There have long been charges that Syria is allowing jihadists into Iraq. Senator Lieberman and others have fingered Damascus Airport as a major waypoint. I have no idea whether the allegations hold water. (Top generals don’t buy the assertion, though that hasn’t stopped Lieberman from suggesting that the airport should be, ahem, targeted.) But I have just come across a bit of forgotten history that U.S. Army units once worked with Syria to secure the border but top officials at the Defense Department killed the effort.
The anecdote comes in Inheriting Syria, a book by the national security council’s former Syria expert Flynt Leverett. The book is mostly a kind of wonkish biography of Syria's New Dear Leader but it also deals with, tellingly, Damascus's role in post-invasion Iraq.
Back in 2003, U.S. officials in Washington were already complaining that Syria was operating a jihadi highway. Yet as Leverett recalls, U.S. units along the border had a different perspective. Commanders of the units disagreed that Syria was aiding jihadists. Indeed, working on their own initiative, some of the U.S. units were working successfully with Syrian forces. For example:
One U.S. commander, General David Petraeus of the 101st Airborne Division, who had responsibility for a larger portion of northern Iraq, worked out his own arrangement with Syrian authorities. In return for allowing Syrian businessman to reestablish trade routes into Iraq, local Syrian officials coordinated border control efforts with officers of the 101st Airborne and provided the division’s sector of northern Iraq with daily electricity.
So what happened to that cooperation? Here’s what Leverett writes in a footnote:
U.S. and Syrian officials have told the author that Syrian ambassador Mustafa was informed that a request for U.S.-Syrian military-to-military coordination in controlling the Syrian-Iraqi border would be made to Deputy Foreigner Minister Mu’allim. By the time the U.S. chargé d’ affaires in Damascus had his meeting with Mu’allim a few days later, the Office of the Secretary of Defense had fought a successful bureaucratic rear guard action against the idea and the proposal was never formally made.
To sum up: Despite the administration rhetoric back at the time, Syria was working with U.S. forces to secure the border. Then an attempt was made to solidify the ad-hoc cooperation. And Rumsfeld and Co. shot it down.
Why did administration officials put the kibosh on what would seem to be at least the potential for a helpful working relationship? Leverett, who served in the NSC during Bush’s first term, says administration hawks figured that any cooperation with Syria might create, in Leverett’s words, “a sense of indebtedness” to Damascus.
As Leverett points out, Syria’s position wasn’t all sweets and honey. But calculating their own interests, they were willing to help U.S. forces seal the border. And the U.S. ultimately turned them down.