By JOSEPH LIEBERMAN
August 20, 2007; Page A11
The United States is at last making significant
progress against al Qaeda in Iraq -- but the road to victory now
requires cutting off al Qaeda's road to Iraq through Damascus.
Thanks to Gen. David Petraeus's new counterinsurgency
strategy in Iraq, and the strength and skill of the American soldiers
fighting there, al Qaeda in Iraq is now being routed from its former
strongholds in Anbar and Diyala provinces. Many of Iraq's Sunni Arabs,
meanwhile, are uniting with us against al Qaeda, alienated by the
barbarism and brutality of their erstwhile allies.
As Gen. Petraeus recently said of al Qaeda in Iraq: "We
have them off plan."
But defeating al Qaeda in Iraq requires not only that
we continue pressing the offensive against its leadership and
infrastructure inside the country. We must also aggressively target its
links to "global" al Qaeda and close off the routes its foreign fighters
are using to get into Iraq.
Recently declassified American intelligence reveals
just how much al Qaeda in Iraq is dependent for its survival on the
support it receives from the broader, global al Qaeda network, and how
most of that support flows into Iraq through one country -- Syria. Al
Qaeda in Iraq is sustained by a transnational network of facilitators
and human smugglers, who replenish its supply of suicide bombers --
approximately 60 to 80 Islamist extremists, recruited every month from
across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, and sent to meet their
al Qaeda handlers in Syria, from where they are taken to Iraq to blow
themselves up to kill countless others.
Although small in number, these foreign fighters are a
vital strategic asset to al Qaeda in Iraq, providing it with the
essential human ammunition it needs to conduct high-visibility,
mass-casualty suicide bombings, such as we saw last week in northern
Iraq. In fact, the U.S. military estimates that between 80% and 90% of
suicide attacks in Iraq are perpetrated by foreign fighters, making them
the deadliest weapon in al Qaeda's war arsenal. Without them, al Qaeda
in Iraq would be critically, perhaps even fatally, weakened.
That is why we now must focus on disrupting this flow
of suicide bombers -- and that means focusing on Syria, through which up
to 80% of the Iraq-bound extremists transit. Indeed, even terrorists
from countries that directly border Iraq travel by land via Syria to
Iraq, instead of directly from their home countries, because of the
permissive environment for terrorism that the Syrian government has
fostered. Syria refuses to tighten its visa regime for individuals
transiting its territory.
Coalition forces have spent considerable time and
energy trying to tighten Syria's land border with Iraq against terrorist
infiltration. But given the length and topography of that border, the
success of these efforts is likely to remain uneven at best,
particularly without the support of the Damascus regime.
Before al Qaeda's foreign fighters can make their way
across the Syrian border into Iraq, however, they must first reach
Syria -- and the overwhelming majority does so, according to U.S.
intelligence estimates, by flying into Damascus International Airport,
making the airport the central hub of al Qaeda travel in the Middle
East, and the most vulnerable chokepoint in al Qaeda's war against Iraq
and the U.S. in Iraq.
Syrian President Bashar al Assad cannot seriously claim
that he is incapable of exercising effective control over the main
airport in his capital city. Syria is a police state, with sprawling
domestic intelligence and security services. The notion that al Qaeda
recruits are slipping into and through the Damascus airport unbeknownst
to the local Mukhabarat is totally unbelievable.
This is not the first use of the Damascus airport by
terrorists. It has long been the central transit point for Iranian
weapons en route to Hezbollah, in violation of United Nations Security
Council sanctions, as well as for al Qaeda operatives moving into and
out of Lebanon.
Now the Damascus airport is the point of entry into
Iraq for most of the suicide bombers who are killing innocent Iraqi
citizens and American soldiers, and trying to break America's will in
this war. It is therefore time to demand that the Syrian regime stop
playing travel agent for al Qaeda in Iraq.
When Congress reconvenes next month, we should set
aside whatever differences divide us on Iraq and send a clear and
unambiguous message to the Syrian regime, as we did last month to the
Iranian regime, that the transit of al Qaeda suicide bombers through
Syria on their way to Iraq is completely unacceptable, and it must stop.
We in the U.S. government should also begin developing
a range of options to consider taking against Damascus International,
unless the Syrian government takes appropriate action, and soon.
Responsible air carriers should be asked to stop
flights into Damascus International, as long as it remains the main
terminal of international terror. Despite its use by al Qaeda and
Hezbollah terrorists, the airport continues to be serviced by many major
non-U.S. carriers, including Alitalia, Air France, and British Airways.
Interrupting the flow of foreign fighters would mean
countless fewer suicide bombings in Iraq, and countless fewer innocent
people murdered by the barbaric enemy we are fighting there. At a time
when the al Qaeda network in Iraq is already under heavy stress thanks
to American and Iraqi military operations, closing off the supply line
through which al Qaeda in Iraq is armed with its most deadly weapons --
suicide bombers -- would be devastating to the terrorists' cause.
Simply put, for the U.S. and our Iraqi allies,
defeating al Qaeda in Iraq means locking shut Syria's "Open Door" policy
to terrorists. It is past time for Syria to do so.
Mr. Lieberman is an Independent Democratic
senator from Connecticut.