"WE WILL pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."
George W. Bush, Address to Congress,
September 20, 2001
THE STORY was in the December 2, 2004, London Daily Telegraph, on page 14, by Jack Fairweather, datelined Damascus. Its headline: "All aboard the terrorists' bus to Iraq. Mujahideen mosques are springing up all over Syria to arm militants and send them across the border to do battle with the hated Americans."
Here are the highlights:
WHEN not in Iraq, Abdullah cuts meat for a living. He is a Syrian cook at the Kingdom of God restaurant in Damascus, in a bustling suburb dominated by Iraqi exiles.
For the past year, Abdullah has also been on the payroll of Iraqi resistance forces fighting American troops. . . .
In April, the 23-year-old boarded a convoy of American GMCs in Aleppo, northern Syria, with 10 other fighters from the area.
He had been recruited at a mosque 30 miles south of Aleppo, built last year by a local sheikh with business interests in Iraq and strong sympathies with the resistance. It is brazenly entitled the Mujahideen Mosque.
Abdullah, originally from the Aleppo area, and the other fighters, were provided with Iraqi passports and weapons. Abdullah was given a bazooka to carry.
They were told they would be relieving Syrian mujahideen already in Iraq, part of a regular "troop" rotation, and would be expected to fight until they in turn were either killed or replaced.
In return Abdullah's family would be paid $3,000 a month by the mosque--more than most American soldiers in Iraq and a fortune in Syria where average salaries are less than 10 pounds a week.
To enter Iraq from Syria there are three border crossings. Abdullah's convoy took the most northerly, through Rabia, a dusty collection of concrete houses straddling the border, and with pictures of the former Syrian president Hafez Assad festooning the checkpoint.
Al-Jabouri tribesmen man the border. Like the al-Dulaimy tribe that guards the southern entry points into Iraq, they are deeply hostile to the US presence and Abdullah's convoy was waved through without checks.
The men were driven to a mosque in Mosul where, according to Abdullah, dozens of their fellow countrymen were staying. He would not disclose the name of the mosque, but one such building in Mosul is the Mahmud mosque, infamous for supporting the insurgency.
This squat building on the west bank of the city has seen some of the heaviest fighting between insurgents and US and Iraqi forces recently.
Sheikh Latif al-Jabouri, who runs the mosque, claims the Syrians he shelters are businessmen who come to buy and sell cars and pray. Inside the mosque, Abdullah was greeted by a former Iraqi military officer. He was assigned to a 10-man unit of Iraqi guerrillas, and the other Syrians he traveled with were spread among other units.
For the next 80 days, Abdullah and his unit went almost every day to attack American bases with mortars, or to man mujahideen checkpoints.
He took part in ambushes on US convoys. As a mine hit a patrolling Humvee, Abdullah fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the second vehicle.
He was transferred to Fallujah for three months, conducting raids with his unit in the neighboring Sunni towns of Samara and Ramadi. . . .
US and Iraqi officials believe the Syrian government has turned a blind eye to those supporting terrorists in Iraq, seeing the insurgency as an outlet for religious extremists to let off steam. . . .
Iraqi exiles in Damascus say there may be as many as 80 "mujahideen mosques" either in name or spirit supporting the resistance.
Several prominent mosques in Damascus, including the large Bilal al-Hashemi mosque, have reputations as staging posts for Syrian fighters, suggesting a logistical and financial operation beyond the ability of any one tribal leader. The US military believes there may be as many as 2,000 foreign fighters in Iraq, mostly from Syria.
They do not operate in a vacuum. . . . At the other end of the city, thousands of members of Saddam's regime have settled in the wealthy Mezzeh district. . . . The refugees include the three sons of the former industry minister Mohammed al-Douri, on whose farm Saddam was captured in a bolthole.
It is likely that many recent arrivals have sufficient funds to finance Syrian mosques. As members of Saddam's regime some have been able to buy swaths of Damascene property which they rent out. Others live off their plundered Iraqi money. . . .
By Bush Doctrine standards, Syria is a hostile regime. It is permitting and encouraging activities that are killing not just our Iraqi friends but also, and quite directly, American troops. So we have a real Syria problem.
Of course we also have--the world also has--an Iran problem, and a Saudi problem, and lots of other problems. The Iran and Saudi problems may ultimately be more serious than the Syria problem. But the Syria problem is urgent: It is Bashar Assad's regime that seems to be doing more than any other, right now, to help Baathists and terrorists kill Americans in the central front of the war on terror.
The deputy prime minister of Iraq, Barham Saleh, wants to address the problem. He said last week, clearly referring to Syria as well as Iran, that "there is evidence indicating that some groups in some neighboring countries are playing a direct role in the killing of the Iraqi people, and such a thing is not acceptable to us."
U.S. military intelligence officials agree: They have recently concluded, according to the Washington Post, "that the Iraqi insurgency is being directed to a greater degree than previously recognized from Syria, where they said former Saddam Hussein loyalists have found sanctuary and are channeling money and other support to those fighting the established government."
What to do? We have tried sweet talk (on Secretary Powell's trip to Damascus in May 2003) and tough talk (on the visit three months ago by Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman and Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt). Talk has failed. Syria is a weak country with a weak regime. We now need to take action to punish and deter Assad's regime.
It would be good, of course, if Secretary Rumsfeld had increased the size and strength of our army so that we now had more options. He didn't, and we must use the assets we have. Still, real options exist. We could bomb Syrian military facilities; we could go across the border in force to stop infiltration; we could occupy the town of Abu Kamal in eastern Syria, a few miles from the border, which seems to be the planning and organizing center for Syrian activities in Iraq; we could covertly help or overtly support the Syrian opposition (pro-human rights demonstrators recently tried to take to the streets of Damascus to protest the regime's abuses). This hardly exhausts all the possible forms of pressure and coercion. But it's time to get serious about dealing with Syria as part of winning in Iraq, and in the broader Middle East.