Iraq may be benefiting from the on-going protests and government repression in Syria. Damascus has long been a supporter of the Iraqi Baath party and insurgents since the 2003 invasion. Now that it is caught up in its own internal struggle, its backing for opponents of the Iraqi government may be declining, at least for the short-term.
After the overthrow of Saddam, Syria became a base for opponents of the Americans and the new Iraqi government. Many members of Iraq’s Baath party moved there. In December 2010 for example, a Baathist faction claimed that they had formed a new party based out of Damascus made up of five other groups, all living in Syria as well. They were opposed to the official Baath Party led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, who was Saddam’s vice president, and operates out of the same country. Syria was also the main gateway for foreign fighters entering Iraq. (1) At the end of 2010, intelligence officials claimed that there was a slight increase in fighters crossing the border. By 2009, the U.S. said that the number of foreign fighters had dropped from the hundreds to the tens. Foreign intelligence told the press that in October 2010 up to 250 had come from Syria that month. All of this is done in conjunction with the Syria government and corrupt border guards. In April 2011, the anti-terrorism police in Anbar arrested 12 Iraqi officers who were involved with insurgent attacks who confessed to working with Syrian intelligence. Damascus was opposed to Saddam, but saw the U.S. invasion as a bigger threat. Some in the Bush administration talked about Syria being next on their list after Iraq. The Assad government therefore allowed Baathists and other opponents of the new Iraq to set up there, just as it had done during the Saddam years.
By the spring of 2011, officials in Anbar noted a slight change. On May 24, a member of the provincial council said that the governorate was more secure because Syria was preoccupied with its domestic protests. That meant they couldn’t assist the militants crossing the border as much as they had before. The head of Anbar’s security committee warned that Syria would still be a threat as long as Assad was in power, and an intelligence source worried that more foreign fighters could enter with Syria’s border forces withdrawn to deal with demonstrations. That being said, it’s obvious that Assad is much more concerned about his own survival than undermining Iraq right now. This could lead to a decline in support for the insurgency, and give Anbar and other provinces a temporary respite.
In recent years, Iraq and Syria have tried to reconcile. That led to Damascus cutting some of its backing for Iraqi militants. Still the assistance persists, and there are occasional reports of Syrian intelligence being involved in some sort of nefarious activity within Iraq. Beginning in March however, Syria’s protest movement started and President Assad responded with force. That has diverted his attention away from Iraq, and security could be improve in parts of the country as a result.
1. Reid, Robert, “Al-Maida’s route though Syria persists,” Associated Press, 10/28/08
Alsumaria, “Anbar: Syria still poses a risk on Iraq if regime is not changed,” 6/17/11
Associated Press, “More foreign fighters seen slipping back into Iraq,” 12/5/10
Aswat al-Iraq, “Better Security Due Syrian Occupation With Internal Affairs,” 5/24/11
- “Possible terrorist penetration from Syria, intelligence source,” 6/22/11
Reid, Robert, “Al-Maida’s route through Syria persists,” Associated Press, 10/28/08
Al-Sabah, “12 Arrested Iraqi Policeman Acted For Syrian Intelligence Officers,” MEMRI Blog, 4/18/11
Sands, Phil, “Baathist factions form new alliance,” The National, 12/31/10