Busloads of Syrians reportedly have left Syria to fight alongside Iraqi soldiers. If true, this would be an astounding development on Damascus' part, as it would be tantamount to declaring war on the United States.
The BBC has reported that busloads of Syrian volunteers have left Syria to fight alongside Iraqi soldiers. The network offered no further details regarding the numbers involved or Damascus' position on their actions. However, while Syria has stated its opposition to the war, Damascus has been extremely cautious in avoiding the impression of providing material support to Iraq. Even tacit approval of Syrian volunteers in Iraq would be tantamount to siding with Iraq in its war with the United States. That would be a tremendous gamble on the outcome of the war.
Damascus certainly would prefer that the United States not successfully occupy Iraq. Should that occupation occur, Syria would be surrounded by U.S. and allied forces to the north, south and east, severely limiting its diplomatic and military options. However, since U.S. forces already are deployed to Iraq, en route and available, it would be difficult to argue at this time that Iraq will emerge from this war victorious. Coalition troops have faced some resistance, but not enough to justify a Syrian gamble on a U.S. loss.
Sources in Syria report that tens of thousands of Syrian volunteers are pressing Damascus to allow them to cross the border to help their Iraqi brethren fight the U.S. Army. The government reportedly is refusing, as it fears U.S. anger and already has been warned by Washington. But the sources say that hundreds of young Syrians, many of them former soldiers with the Syrian army, are successfully finding their way into Iraq -- either crossing the desert on foot or camel or by bribing border guards.
There is one anomaly that could support the BBC report of busloads of volunteers leaving Syria to fight. According to Syria's SANA news agency, a U.S. warplane fired a missile at a busload of Syrian nationals in Iraq at 10:00 a.m. local time -- 0700 GMT -- March 23. The bus was carrying 37 laborers, purportedly returning to Syria from jobs in Iraq, when it was attacked near Ar Rutbah, roughly 100 miles from the Syrian border. Five of the passengers died and at least 10 were wounded in the attack. Regarding the reported attack, a CENTCOM spokeswoman said only that the United States selects its targets carefully and uses precision-guided munitions to avoid civilian casualties.
This could be an accident and a coincidence. After all, according to SANA, the bus was returning to Syria, not traveling to Baghdad. But one last nagging fact emerged: One of those wounded in the attack was transferred to his hometown of Hamma. Hamma was the site of an Islamist uprising in 1982, which was brutally suppressed by then-President Hafez al Assad. Now, just because someone comes from a town that was a hotbed of Islamist activism two decades ago, when he was an infant, doesn't mean he is either an Islamist or inclined to volunteer for a war against U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq.
Just to weave in two more tenuous threads of circumstance, we note that last year there were reports of secret Iraqi-Syrian security negotiations and of the transfer of Iraqi arms to Syria and Syrian-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. And on March 21, U.S. aircraft bombed the Iraqi town of Akashat, near the Syrian border. There were subsequent reports in the Lebanese and Chinese press of U.S. Special Operations forces skirmishing with Iraqis in that town. There were no reports of Syrian involvement, and the town is reportedly the site of weapons of mass destruction manufacturing facilities. It could have been targeted for reasons having nothing to do with the Syrian volunteers.
While Stratfor sources confirm that Syrian volunteers are trying to reach Iraq, the BBC allegations of busloads pouring out of the country are difficult to believe and can be bolstered only by the thinnest of circumstances. A few busloads of Syrian volunteers would do nothing to shift the course of the war in Iraq, but would draw U.S. wrath after the war if the coalition emerged victorious. The only conditions under which Damascus would allow volunteers to join Iraqi forces would be if they knew the battle was stacked against CENTCOM or if they were also planning to send significant forces to shift the course of the battle. Neither seems likely, but the situation in Syria is worth monitoring.