Two-way trail of terror


WASHINGTON -- Over three decades ago, North Vietnam was able to undermine the conventional superiority of the U.S. military via a complex and robust system of trails and tunnels that funneled guerrillas into the south.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail, as it became known, constituted an Achilles' heel for the United States in Vietnam and is remembered today as one of the important elements that ultimately contributed to what is considered to be a defeat of U.S. foreign policy.

Defeat is surely not imminent for the United States in Iraq. But underestimating the effect of a perpetual underground railroad that is facilitating the journey of thousands of Islamic radicals into Iraq is unwise and increasingly dangerous.

There are an estimated 3,000 to 10,000 foreign fighters in Iraq. The composition of this group is hotly debated in the counterterrorism community, but analysts estimate that it is made up of a large number of Algerians, Syrians, Yemenis, Saudis, Sudanese and Egyptians. It is generally agreed that the percentage of European Islamic radicals who have set out to fight in the Iraq war is proportionately very small.

But unfortunately for Europe, and for the rest of the Western world, the long-term threat posed by these relatively small numbers has been underestimated. Disturbing stories of returning Islamic radicals are starting to circulate. They include those of Wesam Delaema, a native of Iraq living in the Netherlands, and Hamid Bach, a Dutch-Moroccan. Both traveled to Iraq to participate in the war and returned home to distribute propaganda and assist with recruitment and logistics.

Recent arrests in Britain of 10 Iraqi nationals with alleged ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaida in Iraq, are equally foreboding. Such reports seem to indicate a trend, as Dutch intelligence officials estimate that between 10 and 20 Islamic radicals have been to Iraq and returned. German agents have detected returning fighters. Across Europe, these numbers could now have reached the low hundreds.

Those who make their way to Iraq from European countries and return home not only will be trained in urban warfare in a hostile battlefield but will be perfectly positioned to assemble cells like those that perpetrated the Madrid attacks of 2004 and the bombings in London last summer. These alumni of the Iraq war will act as force multipliers with the ability to cause far more destruction than their small numbers might suggest.

While stemming the flow of foreign insurgents into Iraq is a Herculean task, stopping the migration of European Islamic radicals to and from the battlefield should be a top priority for the United States and its coalition partners - but they have been slow to address it. Syria apparently has played a role in facilitating the transfer of foreign fighters into Iraq.

French officials have expressed concern about the presence of an "underground" railroad through Syria. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has stated that many of the foreign Islamic radicals who have entered the conflict have not crawled across desolate areas of the border but have simply arrived via the Damascus airport.

What is disturbing about Syria's involvement in the transfer of foreign Islamic radicals is the brazen and open way in which elements of the Damascus government operate. Training camps are reported to exist in eastern Syria, where radicals-in-training can learn how to use AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades and how to make explosive devices.

The New York Times recently reported on a series of armed clashes between U.S. and Syrian troops along the border region in western Iraq. Such clashes, some of which are reported to have occurred inside Syria, coupled with recent statements by President Bush and his most senior advisers, could indicate a change in policy concerning the U.S. commitment to stem the flow of radicals through Syria.

An effective strategy toward Syria would include three mutually re-enforcing elements.

First, any military action that targets training camps for Islamic radicals or their supply lines in eastern Syria needs to remain covert in order for other elements of statecraft to work.

Second, regional partners need to be consulted and asked to heighten the pressure. Turkey, Italy, Greece and Egypt, for example, would be ideal partners in a strategy that aims to convince Syria to alter its behavior. The U.N. report that implicates the Syrian government in the Valentine's Day assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri should provide some international support for a more forceful policy.

Finally, the United States should engage in discussions that make clear to President Bashar Assad that the chief U.S. concern lies in targeting the Islamic radicals, which, given their hostility to the Syrian Baathists, is ultimately in Mr. Assad's interest.

Allowing combat operations to creep further into Syria in the absence of a coherent strategy to address this problem threatens to undermine U.S. prospects for success in Iraq and jeopardizes the broader aim of establishing political stability in the region.

The existence of the Ho Chi Minh Trail plagued U.S. efforts in Vietnam. An intelligent and coherent strategy toward Syria will prevent history from repeating itself.

Aidan Kirby and Shawn Brimley are research associates at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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