2005 June 16 Thursday
Insurgents Pass Over Syrian Border Into Iraq

Tal Afar, near Iraq's border with Syria, fell back into insurgent control after the 101st Airborne was withdrawn several months ago.

After the battle here in September the military left behind fewer than 500 troops to patrol a region twice the size of Connecticut. With so few troops and the local police force in shambles, insurgents came back and turned Tal Afar, a dusty, agrarian city of about 200,000 people, into a way station for the trafficking of arms and insurgent fighters from nearby Syria - and a ghost town of terrorized residents afraid to open their stores, walk the streets or send their children to school.

It is a cycle that has been repeated in rebellious cities throughout Iraq, and particularly those in the Sunni Arab regions west and north of Baghdad, where the insurgency's roots run deepest.

"We have a finite number of troops," said Maj. Chris Kennedy, executive officer of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, which arrived in Tal Afar several weeks ago. "But if you pull out of an area and don't leave security forces in it, all you're going to do is leave the door open for them to come back. This is what our lack of combat power has done to us throughout the country. In the past, the problem has been we haven't been able to leave sufficient forces in towns where we've cleared the insurgents out."

Iraq is the same old story. The US doesn't have enough troops. The insurgents operate wherever the US soldiers are too thin on the ground.

What the New York Times reports as the Pentagon's new hope is the same hope they've been touting for a couple of years now: Iraqi forces to take over part of the job.

Now, with the pace of insurgent attacks rising across Iraq and scores being killed daily in bombings and mass executions, Tal Afar and the surrounding area is becoming something of a test case for a strategy to try to break the cycle: using battle-hardened American forces working in conjunction with tribal leaders to clear out the insurgents and then leaving behind Iraqi forces to try to keep the peace.

Well, if US soldiers chase most of the insurgents out of Tal Afar again will Iraqi soldiers be able to keep them out? Or will they desert or go on strike or not bother to post guards and come under attacks that kill a bunch of them?

Most of the tribal leaders claim they want the insurgents gone but none of them will finger suspected insurgents.

Real leadership in Tal Afar lies with the 82 tribal leaders. Angered by the attacks and emboldened by the enlarged American military presence here, some sheiks have become outspoken critics of the insurgency. On June 4, at great risk to their own lives, more than 60 attended a security conference at Al Kasik Iraqi Army base near here. To the surprise of Iraqi and American commanders who organized the gathering, many sheiks demanded a Falluja-style military assault to rid Tal Afar of insurgents and complained that American forces do not treat terror suspects roughly enough.

Other sheiks said it was better to pursue a political solution. But sheiks from each point of view accused one another of being unwilling to identify suspected insurgents. American commanders had planned to circulate a list of 1,400 people thought to have potential insurgent connections, seeking verification - or denials - from the sheiks. But they decided against it because few sheiks would openly affirm or deny the status of insurgent suspects in front of other Iraqis, Colonel Hickey said.

Even if some of the sheiks are sincere why aren't members of their tribes catching insurgents in alleyways and knifing them? 200,000 people live in Tal Afar and the article quotes an estimate of 500 insurgents. If people were sincerely opposed to the insurgents and had enough courage and anger they'd kill the insurgents rather quickly. The smaller number of insurgents are willing to put their lives at risk but the masses are not. What to make of that?

US military officers liken the Iraq-Syria border to the US-Mexican border in terms of difficulty to control.

U.S. military intelligence officials believe the Qaim area sits at the crossroads of a major route used by groups such as Abu Musab al Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq to smuggle foreign fighters into the country.

"It's like the Mexican-American border there. There are attempts being made to seal it," a senior U.S. military intelligence official said on condition he remain unnamed for security reasons.

