More excellent reporting from Kevin Sites. Today, we’re at Syria’s border with Iraq…here’s a quote to get you in the mood: ” ‘The pouring of fighters on the Syrian border has declined now,’ said Henry Crampton, a U.S. State Department official quoted in a Saudi newspaper. ‘And I believe the Syrians actually took certain measures in that regard, but they can do more.’ “
Video and photo essay here.
Syria says it’s stopping insurgents from crossing into Iraq. So why isn’t America convinced?
TANEF BORDER CROSSING, Syria — They are like toy soldiers in plastic poses — frozen in space, pointing their weapons in the direction of Iraq. It’s not that I doubt their intentions, it just seems, well, a bit staged — for me.
There are at least a dozen Syrian soldiers, spaced out about 20 feet apart along a sand berm. They are armed with AK-47s, Russian machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers (though the launchers are empty of grenades).
They are silent and still, looking straight ahead, like the stoic guards at Buckingham Palace, even while I crawl around them trying to get the perfect shot in the rose-gold tones of dusk.
About a kilometer and a half away, across an expanse of demilitarized, featureless desert, is the Iraqi al-Waleed border crossing point. We can’t see it, but a Syrian officer tells me that’s where the American and Iraqi troops are.
He pantomimes a soldier holding a weapon, carefully stepping backwards while continuing to look ahead.
The American and Iraqi soldiers “never turn their backs on us,” he says, “no matter who is crossing over the border — civilians, families, it doesn’t matter.”
On this side of the divide, the Tanef border crossing, this Syrian Army unit knew I was coming. The Ministry of Information had notified them. We also had a government minder with us, a woman named Muna.
While they are a bit over-prepared for my visit, I can hardly blame them. This is a sensitive spot. Since the American-led invasion of Iraq, this nearly 400-mile (600 kilometer) border has become one of the most contentious pieces of real estate in the world.
The U.S. claims that both Iraqi insurgents and foreign jihadists have used the Syrian border as an entry point to attack American and Iraqi forces, as well as civilian targets.
“The Iraqi border is very, very long and it’s hard to keep watching it all the time,” says Fayez al-Sayegh, the head of Syrian State Television and a spokesman for the Ministry of Information.
“Of course there were lots of illegitimate crossings into Iraq but we’ve taken steps to stop that,” says al-Sayegh. “But it’s not been proved that many of those [insurgents and foreign fighters] that have been arrested in Iraq have actually come through Syria.”
The Syrian Army says it’s done a lot to beef up security on the border after American and Iraqi complaints, including the creation of a defensive sand berm and increasing the number of border outposts to 557, each with eight to ten soldiers on guard.
In an Associated Press report, a Syrian officer identifying himself only as Brigadier General Amin says that his troops have caught 1,400 infiltrators from Arab or Islamic countries so far, and most have been returned home. He added that thousands more have been stopped from entering or exiting Iraq illegally.
The U.S. concedes that number of fighters crossing from Syria has decreased recently.
“The pouring of fighters on the Syrian border has declined now,” said Henry Crampton, a U.S. State Department official quoted in a Saudi newspaper. “And I believe the Syrians actually took certain measures in that regard, but they can do more.”
The Syrian border has been a wildly volatile area and the effort to secure it has cost the lives of as many as 800 U.S. and coalition soldiers and twice that number of Iraqi casualties, according to coalition commander Lt. Gen. John Vines.
U.S. officials also say that Marines and Special Forces units that patrol the border area have been given the latitude to fire into Syria to stop insurgents from crossing. But so far, the rules of engagement don’t allow them to actually cross into Syrian territory.
Tensions on the border reached their peak last July when several Syrians were killed in a gun battle with U.S. Army Rangers. The Syrian government lodged a protest at the U.S. embassy in Damascus over the incident.
The Syrians say they have repeatedly asked the Americans and the Iraqis to form a joint security command to help avoid future problems, but say that so far, their offers have been refused.
U.S. officials say that kind of cooperation won’t take place until Syria complies with United Nations requests concerning the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The initial UN reports claim evidence that both Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officials were involved in the killing.
“The American ambassador to Syria refused to go to the border twice,” says Ministry of Information spokesman al-Sayegh. “He did not want to witness that our claims of improving border security are valid so he can continue to say he hasn’t seen it.”
A U.S. State Department press officer could not confirm that the U.S. embassy in Damascus has directly received invitations to visit the border. But he did point to a statement by deputy spokesman Adam Ereli for Washington’s position.
“I don’t know what dog-and-pony show the Syrian authorities organize on their borders,” Ereli said last September. “But the fact of the matter is … there are insurgents who end up in Iraq and blow themselves up and kill people … they couldn’t have done it without Syria and Syrian territory playing a critical and necessary intermediary role.”
So while Syria claims it’s doing all it can to make the shared border with Iraq more secure, the U.S. also seems intent on withholding any credit, especially until issues over the Hariri investigation are resolved.
It is dark by the time I finish videotaping and photographing the Syrian soldiers at Tanef. It’s getting cold and the local commander invites us to have some Turkish coffee and warm ourselves by a stove in a small guard shack.
He and the two other officers there have been told not to give any interviews, so instead we chat about their families, and the long separations they endure in their duties. We speak in generalities about the uncertainty of this place and this time.
One by one, the “toy soldiers” come off their posts on the sand berm to smoke cigarettes and peer inside the shack where we are sitting, warm and comfortable, wondering what news we might bring.