(DAILY STAR) Hassan Qabbor clutches a photograph of his son, Mari, and points to the spot on the roof of his single-story home where the 16-year-old boy was killed.
“He was fetching water from the tank when the Americans shot him. He died immediately. We didn’t even take him to the hospital,” the farmer said.
Qabbor, who has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government in a Damascus court, said the fatal shots were fired from a concrete watch tower on the edge of a sprawling American military base inside Iraq a few hundred meters to the east.
Normally a neglected backwater, Syria’s frontier region has found itself a simmering frontline in Iraq’s bloody conflict and subject to unusual international scrutiny.
American and Iraqi officials accuse Syria of failing to take adequate action to prevent militants from entering Iraq. They say the Syrians are doing little to stop former Iraqi Baathist officials from directing and funding the insurgency from their safe haven in Damascus.
On Monday, U.S. President George W. Bush warned Syria to stop meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs and threatened further sanctions.
Last week, Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan said that “terrorism in Iraq is orchestrated by Iranian intelligence, Syrian intelligence and Saddam [Hussein] loyalists.”
Still, the influence of foreign fighters on the insurgency may have been exaggerated given the small numbers of Arab volunteers that have been captured or killed in Iraq. Furthermore, of Iraq’s four Arab neighbors, only Syria is regularly singled out for criticism, even though fighters are suspected to have entered from Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
“It’s been blown out of proportion,” said a diplomat in Damascus. “There are individuals helping people enter Iraq but I don’t think it is at a strategic level with the knowledge and assistance of the government and I don’t think it’s very well organized.”
A kilometer-and-a-half to the north of Hari, the Euphrates river winds lazily through the desert landscape, its course marked by a 3-kilometer-wide swathe of green farm land, palm trees and bulrushes. On either side of the lush Euphrates valley lies the desert running from the Turkish border in the north to Jordan in the south E 600 kilometers of drab featureless stony wilderness, the border marked only by a berm of bulldozed sand.
In response to U.S. and Iraqi pressure, the Syrian authorities since September have raised and strengthened the berm and added rows of barbed wire and in some places flood lights.
But securing the border completely is a near impossible task. The border police are under-funded and lack equipment and training.
Furthermore the anticipated cooperation on intelligence-sharing between Syrian and Iraqi border authorities has not materialized.
“To be honest it’s not just the Syrians’ fault. The Syrians are relatively well organized unlike the Iraqis,” said a Western diplomat in Damascus.
Iraqi border posts are routinely attacked by insurgents. Many of the positions have been abandoned by their Iraqi defenders and burned down.
Syrian officials say they are doing what they can to secure the border but insist it is impossible to block all infiltrators.
“Committees have been set up with Iraq to address this issue. We are playing a constructive role toward the stability and security of Iraq. Iraq’s stability is in our interest,” said Mehdi Dakhlallah, Syria’s information minister.
Other than tightening border security, the Syrian authorities appear to be cracking down on Islamists connected to the insurgency in Iraq. Sixteen Sunni clerics were arrested two weeks ago for mobilizing recruits. Several Islamist fighters who fought in Iraq and returned home have been arrested.
Conservative Sunni clerics continue to condemn American policy in Iraq, but are careful not to be seen encouraging volunteers for the insurgency.
“I am stopping people going to Iraq because the situation is chaotic,” said Sheikh Wehbi Zuleimi, an expert in Islamic jurisprudence. “I cannot issue a fatwa (religious edict) for people to fight in an atmosphere of chaos.”
Normally jammed with a long lines of goods vehicles, taxis and cars, the desolate Abu Qamal border crossing beside Hari was closed six weeks ago prior to the U.S. military assault on the Iraqi rebel stronghold of Fallujah.
Two Syrian customs guards stamp their feet and shiver in the icy wind. A single strand of coiled barbed wire festooned with wind-blown plastic bags bars access to the Iraqi side.
“Our side of the border is open 24 hours a day, but the Americans turn everyone back,” says Colonel Ali Shammar, the Syrian customs officer in charge of the border crossing.
When does the colonel think the border will re-open?
“It’s up to God and up to them,” he said, pointing at the sprawling American base marked by watch towers and protected by a wall of earth-filled caissons. A huge American flag ripples gently in the steady breeze.
A squad of American soldiers jog into view and fan out, rifles raised, on the Iraq side of the 100-yard rubbish-strewn no-mans land separating the Syrian and Iraqi border gates.
Shammar, is visibly agitated at the presence of the nearby U.S. soldiers.
“Be careful, do not go closer. They will shoot at us,” he told a group of reporters on a rare visit to the frontier post.
The Syrian customs officers who man this lonely border post have good reason to worry. The American base regularly comes under mortar and rocket fire from Iraqi rebels. U.S. soldiers often respond by sweeping the area with machine gun fire, including the Syrian side of the border.
A corner of the customs building facing the U.S. base is peppered with bullet holes.
“The Americans fire randomly,” Shammar said. “Their bullets once set fire to our kitchen.”
Sometimes shells and rockets fly over the American position and explode on the Syrian side of the border.
One mortar round impacted beside the customs building, smashing windows and pock marking the concrete wall. Another blew apart a section of the roof.
The border post is not equipped to deal with incoming artillery fire.
Asked what they do when the American post comes under attack, Shammar said simply “We just go inside and wait for it to finish.”