The top U.S. military commander for the Middle East offered rare words of praise Thursday for Syria, saying Damascus has taken steps to stop the movement of foreign fighters over its border into Iraq.
Army Gen. John P. Abizaid said Syria had begun taking action on long-standing complaints by the United States about foreign fighters, one of several issues dividing the two countries.
Abizaid, the chief of U.S. Central Command, was asked by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) at a Senate hearing whether Syria raised the same level of concern as Iran in relation to U.S. efforts in Iraq.
“No, I’d say that the flow of foreign fighters across the Syrian border has decreased, and that’s clear from our intelligence,” Abizaid responded. “We know that. We know that the Syrians have moved against the foreign fighters.
“Why have they? Because the foreign fighters represent a threat to Syria, and they certainly don’t want to have these organizations and groups operating within their own country that are ultimately going to be a threat to their own government,” Abizaid continued. “So, out of self-interest, the Syrians have reacted in a way that has slowed the flow of foreign fighters.”
Earlier Thursday, Syrian President Bashar Assad said his nation was central to stability in the region and the West’s goals there.
“If they want to talk about peace, then Syria is essential,” Assad said in an interview with Britain’s Sky News. “If they want a stable Iraq, then Syria is essential.”
Besides accusing Syria of inadequate border control, U.S. officials have accused Damascus of interfering in Lebanon, even though Syria removed its troops from there under international pressure after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
This week, Assad relaxed his government’s stance toward a United Nations probe of the killing and agreed to meet with the commission conducting the investigation.