The United States Monday publicly called on Syria to do more to curb the traffic
of foreign fighters to Iraq through Syrian territory. The transit to Iraq of
foreign extremists, which had been reduced to a trickle in recent months, is
reportedly increasing again.
The Obama administration has confirmed that
senior U.S. envoys in Damascus last week made a direct appeal to Syrian
authorities to again crack down on cross-border traffic of Arab militants, some
of whom have apparently been involved in recent suicide bombings in
The flow of foreign fighters through Syria to Iraq, which
reportedly peaked at several dozen crossings a month in the middle of 2007, had
been a major irritant in U.S.-Syrian relations.
The Washington Post
newspaper quoted U.S. military officials as saying that the traffic, which had
nearly ceased early this year, has increased again to about 20 individuals a
month. It said that at least two Tunisian men who had been smuggled across the
border in April, staged suicide attacks in Iraq only days later as part of a
bombing offensive by the group al-Qaida in Iraq.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Ian
Kelly said the issue had been raised during a visit to Damascus last week by
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and
White House National Security Council Middle East expert Daniel
"We continue to have very deep concern about this issue, of the
flow of foreign fighters going into Iraq via Syria," he said. "And we also
continue to call on Syria to take immediate and decisive action, including
better screening of individuals entering Damascus airport, increased security on
the Iraq-Syria border, better cooperation with the government of Iraq in denying
foreign fighter-facilitators safe haven in Syria."
There have been
similar expressions of concern in recent days by the head of U.S. Central
Command, General David Petraeus, and U.S. military commander in Iraq, General
Raymond Odierno, neither of whom directly accused the Damascus government of
supporting the traffic.
The Obama administration is trying diplomatic
outreach to Syria, in hope of persuading the Damascus government to distance
itself from Iran and end support for radicals in the region such as Lebanon's
Hezbollah movement and the Palestinian group Hamas, which controls Gaza.
The Damascus visit by U.S. officials Feltman and Shapiro was their
second in two months, and U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell is understood
to be considering his own visit there if the outreach effort is
There is no early indication of that, however, with Syria and
Iran reaffirming their alliance during a Damascus visit by Iranian President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a week ago.
Late last week, President Obama extended
for another year a set of economic sanctions against Syria imposed by former
President Bush under a 2003 act of Congress.