetic Saudis, between Saudi Arabia and Syria. But lately, a more efficient system has emerged.
"Our brothers in Iraq are asking for Saudis," he said last month. "The Saudis go with enough money to support themselves and their Iraqi brothers. A week ago, we sent a Saudi to the jihad. He went with 100,000 Saudi riyals," or about $27,000. "There was celebration amongst his brothers there!"
At the same time, Abu Qaqaa reemerged as the public face of jihad. Abu Ibrahim said he now views the cleric with suspicion, suggesting that he is helping Syrian authorities track jihadi "rat lines," as U.S. commanders refer to the smuggling chains. The same suspicion was voiced last autumn by a Yemeni fighter interviewed in Fallujah.
"The Syrians are in an awkward position," Abu Ibrahim said. "On one side they want to do whatever the Americans want them to. And on the other side they want to fight the Americans."