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.
I've been right up to that desolate border on a number of occasions. The terrorists just come across that border to murder and otherwise intimidate Iraqi villagers in Nineveh to achieve their nefarious ends. Some of the truck bombs in Nineveh and Mosul proper have been massive, and during one attack that I have previously written about, perhaps four to five hundred Yezidis were murdered within minutes. The Yezidis are very friendly toward Americans and have treated me like an honored guest. When they were attacked, it felt like a punch into my own stomach, and so I wrote "Stake Through Their Hearts" after hundreds were murdered.
The insurgency in Mosul is the last big thorn left in Iraq's paw. That we struck targets in Syria does not surprise me and I am not appalled. I am appalled that Syria allows these groups to use its territory as a base and conduit to destabilize Iraq. A Syrian government that allows these groups to penetrate Iraq's borders and murder Iraqis and Americans doesn't have much moral standing to complain about an incursion into its territory.
Still, now comes the political posturing. The Iraqi government has condemned the action and is claiming that they didn't authorize the U.S. attack. Of course Syria is doing the same. That's okay. This is one way we give the new Iraqi government cover to do what has to be done. We can take the blame; they have to coexist with their neighbors. So we are a convenient public bad guy for both sides. But there is little doubt that Iraqis are taking some comfort that the "bad guy" is not respecting a border that is violated repeatedly by Syria. Syria has played a dangerous game, with few consequences until yesterday. If Syria wants its border to be respected, it will have to respect the border with Iraq.