Iraq Militant Group's Pipeline Through Syria Revives After Long Gap
Monday, May 11, 2009
Last October, as the Bush administration was touting a dramatic drop in the number of suicide bombings in Iraq, four young Tunisian men left their homes for Libya and then headed to Syria. There, they were met at the Damascus airport and taken to a safe house.
Six tedious months passed until their handlers felt that it was safe to move the men again. In April, they were smuggled across the Iraqi border; within days, two were dead, among the suicide bombers who have killed at least 370 Iraqis in a wave of attacks over the past several weeks.
The third Tunisian disappeared. The fourth was captured and, according to a senior U.S. military official, provided interrogators with this account of their travels.
His statement, combined with what other sources had previously indicated to U.S. and Iraqi intelligence, confirmed what American officials had suspected: After a long hiatus, the Syrian pipeline operated by the organization al-Qaeda in Iraq is back in business.
The revival of a transit route that officials had declared all but closed comes as the Obama administration is exploring a new diplomatic dialogue with Syria. At the same time, Washington remains concerned by Syrian activities -- including ongoing support for the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as activities involving Iraq.
On Wednesday, acting Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey D. Feltman and National Security Council official Daniel Shapiro arrived in Syria for their second visit since Barack Obama's inauguration as president. Two days later, however, Obama renewed U.S. sanctions against Syria, accusing Damascus of supporting terrorism in the Middle East and undermining Iraqi stability.
"I think it sends the message that we have some very serious concerns," Robert Wood, a State Department spokesman, said of the sanctions renewal. Feltman, he added, was "in Damascus to talk about . . . how we can get Syria to change its behavior and see if it's willing to really engage seriously in a dialogue, be a positive role in the Middle East. Up until now, Syria hasn't played that positive role."
The Damascus government made no public comment on the Feltman-Shapiro visit. Efforts to reach the Syrian Embassy in Washington on Friday, before it closed for the weekend, were unsuccessful.
The Bush administration frequently criticized Syria for the transit of foreign fighters, suggesting that the authoritarian government of President Bashar al-Assad was involved in the traffic. But U.S. military and intelligence officials remained less certain.
"What we think right now is that we just don't know how much their senior leaders know about the foreign fighter network," said the senior U.S. military official, who discussed intelligence matters last week on the condition of anonymity. "As you can imagine . . . if they knew, it's not something they would be talking about."
"But we do think that the knowledge of these networks exists at least within the Syrian intelligence community," he said. "What level, if it's low or high up, we just don't have a good gauge on."
Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, told Congress late last month that the al-Qaeda in Iraq pipeline through Syria had been "reactivated." Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, confirmed Friday that "some elements of foreign fighters continue to traffic through Syria." But officials have been careful not to directly accuse Damascus of supporting the traffic.