Syria-Iraq: Bloody Border, Messy Politics

Late Sunday, U.S. special operations forces struck positions across the Syrian-Iraq border, inside of Syria, apparently killing nine people, most of whom were non-Syrian Arab fighters on their way into Iraq. Of course there is a great cry rising from the Syrians today.

For years, tons of explosives and a long line of foreign terrorists have streamed across the Syrian border into Anbar Province and Nineveh Province in Iraq. I must have spent a total of about nine months in Nineveh, about eight of which were in the capital of Mosul, and another month in Anbar.

Foreign terrorists were caught or killed on a regular basis, and they all had the same story: they came from an alphabet soup of Arab countries -- Algeria, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen, to name a handful. They had come through Syria. I remember the day the Libyan was captured in 2005: Iraqis were trying to force him to wear a suicide vest to attack police in Mosul. I remember the night, a raid that I did not go on, when the Tunisians were captured in 2005, resulting in hand-to-hand combat that did not go well for the Tunisians. The owner of the safe house was captured with a diary listing dates and effects for years of attacks; that diary actually matched up perfectly with SIGACT reports of the same incidents. The Tunisians were captured with all sorts of documentation, as I recall, that chronicled their long journey by all modes of transport to get through to Syria and across into Mosul.

It is extremely safe to say that many hundreds, indeed thousands, of Iraqis have been killed by the handiwork of foreign fighters. Untold tons of munitions have flowed across the border over time. Those arms are a lifeline to the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Anbar has gone mostly quiet and Special Forces and conventional forces have been making progress up there in Nineveh, but Mosul is the last serious redoubt of al-Qaeda in Iraq, as well as other insurgent groups. (Diyala still has some problems.) In 2007 and early 2008 when I was last there, explosives were coming in through Syria. In fact, the last combat mission I did in Iraq this year was with a Special Forces team that specifically was searching for weapons coming in through Syria.