Policing a no man’s land between Iraq and Syria

Kiowa helicopter pilot 1st Lt. Mike Colburn patrols the Syrian border as platoon leader with 4th Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.


Troops work against decades-old smuggling tradition

By MONTE MORIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 11, 2005

SINJAR, Iraq — Times are tough in Donkey Town.

For more than 30 years, Arab tribesmen in this small, dusty village have earned their keep by smuggling cigarettes, goats and gasoline — as well as the odd home appliance — across the 100-yard-wide no man’s land separating Iraq and Syria.

But now, as the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces employ helicopters, night-vision cameras and roving ground patrols to plug gaps in the once-porous border of northwest Iraq, men of the J’heash tribe are feeling the pinch.

“Those helicopters have cut off our income,” one man complained during a recent meeting with Lt. Col. Gregory D. Reilly, commander of the the 1st, or “Tiger,” Squadron of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

“We haven’t been doing much work here at all,” said the man, who belongs to the J’heash, or “Donkey” tribe. “Our donkeys are dying off.”

The complaints that Reilly fielded one recent afternoon during a tour of the border attest to the success of the combined interdiction effort — particularly the use of night helicopter patrols, which have spotted most of the 100-odd smugglers captured or turned back in the last months.

Yet in the Wild West environment that is present-day Iraq, Reilly has to consider whether or not his squadron’s success in shutting down border smuggling will, in the end, turn the unemployed smugglers into insurgents.

Balancing trade with terror

Donkey Town is just one of many small border villages and towns whose livelihoods depend on smuggling. While a primary goal of shutting down smuggling is to stop insurgents and arms from flowing over the border, the job is a balancing act.

“There’s been talk of an exchange point for things that normally go across the border, like sheep, but no terrorists,” Reilly told the gathered men through an interpreter. “We want to set something up where things can cross, it just has to be checked. We’re working on that.”

Then, after a moment of thought, Reilly said to his interpreter: “Don’t get their hopes built up on that at all.”

Tiger Squadron is responsible for policing more than 200 miles of border between the Tigris River and Anbar Province. The squadron is also responsible for training Iraqi Border Patrol personnel so someday they can secure the border themselves.

In most areas, the border between Iraq and Syria is delineated by two crude earthen berms about a meter high and running parallel to each other. Between the two ridges is a 100- to 200-meter-wide no man’s land. It is this expanse of dry, barren earth that the smugglers are so eager to cross, using donkeys as the primary mode of transportation.

Smuggling as a way of life

Tiger Squadron’s stretch of border is studded with some 40 border forts — brick and stone compounds surrounded by open land. In certain areas, deep, dry riverbeds, or waddis, cut from one side of the border to another, giving smugglers ample cover to move.

On dark, moonless nights, smugglers use a network of flashlights to signal one another from opposite sides of the border, warning of patrols or indicating that the coast is clear.

Initially, the U.S. military expected to find many foreign fighters and arms flowing over the northwest border in the wake of a series of anti-insurgent operations to the south, in Anbar Province. Border patrols have intercepted a handful or more of suspected insurgents, but the military anticipated more.

Now, commanders like Reilly suspect that the regular “everyday” goods smugglers pack across the border may in some way be used to finance the insurgency.

The attitudes and economics of controlling Iraqi border are complex. For many years — during the time of U.N. sanctions — Saddam’s regime encouraged, or looked the other way, when it came to smugglers.

But even before sanctions, there was the issue of the borders themselves. When the English drew up the boundaries of Iraq after World War I, the lines often cut through tribal and familial territories.

“The only reason this berm is here is because some British mapmaker drew a line on a piece of paper 100 years ago,” said Capt. Richard Garrison, who trains Iraqi Border Patrol personnel as part of the Border Transition Team.

Consequently, many Iraqis did not take the smuggling issue seriously. “They all call themselves traders,” said Maj. Jonathan Larsen, who oversees border patrol operations. “It’s since we came along that we call them ‘smugglers.’ ”

Changing attitudes — too well

Among the tactics the U.S. military has taken to overcome entrenched attitudes about smuggling, particularly among the Iraqi Border Patrol, has been to allow border guards to take and sell a percentage of the contraband they confiscate from smugglers. This, soldiers say, helps focus their attention on the task.

“They don’t do this for God and country,” said Lt. Matthew McKee, who has patrolled the border with his 3rd Platoon.

The tactic has been very successful. In fact, it’s been a little too motivating in some cases.

Within the last several months, Iraqi Border Patrol guards “confiscated” a Land Rover that belonged to a western diplomatic team that had exited the vehicle to examine a portion of the border. The team left the keys in the ignition and were some 30 yards off when border patrol agents drove off with the vehicle. It was later recovered after Tiger Squadron soldiers examined the vehicle and found the victims’ passports inside.

In another case, border patrol officers seized about 100 sheep from some smugglers and then sold the sheep back to the same smugglers, who were captured again as they tried to cross into Syria.

The financial stakes for smugglers are high. A sheep that sells for $75 in Iraq will fetch twice as much in Syria, and smuggled herds can number up to 1,000. As illegal border crossings become more difficult to execute, smugglers are growing increasingly desperate and are carrying weapons in growing numbers.

Not surprisingly, instances of gunfire between border patrol guards and smugglers are becoming more common. In at least one case, a gunbattle between smugglers and border guards accidentally drew fire from Syrian border guards, who apparently thought they were the targets.

Larsen said stopping gun-toting smugglers is a priority.

“The guys who are bold enough to shoot at us — we want to stop them,” he said.

A string of border forts like this one line the Syrian border in northwest Iraq.

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