Syrian protesters win support of Iraqi kinsmen

Reuters , Sunday 7 Aug 2011

Syria's neighbours in Iraq's western frontier stand in solidarity with the Syrian protesters, providing supplies across the border

Along Iraq's western frontier, Syria's unrest is stoking local sympathies and security fears in a Sunni Muslim heartland where Iraqis share strong tribal loyalties with their Syrian kin.

In Iraq's Qaim, townsfolk talk of getting supplies to relatives in the rebellious Syrian city of Albu Kamal as a show of solidarity with protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

Nearby, Iraqi troops say they have built extra watchtowers and trenches after Syrian forces moved back from the border to quell protests, leaving Iraqi border guards more exposed to clashes with smugglers and infiltrators.

Qaim lies only a few kilometres (miles) from Albu Kamal, a poor eastern Syrian border crossing where Syrian residents say security forces have deployed tanks and helicopters around the town after thousands of people staged anti-Assad protests.

"We haven't been able to get anything to them because Syrian forces surrounded Albu Kamal and cut off communications," a merchant in Qaim who gave his name only as Imad told Reuters by telephone. "If I could, I would protest with them there."

Resilient tribal ties and porous border controls have long made smuggling easier in the barren shrub land and desert around the Euphrates that flows alongside Qaim and Albu Kamal.

Albu Kamal has seen less recent unrest than other towns in a five-month-old uprising that has spread to Syria's oil-producing east, partly in solidarity with the cities of Hama and Homs where security forces have cracked down hard. Washington says 2,000 people have been killed in the unrest in Syria.

Syrian secret police have abducted Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir, leader of the large Baqqara tribe, which extends into Iraq, relatives and friends said. Bashir has been a fierce critic of attacks on demonstrators in Deir al-Zor by security forces and militiamen loyal to Assad, known as shabbiha.

More tanks entered Deir al-Zor on Sunday, residents and activists said, and heavy machinegun fire and explosions were heard in one neighbourhood.

Syria blames the violence on armed groups and extremists. But Damascus has expelled most independent media since the unrest began in March, making verifying reports difficult.

Syrian residents and activists say a military crackdown on Albu Kamal could provoke Sunni tribes on both sides of the border to oppose Assad, whose minority Alawite sect has long dominated Syria's Sunni majority.

"Tribes on the Iraqi side have vowed to step in and back their brethren in Syria if they come under attack. Until now this is rhetoric," one Syrian activist said. "A wide-scale military assault on Deir al-Zor, on the scale we have seen in other cities, would change those calculations."

 

HISTORY OF TENSIONS

The Syrian-Iraqi border came into existence in the 1920s, when Western colonial powers carved the two countries out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the border became a source of tension as an anti-American insurgency mounted.

Iraq and the United States often accused Syria of allowing insurgents to cross the border, a charge denied by Damascus.

Iraq's western Anbar province was an al Qaeda stronghold at the height of sectarian violence in 2006-2007, and Sunni insurgents have tried to reaassert their influence in the area.

Officials in Qaim say Syria's internal strife has distracted its border forces, and Iraqi troops are now increasingly clashing with smugglers and gunmen along the frontier. They fear insurgents will use Syria's turmoil to try to slip into Iraq.

Iraqi troops have fought as many as eight skirmishes a day with unidentified gunmen for the past month as smugglers and infiltrators try to exploit the unrest in Syria, said Brigadier General Haqi Ismail, Iraqi western border force commander.

After Syria closed the Qaim crossing on July 20, smugglers shifted further north, where border controls are weaker because the area is disputed between Iraqi Kurds and Arabs.

"Closing the Qaim border crossing point has complicated matters for Iraqi border troops," Ismail said.

Iraq's army has been drafted in to support a border force that has only 7,500 men to secure the 1,114 km (700 mile) frontier with Syria. U.S. provides air surveillance and intelligence along the frontier when requested, Ismail said.

Iraqi officials say few Syrian refugees have crossed the border. A U.N. official who asked not to be named said the Iraqi authorities had ordered the U.N. refugee agency to remove a camp it had set up in June in case an influx materialised.

"More than 200 tents were installed at Iraqi border. We were surprised when Iraqi forces dismantled the camp," the official said.

A media adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki did not respond to a request for comment on the refugee camp.

Despite the military siege on their town, some Albu Kamal residents are trying to smuggle their women and children into Iraq for safety while they pursue protests against Assad's rule.

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