Of course the 1920 mile US-Mexican border could be controlled just as the 376 mile Iraq-Syria border could be controlled. It is a matter of allocating sufficient resources. But the US Border Patrol is starved of sufficient resources by Congress and the President in order to ensure a large influx of cheap illegal alien labor. The Border Patrol could be expanded (and the National Guard could be called out as a stop-gap measure) and a layer of fences and sensors could be built on the entire US border withe Mexico. In the case of the Iraq-Syria border proper control would require instituting a draft in the United States to supply enough soldiers to control Iraq's 605 km (376 miles) border with Syria.

total: 3,650 km
border countries: Iran 1,458 km, Jordan 181 km, Kuwait 240 km, Saudi Arabia 814 km, Syria 605 km, Turkey 352 km

To control all of Iraq's 2268 miles of borders would require a lot more troops. But some of the neighboring countries are more willing and able to prevent the insurgents from using their countries as bases. A lot of the Saudi Arabians going to Iraq find it necessary to go by way of Syria for example.

I don't think a draft and budget to supply soldiers for closing the Iraq-Syria border is worth it because the whole war is not worth it. But we'd derive a large benefit from closing the US border with Mexico.

The Saudi jihadists pass into Iraq from Syria because they want to pass into zones which have lots of Sunnis.

Experts say there is not much the Saudi authorities can do to stop jihadists from leaving Saudi Arabia for Iraq. Most Saudis who go to fight in Iraq enter through Syria, not via the 426-mile-long Saudi-Iraqi border. The desert border area is closer to Shiite communities in southern Iraq than to the Saudis' fellow Sunnis in central Iraq. "When you come in through Syria you are right in the heart of the Sunni area. Just a few miles inside you can get into Sunni urban areas," said Thomas X. Hammes, a counterinsurgency expert with the U.S. Marines, whose book "The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century," prescribes strategies for fighting urban-guerrilla insurgencies.

The Saudi authorities are trying to block the trickle of jihadists crossing the border into Iraq, but that is easier said than done, Hammes said. "People always talk about sealing these borders," he said. "I would first want to see the United States prove its capability to close the Mexican-U.S. border."

The previous article quotes Joseph Biden saying that US military officers in Iraq report an increasing flow of Saudi jihadists into Iraq. Though the vast bulk of the insurgents in Iraq are still locals.

What to make of all this? The US continues to lack sufficient troops to put down the insurgency. The US strategy continues to rely on eventual development of a competent Iraqi Army. Some officers think the development of such a force will take years. Will the new President of the United States elected in 2008 keep US troops in Iraq long enough for that to happen? How many years will that take? Will it ever happen as long as US troops remain or will the Iraqi Shias continue to figure they can just keep their heads down and let the US fight the Sunnis for them? Will Congress shift toward open opposition to a continued US troop presence in Iraq?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 June 16 11:23 AM  Mideast Iraq Insurgency

Stephen said at June 16, 2005 8:51 PM:

Just be thankful that Iran can secure its borders...

Braddock said at June 17, 2005 4:34 AM:

Iran is seeing a lot of dissent lately. Protest signs printed in English of all things, in Teheran. What is up with that, and the anti-Syrian dissent in Beirut. A new wind blowing through the middle east? Why is that?

How does this match up with all the claims here that the insurgency has almost no foreign fighters? This infiltration through Syria has been going on for years now. Sunni muslims from afar bringing the jihad to Iraq. Other Iraqi Sunnis are trying to join the government, but are being killed by foreign fighters as collaborators.

Randall Parker said at June 17, 2005 8:51 AM:


The "new wind" is blowing weakly. The Iranian people are not going to overthrow the Mullahs. See my posts Iranian People Not In Pre-Revolutionary Frame Of Mind, Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program Seen As Broadly Popular, Nuclear Power Broadly Popular In Iran, What Do Polls Tell Us About The Iranian People?, and China Iran Ties Undermining US Leverage On Iran.

I just read a news report with a US officer in Iraq quoted saying that 99.9% of insurgents captured in Iraq are natives. Yes, foreigners are crossing over and helping out. But either they are not getting caught or they are a small percentage of a much larger insurgency.

Marvin said at June 17, 2005 3:50 PM:

Relax. You're both right. Foreign arabs are going to Iraq alright, but they're blowing themselves up. The small bits and pieces that are left of them after the explosions are not worth identifying. You might call each one of them Darwin Award Winners from greater arabia, the contribution of the Sunni Ummah to the eugenic cause.

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