The Syrian government was one of the earliest supporters of the Iraq insurgency. Fearing that U.S. presence next door, Damascus began allowing its nationals and other foreign fighters go to Iraq even before the 2003 invasion. The Syrians maintained that backing all the way up to 2012 even when their own country fell into war.
Iraqi officials complained about Syria’s support for militants throughout 2011. At the end of January a group of insurgents were caught in Anbar crossing over from Syria. (1) The head of the provincial security committee claimed they got aid from the Syrian government. He went on to say that Syria would remain a threat to Iraq as long as President Assad remained in power. That was before the Syrian conflict had started however. When that finally began, Damascus still found time to maintain its role in Iraq. In April the Anti-Terrorism Police arrested 12 officers who were involved in insurgent attacks over the last two years with help from Syrian intelligence. (2) The next month a member of the Anbar council blamed Damascus for the lack of security in Iraq because it was still allowing militants to use its territory. (3) Finally, in November Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Asadi claimed that Baathists in Syria were working with the Islamic State of Iraq to carry out suicide bombings. Those all showed that as Syria fell into its own armed conflict that first year it was still actively involved in trying to undermine Baghdad. Foreign fighters and Iraqis were still based in its territory and using it as a safe haven to bring in money, material, and men for operations in Iraq. These networks were all created before the U.S. invasion under the supervision and active support of Damascus and its various security and intelligence agencies.
Another sign of Syria’s nefarious activities was its hosting of the Iraq Baath party. Many top Baathist functionaries fled to Syria after the U.S. invasion where President Assad attempted to co-opt them. For example, in November 2011, Syria’s Arrai TV aired a recording of Izzat al-Duri, the head of the Naqshibandi insurgent group criticizing Baghdad’s arrest of Baathists. By July 2012 when the Syrian war was really getting underway the two wings of the Baathist Party, one led by Mohammed Yunis al-Ahmad and the other by Duri were still being hosted by Syrian intelligence. (4) Their situation was getting difficult at that time as Iranians and Hebzollah fighters were trying to hunt them down, forcing many to move to other countries. Today the Naqshibandi is no longer active having been eclipsed and beaten into submission by the Islamic State. Its suspected that some of its cadres are still in Syria however.
Damascus was an active supporter of Iraq’s insurgency at least up to 2012. That was only abated when the Syrian war fully broke out and the Assad government had other things to deal with. Ironically, today there are thousands of Iraqis organized by Iran fighting for the same Syrian government. Some of the insurgent groups it supported are now fighting Assad as well. The instability and violence that Syria helped foster has now come back to haunt it.
1. Alsumaria, “Anbar: Syria still poses a risk on Iraq if regime is not changed,” 6/17/11
2. Al-Sabah, “12 Arrested Iraqi Policeman Acted For Syrian Intelligence Officers,” MEMRI Blog, 4/18/11
3. Aswat al-Iraq, “Better Security Due Syrian Occupation With Internal Affairs,” 5/24/11
4. “Iraqi Baathists in Syria Are Running Out of Friends,” Al-Zaman
Aswat al-Iraq, “Better Security Due Syrian Occupation With Internal Affairs,” 5/24/11
Ibrahim, Waleed, “Saddam deputy surfaces in audio recording: TV report,” Reuters, 11/11/11
Al-Laithi, Nidal, “Iraqi Baathists in Syria Are Running Out of Friends,” Al-Zaman, 7/22/12
Al-Sabah, “12 Arrested Iraqi Policeman Acted For Syrian Intelligence Officers,” MEMRI Blog, 4/18/11
Al-Salhy, Suadad, “U.S. pullout gives al Qaeda space in north, west Iraq,” Reuters, 11/18/11
Al-Sumaria, “Anbar: Syria still poses a risk on Iraq if regime is not changed,” 6/17/11
United States Department of State Bureau of Counterterrorism, “Country Reports on Terrorism 2011,” July 2012