The U.S. military launched its first known raid into Syria on Sunday after several years of frustration over Damascus's unwillingness—or inability—to shut down a regular flow of militants into Iraqi territory.
At least seven people were killed when U.S. helicopters struck a construction site near the town of Abu Kamal on the Syrian side of the border with Iraq.
The Syrian government said the victims were construction workers, but U.S. military officials, who were slow to acknowledge the attack, said it was aimed at fighters linked to the terrorist group Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The border has been the site of growing tension, as more and more foreign fighters have been pushed out of Anbar province, which is largely quiet after years of harboring elements of Iraq's Sunni insurgency.
U.S. Maj. Gen. John Kelly, who is responsible for Anbar province, which extends from Baghdad to the Syrian border, says that Syria has become "a sanctuary" for AQI.
He spoke with U.S. News in Fallujah last week, before the strike into Syria, about the efforts by U.S. marines stationed in western Iraq to secure the border against infiltration from AQI. Excerpts:
What's happening along the Syrian border?
The Syrian border is a problem. It is the last frontier. The Syrians clearly have harbored AQI, allowed them to live over there and go back and forth. It's a sanctuary. It used to just be a conduit for foreign fighters. Now, they allow them to live over there, and they come in [to Iraq] and do their dirty deeds.
What's being done to halt that?
Several months ago, we started an attempt to close the border. Working with the police, we started moving U.S. forces out there and working with the Iraqi border patrol. We started building a physical barrier to at least slow down the vehicles that cross. We worked out with the sheiks what it was that they'd been doing for millennia in terms of smuggling. They don't consider it smuggling because they don't recognize the border and their cousins live on the other side. They just see it as trading with them. So, we said: What is it that you need to be able to do to cross? We don't want to get in your way—if it's sheep or whatever. If you want to go visit cousins, have at it. The sheiks become allies because they appreciate the fact that we've not stopped the semilegal transfer of things. In return, they are telling us things about what goes on. Also, from the Jordanian border to the Euphrates River, we've built a berm. We're starting that north of the border now.
Have marines been moved there as well?
We've reinforced the border with a training team, small teams of marines. We've worked with the security forces also. The first line of defense is the berm, then the border police, then the police from the border to Baghdad. The Iraqi police along the way stop vehicles and check paperwork. At the three border points of entry, they check paperwork and search vehicles. If there's a guy who wants to get to the front of the line and gives you 20 bucks and you don't search his vehicle, then the guy who takes the 20 bucks is not a terrorist, but there may be 10 terrorists in the vehicle. We're working on that.
Has the Syrian border stopped you from going after insurgents?
We don't go across the border, for sure.
Do they flee there for sanctuary?
Yes. Foreign fighters flow in. They're hard to catch because they come in on bogus passports or real passports. They are not terrorists until they do something. We think most of the foreign fighters do come in legally through the points of entry. So, they either forge papers or have real papers, and we don't know who they are. They [AQI] have done cross-border raids and killed Iraqis. The biggest mistake they made was a cross-border raid on the second of May and murdered 11 Iraqi policemen. They cut their heads off, a sickening thing. It was a huge mistake. We know the guy who did it, AQI guy. Kind of a big dog who works with Syrian intelligence. Some of the guys who were killed were former boyhood friends of this terrorist, and it was a revenge killing because of who the police were, not what they are now.