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 Islamists, nationalists and former Ba’ath supporters of Saddam Hussein.
For the Syrian government, having its own Islamists crossing the border to fight the Americans in Iraq has always sounded like a good idea: a way of sweeping a problem under someone else’s carpet. But to imply that Syria has become a sanctuary of Islamic fundamentalists and radical Ba’athists at the same time is also nonsense.
Those who made it
Not many jihadis take the night bus to Baghdad, but thousands of Iraqi families do take the night bus from Baghdad. Middle-class Iraqi Sunnis who have made it across the Syria-Iraq border tend to establish themselves in such areas as “Little Fallujah”. For lower-middle-class Iraqi Shi’ites, the favored area is around the spectacular, Persian-style Sayyida Zaynab shrine, in southeast Damascus, with its turquoise arabesques and glittering geometrical mirrors. Inside, pilgrims from Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia mingle with mullahs and hojjatoleslam, praying for hours or just meditating. There’s always a whiff of perfume in the air.
But outside, everything revolves around the war in Iraq. In a small shop owned by the Damistani family from Bahrain, in front of the renamed, derelict Iraqi Square, facing a huge street banner which would be prime Pentagon target practice (both Assads, father Hafez and son Bashar, alongside Hezbollah’s Sheikh Nasrallah), a loquacious girl and a burly man come to grips with the Iraqi side of the road.
“Commandos abduct people,” she says. “It happens sometimes,” he adds. “The Americans can stop our buses for one or two days,” she tries to prevail; “No, they stop the bus only at the border, and then in front of Abu Ghraib,” he mumbles. They sell bus tickets to Baghdad. A one-way ticket costs 900 Syrian pounds (roughly US$18). In the “busy” season – ie, last summer – it was 1,500 pounds. The lone bus departs at 9pm and, depending on the collective good karma, arrives the next day at 5pm. The same trip in a GMC truck would cost at least $50 per person.
At the end of 2005, well before the “surge”, traveling was “safe”. Now it’s “not safe”. A glance at the log says it all: there’s only one registered passenger for tonight’s bus. Virtually all passengers are Iraqis – unwilling returnees because they ran out of money. There is also the odd Iranian, trying to make his dangerous way to Najaf. Every passenger coming from Baghdad, they say, arrives petrified with fear but thanking Allah for having escaped in one piece.
The neighborhood around Sayyida Zaynab is lower-proletarian poor – far from the dusty glitz of Little Fallujah. As many as 60,000 Iraqis are now residents. At Al Kazimiyah shop, Imad, formerly a math teacher in Baghdad, has practically given up on selling bus tickets. His salary is $100 a month, but he has been spending $300 on his family of four since he arrived six months ago.
He confirms that thousands of families are running out of money, and will have to go back. He is hoping for “Baghdad to get better” so they can go home, but he harbors no illusions. His wife’s brother has a British passport. He has entered a visa application for England. But he would be more than happy to relocate anywhere in the world.
Outside on the dusty road a man is wailing. He is actually speaking, but not on camera, to a Syrian TV crew. He thanks President Bashar for his hospitality toward all Iraqis, and he blames all Iraq’s problems on “Amrika, Israel and the Mossad” – not before stressing there was never any problem in Iraq between Sunnis and Shi’ites.
Nearby, in an improvised bakery – basically a stone oven – a man with a disconcerting smile is producing sublime bread with capsicum. He arrived in the neighborhood just before the “surge”, with his whole family. The baker of Baghdad actually has a degree in “technology studies”. But what matters is that he survived Baghdad, and that night bus from Baghdad – so his smiles of joy had to be imprinted in the daily little miracle of baking the perfect bread.