AL-HERI, Syria — Syria’s new neighbor hasn’t yet stopped by for introductions. And so far the stars and stripes flying high over a U.S. military position just on the other side of the border in Iraq don’t seem too troublesome.
But there are grievances. And to make sure the Bush administration hears them loud and clear, the Syrian government brought a caravan of foreign journalists out to its border with Iraq for an orchestrated tour of the region Washington says is the favorite crossing point for foreign fighters on their way to join the insurgency next door.
"Transfer what you see faithfully," ordered Amin Suleiman Charabeh, who was introduced as a major general. Dressed in a leather coat and mirrored sunglasses, he looked more like a plain-clothes cop. "Here you can see what Syria has done on the ground."
Charabeh pointed to barbed wire, two rolls deep, stretched along the border with Iraq. Journalists quickly placed bets on how much of a running start they — or perhaps a foreign fighter — would need to hurdle into Iraq. Not much.
Beware of scoops
Much of Syria’s 370-mile border with Iraq is not patrolled, and there are few inhabitants on the desert landscape. In apparent response to U.S. accusations that it turns a blind eye to frontier leaping extremists, Syria is tightening border security.
But Charabeh suggested that U.S. troops, who have taken up positions in towns on the Iraqi side of the border to stem the flow of foreign fighters, might really be encountering farmers. "They have relatives on both sides," Charabeh said. "That’s what you’re seeing sneaking across."
At the start of the trip, a government minder (he was in uniform — slicked-back hair and a black pinstriped suit) had warned us against "looking for scoops." Now Charabeh was about to provide us with one (Headline: "Farmer fighters threat to U.S.").
But the major general apparently came to his senses. At a later stop, he said Syrian forces had stopped more than 1,400 foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq.
Charabeh said Syria has increased border posts from 547 to 557 since June, with each position staffed by around 10 soldiers. He said the infiltrators — who were "Arab, Islamic and other identities" — had been returned to their countries.
But no border can be sealed completely, the major general said.
‘Free to film’
Syria's public relations exercise — a daylong trip by plane bus and pickup — provided a rare look at the country’s eastern border. It was also a window on tight media control in a police state.
A casual count tallied more men with guns watching journalists than the border. Guards were ordered to gaze over at Iraq when cameras turned on them.
Minders told us we were "free to film anything," but a few of us were reprimanded when we focused our cameras on a Syrian military helicopter at a nearby airport.
Preston Mendenhall is an NBC News Correspondent on assignment in Syria.