Syria faces pressure on Iraq border

Officials say Damascus is not to blame for lack of control

November 01, 2005|By JOHN MURPHY | JOHN MURPHY,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

HOWEJAH, Syria -- A thin coil of barbed wire, so low in sections that a child might leap over it without fear of being snagged, serves as the only barrier separating this Syrian village in the lush Euphrates River valley from Iraq.

Syria's head of border security, Maj. Gen. Amin Suleiman Charabeh, pointed to the obstacle as evidence that Syria is trying to keep foreign fighters from slipping into Iraq to join the insurgency against American forces. But, he confessed, those efforts clearly are not enough to stop the fighters.

"If extremists get this far, it is easy to cross," he said.

Charabeh was speaking last week during a government-organized tour of Syria's border at a time when the pressures against the Syrian government, led by President Bashar Assad, seem to be increasing day after day. In the latest blow, the United Nations Security Council warned Syria yesterday of "further action" if it doesn't cooperate with a U.N. investigation into the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister. The initial investigation implicated several top Syrian officials in the death.

Last week's trip to the border was designed to counter criticism by the United States that Syria's failure to control its eastern border is one of the forces stirring up chaos in Iraq.

Far from delivering the message that the border is tightly sealed, Syrian officials sought to show how the 435-mile border running across open desert, mountains and river valleys is, more or less, an open door for insurgents. But Syria is not to blame for what happens here, the general said.

By turns proud and defensive, Charabeh boasted that Syria in the past year has invested more than 117 million Syrian pounds, about $2.3 million, into beefing up security patrols, creating new checkpoints, building sand and cement barriers, and laying barbed wire. There are 575 border posts and 7,000 police monitoring the border.

Syrian officials further claim that they have arrested 1,400 insurgents from Arab nations attempting to slip across the border or establish training camps in Syria since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. They also deported 2,500 Iraqis in Syria who were alleged to have entered illegally or committed other crimes.

Despite those efforts, Syrian authorities complain, the paucity of communication with American and Iraqi forces and the lack of advanced equipment, such as night vision goggles, mean there is little more the government can do to stop the flow of insurgents.

So the Syrian-Iraqi border remains largely porous, especially at night for the large Sunni Muslim tribes that straddle it.

"It's a huge work and it demands a lot of effort. Our facilities are rather humble," the general said. "And yet, we are condemned for not doing well and for letting people infiltrate our country."

Critics should not point the finger at Syria but at American forces in Iraq who have done little to secure its side of the border, the general said.

He encouraged the visiting journalists to look at the Syrian border police station in Howejah and the police patrolling the border. Then he asked everyone to look at the Iraqi side of the border.

For Syrians or Americans, it was an unsettling scene. Pointing to an empty field in the Iraqi village of Sanjak, where there was a ruined cinder-block home and a few children playing near a drainage ditch, he said, "You can see there isn't any police station on the other side. There are only accusations."

The accusations against Syria have intensified in recent days, ever since a preliminary U.N. report on the assassination in February of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri named top Syrian officials as suspects in the plot. The Syrian government had been put on the defensive, as the United States, Britain and France pushed for a Security Council resolution that would impose sanctions against Syria if it did not cooperate with the U.N. investigation. The resolution, which passed 15-0 yesterday, removed the threat of sanctions but ordered Syria to cooperate fully with the investigation.

The United States has used the opportunity to renew its call for Assad to, in effect, remake his government and Syrian politics, and also crack down on extremist groups alleged to be using Syria as a way station for entering Iraq.

U.S. officials accuse Assad's government of turning a blind eye when insurgents attempt to cross and not doing enough to stop would-be insurgents from entering Syria in the first place.

"In the case of Syria, we are concerned about cross-border infiltration, about unconstrained travel networks, and about the suspicious young men who are being waved through Damascus International Airport," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Secretary told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 19.

U.S. forces near the Iraqi side of the border have gone on the offensive in recent months, battling suspected insurgents along the Syrian border in places such as Al Qaim, an Iraqi border town in the Euphrates River valley.

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