(CNSNews.com) - General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is crediting efforts by the Syrian government, along with stepped-up counter-terrorism activities in other Arab states, with cutting the flow of al Qaeda terrorists entering Iraq.
This change in Syrian behavior has occurred at a time when the Iraqi government and the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad have been increasing their diplomatic and economic engagement, and when relations between Jordan and Syria also have been warming.
In November, King Abdullah of Jordan visited Syria for the first time in four years. Shortly after that, Syria made a surprise decision to participate in the Middle East peace meeting convened by President Bush at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
Assad's regime has been designated by the State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism. In the recent past, it has been a frequent source of problems for the United States and its allies in the Middle East.
Allied with Iran, Syria helped supply Lebanon's Hezbollah during its 2006 war with Israel. The regime also supports Hamas, the militant Islamist Palestinian organization that has been designated a terrorist group by the State Department.
Evidence collected by a United Nations investigation strongly suggested that the Syrian regime was behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, and it is also widely suspected of being responsible for other political assassinations in Lebanon.
"The progress that has been made against al Qaeda-Iraq this year is very significant," Petraeus said on the Dec. 28 edition of Bill O'Reilly's radio show, which was guest-hosted by Dom Giordano.
"It has been helped, I should note, by the way, by actions in a number of source countries, including Saudi Arabia, some of the Gulf states, and some north African countries, who have conducted operations against so-called foreign fighter facilitators, financiers, and others who have supported and provided money and individuals to al Qaeda-Iraq. And also, by Syria, which has taken more aggressive action against al Qaeda-Iraq in the networks in Syria that take individuals through Damascus Airport and then on into Iraq."
Petraeus's comments were in keeping with remarks he made in December to the London Guardian. They also backed up recent claims made by Iraqi and Syrian officials.
In a Dec. 7 interview with the Guardian, Petraeus credited Islamic fatwas "condemning extremism" issued in countries such as Saudi Arabia along with efforts by the Syrian government to take "more aggressive action against some of the foreign fighter facilities there" with helping to cut the flow of al Qaeda terrorists entering Iraq.
The paper cited U.S. officials as saying that between August 2006 and September 2007 about 700 foreign terrorists had entered Iraq from Syria. Since then, the flow has been cut dramatically.
At a Dec. 21 Pentagon press briefing, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also credited Syria with helping to stop the flow of terrorists into Iraq. Cartwright suggested that Iraqi-Syrian commercial relations were beginning to supplant the flow of terrorists.
When a reporter asked Cartwright what Syria or Saudi Arabia had done to curb the movement of fighters into Iraq, Cartwright said: "On the curbing of the flow, we are seeing that that is being reduced, number one. What they do to accomplish that, you know, whether it's proclamations from the central government or whether it's actual activities by their military or their police, et cetera, but the flows are in fact being stemmed. That's contributing to our ability to maintain the security. We see that out to the west in Al Anbar. The traffic that's moving now is more commerce-oriented than it was military-oriented. And that is incentivizing both sides of the border to keep that flow going.
"I still think there are challenges along the Syrian border, but not to the extent that there were," said Cartwright. "Again, out in that area, the flow has turned heavily to commerce and to the returning refugees and not so much to fighters moving back and forth, which is what we experienced six months ago."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari visited Damascus on Dec. 12 and publicly credited the Syrian regime with staunching the flow of terrorists into Iraq.
"A series of effective measures were taken that led to this drop to less than half, according to some estimates," Zebari told Al Hayat, an Arabic-language newspaper based in London (whose report was translated by the BBC).
"They numbered between 80 and 100 persons a month and this figure dropped at present to less than 30. In other words, there is still infiltration but at a lower rate. These are suicide bombers and dangerous criminals who targeted the innocent with booby-trapped vehicles and explosive belts and posed a very dangerous security threat."
Zebari suggested that the change was the result of a political decision taken by the Syrian regime to accept the new Iraq, which led to increased diplomatic, economic and security engagement between the two countries.
"We said from the beginning that the security and economic cooperation between Syria and Iraq could not be achieved if there was not a political will and if no political understanding was reached as well as acceptance of the new reality in Iraq and dealing with it in a realistic way," said Zebari. "We noticed that there is a right movement in this direction. A greater understanding between the security services was achieved from the series of visits made by Iraqi leaders and Syrian officials and as a result of the bilateral efforts and also the neighboring countries' conferences."
Zebari said, as reported by Al Hayat, that the agreements made between the two countries included "measures at the borders, airports, and border crossing and the interrogation of suspects, their ages, and the circumstances of their travel."
He also credited the assistance of other Arab states from which terrorist recruits had been coming to Iraq. Iraq, he said, "is working with countries of origin in North Africa, the peninsula, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Countries to control the movements of these people. The efforts do not include Syria alone but other countries too."
In December, Syria and Iraq agreed to reopen the Kirkuk-Banyas oil pipeline that carried Iraqi crude from Kirkuk to a port on Syria's Mediterranean coastline. In November, the two countries agreed to establish a joint Syrian-Iraq bank.
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