Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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April 15, 2003

UK, US Denials of Impending Invasion of Syria Leave Room for Maneuver, Military Action Against Baghdad

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS. There are strong, and growing, signs that the United States is preparing to strike — or certainly considering options to strike — at selected military targets in Syria following growing evidence of Syrian complicity in supporting Iraq’s war efforts against the Coalition and supporting international terrorism through:

The Government of the United Kingdom on April 14, 2003, confirmed that they “had concerns about Syria for quite some time” within hours of US Pres. George W. Bush warning Damascus to “cooperate” with the Coalition by halting support for Iraq, or face the consequences. The UK Government, however, said that it had no intention of invading Syria after the conclusion of military action in Iraq.

It is clear that the Syrian question is the point of departure for the UK Labour Government and the US Bush Administration. Significantly, it is British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw — rather than Prime Minister Tony Blair — who has been used to reiterate the UK’s unwillingness to link the Iraq campaign with Syria. Understandably: Syria reflects the UK Labour Party’s love affair with the Palestinian cause and with Syria. Syrian leader Bashar al-Asad has been received in London by Prime Minister Blair, and the connection between the Asad Government and Palestinian terrorism has been extensively documented. Prime Minister Blair has thus gone almost as far as possible in expressing “concerns” over Syrian links to terrorism and Iraq. The US Bush Administration is now aware that it moves further against Iraq without, necessarily, any UK military forces.

The question of Coalition military action against Syria was deliberately left open. The UK and US denials of an impending “invasion” of Syria almost pointedly open the question of US military strikes against Iraqi-connected military assets inside Syria (particularly those at the Hsishi compound near Kamishli, and the SSM assets inside Syria near the Iraqi border), as well as at bases used by Syria in connection with its support for either Iraq or international terrorism. This means terrorist training camps and, significantly, such airfields as al-Mazah Air Force Base, in northern Damascus (not attached to Damascus International Airport), which was used to transship fleeing Iraqis. Given that the Al Quwwat al Jawwiya al Arabiya as Souriya (Syrian Arab Air Force) is based at al-Mazah, there was no question but that the Government of Pres. Asad knew of the Iraqi movements on the Libyan Air Force Ilyushin Il-76 on April 9-10, 2003, among other movements.

Significantly, a second Libyan Air Force transport aircraft flew into, and out of, al-Mazah AB on Sunday, April 13, 2003, collecting an Iraq-related cargo of people and baggage.

The Syrian Government attacked the GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily reports of the movement of Iraqi Scud-level SSM units from Syrian territory into Iraq and back into Syria on the night of March 27-28, 2003, saying that this report was based on Israeli disinformation. However, the reporting did not come from Israeli sources, but rather GIS sources in the field, and the movement was almost certainly verified by US, or US-controlled assets, including satellite reconnaissance. 

With regard to the WMD assets, Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily on October 28, 2002, noted:

Iraq moved stockpiles of chemical weapons and nuclear matériel as well as key production machinery and key experts to the Hsishi compound near Kamishli, in Syria, along with strategic weapons, ammunition, military fuels and other defense matériel, gold reserves, national archival records and national art treasures. It is believed that the moves took place in late August and early September 2002.

It is also understood that some of the matériel, production machinery and experts moved into Hsishi compound were from the al-Qaim facility, which had been based near the H-3 base area in Western Iraq. The al-Qaim facility had been involved, before 1991, almost exclusively in uranium enrichment for nuclear weapons, but since it was reconstituted after the bombings of the 1991 Gulf War it was engaged in chemical and biological weapons development work, along with some nuclear-related activity. It is believed that some of the warhead materials for the chemical and biological weapons were at the al-Qaim facility, and that this is now in Hsishi.

GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs sources continue to express concern that Iraq, with Syrian cooperation, was still capable of — and possibly intending — two major “spectaculars”: a major explosion of a WMD device, possibly a nuclear weapon, inside an Iraqi city; and a launch of strategic SSMs against Israel. [See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, April 14, 2003: Threat of Emplaced WMD Detonation Not Yet Ruled Out in Iraq; Prospect of Attack on Israel Also Not Yet Totally Negated.]

Among the high-level Iraqi officials on the US “wanted” list now reportedly inside Syria is Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, Vice-Chairman of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). He was observed crossing the border into Syria when Coalition hostilities escalated against Iraq.

