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December 22, 2004

Uncertain Quiet Descends on Syrian Front

by Jim Lobe

HIRI, Syria-Iraq border - There has not been any fighting lately near the desolate border village of Hiri, as there used to be after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, inhabitants here say. Nor have any cars or people crossed the border from Syria into Iraq at the official crossing. It was closed by the Iraqi authorities and the Americans last month during the fighting in Fallujah.

There are no more US soldiers or flags to be seen, just watchtowers, sniping positions, and a fence. On the Syrian side, there is a new 3-meter high earth ramp to stop cars crossing illicitly near the village.

Hiri seems abandoned to its people and a handful of security officers who do not welcome any visitors, even if they have just come to have a look and not to cross into Iraq. The village has become one of the front lines of a different confrontation.

The United States has again warned Syria, along with Iran, to stop interfering in Iraq. "We will make it clear to both Syria and Iran that ... meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq is not in their interests," U.S. President George W. Bush said last week.

The United States has put steady pressure on Damascus to stem what it insists is a continuing flow of people and money to support insurgents in Iraq. After initially complaining about the porous border, the United States has shifted its attention to the presence of members of the former Iraqi regime and its Ba'ath party in Syria, and their alleged role in funding and supporting the insurgency.

Syria officially hosts some 45,000 Iraqis, but wildly inflated figures of up to a million refugees also circulate.

"There are many people here from the regime," said Mahdi al-Obeidi, who calls himself a representative of the "original Ba'ath party, from before Saddam." Obeidi has been in Damascus for some 30 years, a refugee from Saddam Hussein, not an associate.

In his shabby office in Damascus, he claimed to have met with many new arrivals. He does not make a distinction any more between those who have been "Saddam's men" and others. This is Iraq's hour of need and everybody should unite to fight the Americans, he said.

"Even if I only have one dime left, I would give it to the resistance," he told IPS. Most Iraqis who are in Syria feel that way, he said, so it should come as no surprise that they try to support the "freedom fighters".

Syrians are in "total sympathy with the resistance," he said. Sadly, he added, the Syrian government has done little to help.

Few analysts in Syria, even some who are close to the government, deny that at least a trickle of people may still be crossing into Iraq to join the insurgents. The border is long and many say impossible to seal completely. Families and tribes straddle the border and are used to moving back and forth more or less freely.

A sheikh of the Duleimi tribe in Abu Kamal near Hiri says he knows many people who have crossed into Iraq and back. He was in Iraq during the war to see his extended family there, and barely made it back alive.

What seems to concern the Americans much more than such individual crossings is the possibility that the Syrian government may turn a blind eye to large-scale organized infiltration, or even actively encourage it. During the war in Iraq last year, it is widely accepted that this was the case. Since then, the authorities have at least tried to clamp down on the most blatant instances.

Mahmoud Mohammed al-Ghasi, known as Sheikh Qa'aqa, was a fiery preacher up to the invasion of Iraq in nearby Aleppo. Dressed as an Afghan veteran in a combination of fatigues and traditional garb, he used to urge the faithful to oppose American designs in the region. After the invasion, he was told to tone it down.

Now he looks like a businessman. He wears a blazer, his beard is cropped, and he has given up preaching in the local mosque. "The government does not have a problem with me," Qa'aqa said. "I think some officials just became worried because I attracted too many people."

A disappointed former associate who preferred to remain unnamed said he was in a group of some 300 core supporters who left Qa'aqa almost a year ago because the sheikh "turned out to be a fraud." He said that before the war Qa'aqa had called for a holy war against the Americans if they invaded Iraq. After the fall of Baghdad, Qa'aqa made a U-turn. "A lot of kids came to talk to him about going to Iraq and he swore again and again that there is no jihad in Iraq."

The former associate of Qa'aqa's is closely watched by the secret police, and he has been forbidden to meet with other former followers of the sheikh. "They do not want us to organize," he said. Nevertheless, he claimed that he and others like him had "very good contacts" among the insurgents in Iraq and that crossing the border was no problem.

There is disagreement in Syria about what the government knows about such supposed ties and what it does about it. One advisor to the foreign ministry called it "inconceivable" that the government would allow, let alone condone, support for the Iraqi insurgents. "Those people may go and fight, be trained, learn all kinds of things, and come back to make trouble," said Riad Daoudi, indicating that the insurgency in Iraq is not in Syria's interest.

Prominent human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bounni takes a different view. The government seems to be taking its precautions by arresting fighters who return from Iraq, he said. At the beginning of December, a man who had been held for four months after crossing back visited his office, he said. He is reported to have told Bounni that at least 50 more former fighters were languishing in the same jail. The lawyer estimated that there must be many more elsewhere.

The government has indeed clamped down on some of the people who were calling for a jihad in Iraq, said Bounni. In Hama, a town which has a reputation as a fundamentalist stronghold, 16 preachers who were calling on their followers to go to Iraq were arrested in September, said the lawyer. This was done, he claimed, not because the authorities wanted to stop the flow of fighters completely, but because they do not want it to happen "outside their control."

Bounni said the government has no interest in a stable Iraq. "They worry about Iraq being a really democratic and free country." This presumably would set a bad example for Syria's own population.

Another analyst made a slight adjustment to that picture. Syria may still play a "passive" role in allowing fighters and financial support to cross into Iraq, he said. But the government would be willing to stop that "in exchange for a role" in the affairs of its neighbor.

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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