Iraq Insurgents Directed from Syria

Rebels Aided By Allies in Syria, U.S. Says (Thomas Ricks, WaPo, A01)

U.S. military intelligence officials have concluded 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. Based on information gathered during the recent fighting in Fallujah, Baghdad and elsewhere in the Sunni Triangle, the officials said that a handful of senior Iraqi Baathists operating in Syria are collecting money from private sources in Saudi Arabia and Europe and turning it over to the insurgency. In some cases, evidence suggests that these Baathists are managing operations in Iraq from a distance, the officials said. A U.S. military summary of operations in Fallujah noted recently that troops discovered a global positioning signal receiver in a bomb factory in the western part of the city that “contained waypoints originating in western Syria.”

Concerns about Syria’s role in Iraq were also expressed in interviews The Washington Post conducted yesterday with Jordan’s King Abdullah and Iraqi President Ghazi Yawar. “There are people in Syria who are bad guys, who are fugitives of the law and who are Saddam remnants who are trying to bring the vicious dictatorship of Saddam back,” Yawar said. “They are not minding their business or living a private life. They are . . . disturbing or undermining our political process.” Abdullah noted that the governments of both the United States and Iraq believe that “foreign fighters are coming across the Syrian border that have been trained in Syria.”

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials have previously complained about Syria’s role in Iraq, but officials said the latest intelligence has given impetus to new efforts aimed at curbing the activities of the Hussein loyalists there. The U.S. government recently gave the government of Syria a list of those officials, with a request that they be arrested or expelled, a State Department official said yesterday. “We’re bringing quite a bit of pressure to bear on them, and I think some of it is working,” said another official, who works in federal counterterrorism efforts. Like other officials interviewed for this article, he declined to be identified by name or position because of the sensitivity of his specialty.


The Green Zone in central Baghdad, home of the U.S. Embassy and the offices of the interim Iraqi government, is especially “overrun with agents,” said one Defense Department official who recently returned from Iraq. One activity that has been noticed is that when major convoys leave the zone, Iraqi cell phone calls from the zone seem to increase, he said. An additional concern is that the insurgency seems to be using some Iraqi companies to get into U.S. bases, he said.

Jeffrey White, a former Middle Eastern analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the Syrian role is part of what many intelligence officials believe are the increasingly organized attacks on U.S. forces. “In the last two months or so, this notion that this is a Baathist insurgency has gained dominance in the [intelligence] community,” he said. Coupled with that, he said, “there is an increasing view that Syria is at the center of the problem.”

Not everyone with first-hand knowledge of the intelligence is convinced that the United States really has a strong grasp of the nature of the insurgency, especially the idea that the insurgency is being directed from the top down. Some Special Forces officers contend that many of the small-scale roadside attacks with bombs or rocket-propelled grenades are mounted not on orders of a hierarchical organization, but rather by Iraqis working more or less alone who feel they have been humiliated by U.S. soldiers, or who simply dislike the occupation. “I just don’t have the sense that we’re getting to where we need to be,” said one Defense Department official. “We don’t know where the enemy is.”

Syria has long been a chief state sponsor of terrorists, although I’m a bit surprised that the regime is willing to risk the wrath of the United States under present circumstances. I tend to agree with the critics who say that we really don’t know the precise composition of the insurgency. It’s entirely unclear exactly what the mix is of homegrown rebels angry at the invasion, Saddam loyalists fearful of the outcome of democratic elections, and foreign jihadists.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.