Breaking: US Marines, Syrian Troops in Firefight on Iraq Border

... according to Debka. Awaiting independent confirmation.

[SCROLL DOWN FOR UPDATES. Bumped to top, originally posted Thursday.]

Debka is currently reporting (h/t: LGF):
November 25, 2005, 12:27 AM (GMT+02:00)
US Marines are locked in battle with Syrian troops after crossing the border from Iraq into Syria at a point west of al Qaim.
Both sides have suffered casualties. US soldiers crossed over after Damascus was given an ultimatum Thursday, Nov. 24, to hand over a group of senior commanders belonging to Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s al Qaeda force. According to US intelligence, the group had fled to Syria to escape an American attack in Mosul. Syrian border guards opened fire on the American force.

More on this as it develops.

(CBS) QAIM, Iraq Huddling together in the cold, U.S. Marines of the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion spoke Thursday about missing family and friends back home for Thanksgiving while on patrol near the Syrian border.

[See here. - aa]

The Marines are scouting the remote, desert area along the border looking for smugglers and foreign fighters trying to slip into the country from Syria.

The area, one of the most dangerous in Iraq, was the scene of brisk fighting this month as Marines drove insurgents out of three towns near Qaim, 200 miles northwest of Baghdad.

"Serving my country is important but losing friend makes me more thankful for what I have and for what I used to take for granted," said Cpl. Brian Zwart, 20, of Fruitport, Mich., who mans a 25mm canon atop an armored personnel carrier [a Light Armored Vehicle - aa]. ...

In related developments: the Syrian regime seems to show signs of backing down on the Hariri probe. The Independent:
By Albert Aji in Damascus
Published: 26 November 2005
Syria has agreed to allow United Nations investigators to question its officials in Vienna over Rafik Hariri's assassination, ending a deadlock with the UN that had brought mounting pressure on Damascus.

Syria's deputy foreign minister, Walid Moallem, said that the breakthrough came after Syria received "guarantees concerning the rights of the individuals" to be questioned and "reassurances" that its sovereignty would be respected. ...

From earlier today, here is Michael Totten's Analysis of the Syria situation:
The international community is gearing up to punish the Syrian regime for assassinating Rafik Hariri and exploding terrorist bombs in Beirut. Setting the southern border with Israel on fire could have been a terrific distraction from all that. Syria doesn’t exactly control Hezbollah. But Syria does help fund and arm Hezbollah, as does Iran. Syria naturally wants the heat and the spotlight somewhere else, and it makes sense that Hezbollah should be willing to go along. Hezbollah needs a strong Syria.

Syria – and Hezbollah – will be dealt with regardless. The U.N. Security Council, hardly a hotbed of sympathy for the “Zionist Entity,” explicitly blames Hezbollah for starting it.

Also from earlier today, here's Roger Simon:
What's going on now isn't all that amazing. What we're seeing is a gangster regime trying to prevent some "family" (figuratively and literally) members from going to jail for life (by assuring they are tried within Syria). What always surprised me about the Syrian regime, particularly under Bashar, is how dumb they are. The whole world knows they are mafiosi, but would have been prepared to ignore it as long they stayed within their own borders, ruining the lives only of their own people. But the Allawites insist on projecting their own dubious power. How self-destructive is that.

More interesting to me: Why is the UN Security Council suddenly developing some backbone? The other day they even condemned Hezbollah. This can't all be because of the presence of John Bolton. It's also rather unlikely to be due to a sudden "moral reawakening" from the likes of Russia and China. Could it be there is some extremely embarrassing Oil-for-Food information being held in abeyance?

Go to Roger's post for full comments, and watch for more updates.

Back to the reported clashes on the ground:

UPDATES from Debka:
DEBKAfile Exclusive: Syria claims US forces suffered 11 casualties in a Syrian-US clash Thursday night, Nov. 24 – without clarifying whether they meant dead or wounded
November 25, 2005, 5:14 PM (GMT+02:00)
Internal Syrian communications channels report Syrian “Desert Guards” border units fought US Marines who crossed into Syria at a point west of al Qaim. They also claimed 30 Syrian casualties. DEBKAfile’s military sources report the battle took place at the Syrian-Iraqi border town of Abu Kemal. DEBKAfile’s military sources report the battle took place at the Syrian-Iraqi border town of Abu Kemal. US forces were in hot pursuit of a group of al Qaeda operatives who fled across to Syria in escape an American attack pinning them down in Mosul. The US military delivered Syria an ultimatum to hand the terrorists over. The American pursuit continued Friday when Syria failed to respond.

DEBKAfile Exclusive: Damascus has bowed to a UN 24-ultimatum and agreed to let five Syrian officers undergo questioning at UN headquarters in Vienna

November 25, 2005, 2:42 PM (GMT+02:00)

UN investigator Detlev Mehlis warned President Bashar Assad Thursday night he would complain to the UN Security Council of Syrian non-cooperation if he continued to withhold the officers from interrogation outside the country. The UN team wants six Syrian intelligence officers handed over, whereas Syrian deputy foreign minister Walid Muallem spoke only of five.
The six suspects are: the president’s brother-in-law Gen. Assef Shawqat, head of Syrian military intelligence and strongman of the Baath regime, and Gen. Rustum Ghazaleh, Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon at the time of the murder and current overlord of all Syria’s intelligence agencies, his deputy Col. Jam’a Jam’a, Gen. Bajhat Suleiman, head of Syrian intelligence council, Brig-Gen Zaafar al Yusuf, head of Syrian intelligence signals department, and Brig. Abdel Karim Abbas, head of its Palestine Dept. It is not clear which of the six Damascus is withholding. DEBKAfile’s sources also report that two new witnesses, Syrian officers, have given the UN investigation further testimony on Syrian military intelligence involvement in the murder of the former Lebanese prime minister last February.


