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    Middle East
     Apr 13, 2007
Page 1 of 2
Night bus from Baghdad
By Pepe Escobar

ATTANF, on the Syria-Iraq border - The road from Damascus to the border is pure Desolation Row. Scattered nomad shepherds search rare, precious grasslands for their flocks. An incoming rickety Nissan bus from Iraq passes by, loaded with goods but carrying only four people. A pair of rusty Soviet-era missiles are transported by a slow military truck - to be positioned at the border in a face-off with the Americans?

There are three major crossing points from Syria to Iraq: al-

Yarubiye in the northeast, al-Bukamal, and Attanf. Attanf, the village, consists of three bombed-out houses. The border itself is just a customs and immigration post. The arrival of a stranger provokes quite a commotion - as in a Sergio Leone western.

In typical police-state style, everyone in the dingy immigration control room is afraid to talk. No one speaks a single word of any foreign language. An Iraqi doctor, a woman, fleeing hell in Baghdad and about to become the newest refugee in Syria, is brought in a hurry to mediate. No one will talk without an express authorization from "Damascus" - this remote, wrathful entity beyond human understanding.

The Iraqi refugees are quite straightforward, though. Yes, there are only American soldiers on the other side, 7 kilometers of no-man's land away, a true measure of Iraq's "sovereignty". Yes, they may hold cars and trucks coming from Syria for many hours, sometimes even a day, before letting them through. Yes, they look for young men who may be potential jihadis. Yes, the road is dangerous, but not as dangerous as Amman-Baghdad and Inch'Allah.

The White House and the State Department insist Syria allows and/or encourages jihadis to cross its border into Iraq - going as far as stating that 90% of the suicide bombers in Iraq have crossed from Syria. They seem to ignore Colonel William Crowe, the Pentagon official in charge of all those Americans on the Iraqi side of the border, who has said, on the record, that there is "no large influx of foreign fighters".

Moreover, "Damascus" has repeatedly confirmed that most of the 724km-long border has been fitted with barbed wire and reinforced sand barriers - and no fewer than 1,500 potential jihadis have been captured or deported.

But the fact is that any enterprising jihadi with geographical positioning and minimal tribal connections could cross this border at will. In theory, "Damascus", from President Bashar al-Assad on down, is interested in combating smuggling and jihadi traffic. The devil is in the details - how the Syrian police/military hierarchy actually deals with the problem.

For starters, Syrian business is in the hands of a powerful Sunni oligarchy. Its members will obviously be tempted to lend a hand to their Sunni muqawama (resistance) brothers in the east. Syrian military forces at wasteland border points - as in Attanf - consist of no more than a few bored men with rifles. Corruption is the norm. Evading surveillance is a matter of walking a few kilometers in the desert.

Historically, Iran, Iraq and Syria were united by the Silk Road. Attanf, for instance, is not very far from fabled Palmyra. The interaction has never ceased. Nowadays we may be seeing a new Silk Road pipeline - not only of men, ideas and commerce but also of weapons. Whatever comes from Iran has to pass through Iraq and Syria to reach Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Palestine (Hamas). Same for Sunni solidarity with Iraq, expressed through men, ideas, commerce or weapons from either Lebanon or Syria.

Accusing Syria of being a suicide-bomber factory is nonsense. The majority of suicide bombers in Iraq are Saudis, and they cross from US ally Saudi Arabia. Syria, since the fall of Baghdad four years ago, may have witnessed an inflation of 

Continued 1 2 

Was it really Pelosi in Damascus? (Apr 6, '07)

In the heart of Little Fallujah (Apr 6, '07)


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