Significantly, the US has clearly considered the implications of Iraqi and Syrian/Iranian attempts to link the Coalition war with Iraq and the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. US strikes against Syria would occur separately from any reference to Israel, but should the escalation occur, it was expected that the Iranian and Syrian assets would be mobilized to take advantage of the rise in tensions and regional emotions to help “broaden the war” to include Israel. This would mean a mobilization of assets in Lebanon and Syria, attacking Israel with the extensive stockpiles of tactical and medium-range SSMs at their disposal. It was expected at this point — and following a period of US air attacks on Syrian targets — that Israel could well mobilize against the insurgent forces and their Syrian Government supporters, possibly “going all the way to Damascus” with the intent of removing Pres. Bashar al-Asad from office.

[See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, December 2, 2002: Tehran Maneuvers for a Wider War With Israel to Ensure That the US-led War on Iraq Does Not Leave Iran Isolated and Surrounded.]

The December 2, 2002, report by GIS Senior Analyst Yossef Bodansky noted:

With the US attack on Iraq seemingly inevitable, there is overwhelming evidence that the governments of Iran and Syria have embarked on an plan to create a strategic posture in the Middle East which would compel Israel to attack Syria and Lebanon irrespective of the outcome of the US-led war with Iraq.

Consequently, even if Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein failed to provoke an Arab-Israeli war as a preemption to the US-led onslaught, and even if the US succeeded in coercing Israel into passivity during the war with Iraq, it would ultimately be impossible for Israel not to attack Syria and Lebanon.

Any such attack would get Iran directly involved in the war, thus starting a strategy dynamic which, both Tehran and Damascus are convinced, would ultimately reverse the US gains in and against Iraq without their having to confront the US directly.

It continued:

In the Autumn of 2002, Tehran embarked on a dangerous gambit. From all the information received, Iran’s ruling mullahs consider the outcome of the US-led war with Iraq a matter of life and death for their Administration. If the US succeeds to establish a pro-Western stable government in Baghdad, it would effectively complete the encirclement of Iran by hostile forces and countries. This would amount to the beginning of the stifling and strangulation of the clerical Administration, an untenable situation for Iran’s mullahs. As well, Tehran knows that Iran is very high on Washington’s list of terrorism-sponsoring states, and that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been openly urging a sympathetic US Pres. George W. Bush to rapidly expand the war on terrorism from Iraq to include Iran. Hence, Tehran does not want to needlessly aggravate the situation in and around Iran.

Further noting ...

In early Autumn 2002, Syria began changes at the top of its security apparatus in order to expedite cooperation with Iran. Most crucial is the rise of Assaf Shawqat — Bashar’s brother-in-law and closest confidant — to the post of deputy chief of military intelligence. This makes Shawqat the strongest man in Syrian intelligence because his ostensible chief — Hassan Hallil — is an important figure in Damascus but significantly weaker than the all-mighty Ali Duba, Hafez al-Asad’s fierce loyalist.

And, with regard to HizbAllah

[Iranian Minister of Intelligence Ali] Yunesi and Bashar [al-Asad] resolved to use the “HizbAllah’s regional dimension” as the primary instrument for disrupting the region’s stability. Indeed, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and other HizbAllah leaders who were summoned to Damascus for meetings with Yunesi, Bashar and other senior officials were told that the HizbAllah must now stress its “regional rôle” at the expense of its current “Lebanese rôle and dimension”. The HizbAllah would be instructed “at the right time” when to begin implementing “the HizbAllah’s regional rôle in cooperation with Syria and Iran”.

In conclusion, while conventional conflict was now scaling down inside Iraq, it was highly likely that the surprise “spectaculars” would be attempted in order to regain iconographic leadership for Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Asad, and that the move to widen the war to embrace Israel — in order to assist in Iran’s regional moves to avoid isolation — would probably also be attempted in the near future. Significantly, the US, Iraq, Syria and Iran, as well as Israel, seem to be aware of the choreography of this anticipated escalation, and all seem committed to playing their respective rôles.

At the same time, however, other moves are almost certainly underway against moderate Arab states in the region by radical Islamist forces who must be expected to attempt to take advantage of the general shock felt in much of the Arab world over the speed and decisiveness of the Coalition military success against the Saddam forces in Iraq. Considerable anti-establishment activity is underway in Egypt and Libya, for example.