Jerusalem Post- 29/10/2008
This week’s US raid across the Iraqi-Syrian border resembles a number of similar actions carried out by American forces against al-Qaida targets over the last year in the North Waziristan area of Pakistan. It demonstrates a US willingness to ignore national borders when dealing with states and organizations that themselves display a studied indifference to such niceties. The raid is the latest in a string of recent events that leave the Bashar Assad regime looking vulnerable and weakened. The target of the incursion, according to US sources quoted in the international media, was one Badran Turki al-Mazidih, also known as Abu Ghadiyah. Abu Ghadiyah was an Iraqi-born Sunni jihadi operative, hailing from Mosul. Since 2005, he had led a network that played a key role in moving foreign volunteers, weapons and cash for the Sunni insurgency across the border between Syria and Iraq. Abu Ghadiyah appears to have been linked to the network established by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He ascended to his senior position after one of Zarqawi’s key lieutenants, Suleiman Khalid Darwish, was killed by US forces in Iraq in June 2005. Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Syria’s relationship with the Sunni insurgency has been a source of tension. Damascus international airport has been the main international thoroughfare for young militants en route to the battlegrounds of central Iraq.
Syria’s 740 km.-long border with Iraq was the key entry point for these men. According to Maj.-Gen. John Kelly, commander of Multinational Force-West in Iraq, “The Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi intelligence forces feel that al-Qaida operatives and others operate, live pretty openly on the Syrian side… And periodically we know that they try to come across.” The majority of the volunteers were on their way to carry out suicide bombings in Iraq. Wanted leaders of the insurgency – such as Mishan al-Jabouri – have also set up home openly in Syria. Support for insurgent and paramilitary organizations as a tool of policy toward neighboring countries is a tried and tested approach for the regime in Damascus. Indeed, it has been a weapon in Syria’s arsenal at some point in time with every country with which it has a border. Thus, the Assad regime supported the Kurdish PKK in Turkey in the 1990s.
In the 1970s, Syria supported Palestinian insurgency in Jordan. Syria offers a safe haven and support to the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as a number of secular Palestinian armed groups engaged in violence against Israel. Syria of course arms and supports Hizbullah in Lebanon as well as offering backing for Palestinian armed groups. So Syrian support for Sunni jihad in Iraq fits a pattern. This support is of a cynical nature. The Syrian regime has been known to recruit foreign fighters on its soil for operations in the Syrian interest by threatening to turn them over to their own countries’ security services if they refuse. Syria also likes to think it can turn the tap of support on and off at will. Thus, when Damascus has wanted to demonstrate to the West its supposed cooperation in the “War on terror” it has not hesitated to round up a few random foreign jihadis, including some who may have had no involvement in violent operations. Underlying this Syrian approach has been the assumption that Damascus would be permitted to operate according to different rules than those expected of other states. Where this assumption has been challenged – as by the Turks in 1998 – Damascus has tended to retreat.
It now appears that Washington wishes to issue its own challenge to this pattern of behavior. In this, the US is following tactics adopted in northern Pakistan against al-Qaida. Over the last year, the US has doubled its rate of cross-border strikes against targets in North Waziristan. Ten such operations are known to have taken place this year. The latest US action is also in line with an increased willingness on the part of Israel to respond in kind to Syrian support for organizations engaged in violence against Israelis. The Israeli raid on a suspected Syrian plutonium reactor in September 2007, and perhaps the subsequent killings of Hizbullah’s Imad Mughniyeh and Syria’s Gen. Muhammad Suleiman on Syrian soil offer examples.
The extent to which Syria is able to control the jihadi elements that it has allowed to gather and flourish on its soil is open to question. The bombing last month in Damascus – which bore signs of being the work of Sunni jihadis – appeared to offer further evidence of the Syrian regime’s growing inability to police its own territory. All this adds up to an emerging sense of the Assad regime as an entity now beginning to pay the price for its over-estimation of itself and its allies. Assad was evidently thrilled by the defiance of jihadi forces of both Shi’ite and Sunni hue. He may now be discovering that supporting their activities does not come without a cost. Still, there is probably no reason for the regime to worry unduly yet.
Assad faces embarrassment at home, but no serious domestic force threatens his rule. The Europeans are continuing the wooing of the regime accelerated by Israel’s opening of negotiations. The Syrians may also hope that the shifting political landscape in both the US and Israel will suffice to make any current indications of a changing approach conveniently short-lived. Whether they will be proven right remains to be seen.