DEBKAfile reveals: A key witness in the Hariri murder case was found dead Saturday in a deep wadi near the village of Batrin on Mt. Lebanon
November 26, 2005, 1:02 PM (GMT+02:00)
In the interim report he filed in October, UN investigator Delev Mehlis placed high value on eight cell phone lines as evidence for solving the case of the murdered Lebanese leader Rafiq Hariri. The phones, used by the assassins and the Syrian intelligence officers directing them at the time of the crime, were purchased at a shop in Beirut port owned by Nawar Dora. It was his body that was discovered.

UPDATE: Debka feature article - Russia promises to veto any anti-Syria resolution.

DEBKAfile’s sources close to the investigation report that Syrian president Bashar Assad has managed to hold back his strongman brother-in-law Gen. Assef Shawqat from interrogation at UN headquarters in Vienna as a suspect in the Hariri assassination. By Friday night, Nov. 26, the Syrian ruler had bowed to the UN investigator Detlev Mehlis' ultimatum to let the suspects be quizzed outside Syria. But DEBKAfile discloses he did so on his own legal terms and without the senior suspect. He also obtained from Mehlis a pledge that no arrest warrants would be issued against the remaining five. But above all, we reveal, he persuaded Russian president Valdimir Putin to underwrite Mehlis’ pledge to comply with his terms and promise to veto any anti-Syrian resolution tabled by UN secretary Kofi Annan, the US or France condemning Syria’s failure to cooperate with the international probe.
The high-ranking Syrian officers the UN investigator demanded to question outside Syria are:
Gen. Assef Shawqat, head of Syrian military intelligence and strongman of the Baath regime, Gen. Rustum Ghazaleh, Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon at the time of the murder and current overlord of all Syria’s intelligence agencies, his deputy Col. Jam’a Jam’a, Gen. Bajhat Suleiman, head of Syrian intelligence council, Brig-Gen Zaafar al Yusuf, head of Syrian intelligence signals department, and Brig. Abdel Karim Abbas, head of its Palestine Dept. Gen. Shawqat has escaped the probe for the moment. ...

Read the full article.

Joshua Landis of Syria Comment has more: Asef isn't Going to Vienna: Asad Family Safe for Now
Ibrahim Hamidi of al-Hayat gets the scoop again. Asef Shawkat, the president's brother-in-law and head of military intelligence, is not among the five security officers slated to go to Vienna for questioning about the murder of Hariri.

The house of Asad is not in the clear yet. We are only at the beginning of the second phase of the UN investigation, which has targeted the Syrian government as the guilty party. All the same, the Asad family does seem to have dodged a bullet in this round. ...

The full post, with Arabic extracts from al-Hayat, is very informative. I don't always share Joshua Landis' set of assumptions and priorities, but he's an articulate and extremely well-informed source on Syria.

Tangentially related, Regime Change Iran links to an article on Russia's latest venture with Syria's main ally.

Syrian heretic Amarji sees desperation in the regime's latest moves:
So the Syrian President is busy these days making all sorts of overture to the Muslim Brotherhood, a development that is currently being touted by some as a sign of openness on part of the ruling clique.

The President’s new strategy, it seems, aims at playing at the anti-American tendencies of both the Islamists and the nationalists in an attempt to build a broad coalition that can enable its regime to survive whatever sanctions and isolation that will be inevitably imposed on his regime, the recent decision to cooperate with the UN probe notwithstanding.

As shrewd as this strategy might seem at first, there is, in effect, one major problem with it, which probably more than enough to make it absolutely useless. For while anti-Americanism is alive and well in all the relevant quarters, mutual trust is sorely lacking. ...

Details at Amarji's post; Ammar concludes: "my advice will be to all those who care to listen is: don’t wait for the regime to survive much longer and start planning for the day after, it's not going to be too long now. And do plan openly and publicly, let the regime know how irrelevant it has become. This will only hasten it demise."

UPDATE: Via LGF (from Never Yet Melted), this post from Hammorabi:
There are news of at least 12 American soldiers have been killed and wounded near the Al-Bo-Kamal area when they followed insurgents escaped to Syria. Fighting then broke down with the Syrians who had at least 3 casualties.

A buffer zone as deep as 30-50 km is needed inside the Syrian border along the Iraqi borders to allow the Iraqi-American forces to penetrate to kill or arrest the insurgent terrorists. Syria has no choice but either to end fully its support for terrorists, that is not going to happen at all or to allow such buffer otherwise it will face serious consequences.

A UN resolution regarding the support of terrorists by the Syrian may now become essential due to their failure to end that support, however for the multinational and Iraqi troops they need the zone to protect themselves and the civilians.

More as it develops.