Strange Strike

With one deadly strike, the Bush administration has offered a fitting epitaph to its "might makes right" policy towards Syria – and the rest of the Middle East.

On October 26, nine days before the election, American Special Operations forces, allegedly pursuing a "top operative" of al-Qaeda in Iraq, carried out a helicopter attack on Sukkariyah, a small Syrian village six miles from the Iraqi border. US officials claim the "successful operation" raid killed Abu Ghadiya, an Iraqi suspected of heading an insurgent cell. A Wall Street Journal editorial not only praised the strike but added, "Mr. Obama has promised he’ll engage Syria diplomatically as part of an overall effort to end the conflict in Iraq. If he really wants to end the war faster, he’ll pick up on Syria where the Bush Administration has now ended."

The details of the attack remain murky and the White House has declined to comment. Not so murky is the deplorable fact that eight Syrian civilians, including a farmer, three children, and a fisherman, died as a result of the strike. They were all victims of collateral damage, like the Iraqis and Afghans who have perished as a result of Bush’s reckless wars.


Numerous questions abound about the timing, purpose, and legality of the strike. Was the attack directed specifically against Syria, which has cooperated with the United States in the War on Terror and the Iraq War, or is it more of a desperate pre-election move by the Bush administration to showcase the image of stability and US resolve? Other pundits have called the attack a "parting shot" from President George W. Bush and neoconservatives in his administration, who have long advocated but failed to bring regime change to Damascus, particularly in response to Syria’s early opposition to the invasion of Iraq.

By violating Syrian airspace and apparently not consulting the Syrians about its supposed intelligence on Abu Ghadiya ahead of the attack, the Bush administration has confirmed, yet again, its disdain for international law and the principles of the United Nations Charter. Indeed, the United States, in the name of fighting "terrorists," has carried out other cross-border raids in recent months, including along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border against the Taliban. In justifying the Syria attack, a senior US official told The Washington Post: "You have to clean up the global threat that is in your backyard, and if you won’t do that, we are left with no choice but to take these matters into our hands."

Does this standard apply to other countries and legitimize their counterterrorism operations as well? Imagine if Cuba offered a similar justification for going after scores of anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami, including Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles, who carried out the October 6, 1976 bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner, killing all 73 passengers and crewmembers on board.

Strange Timing

US accusations against Syria that it’s "not doing enough" to secure its porous, 300-mile-long border with Iraq isn’t new, but a look at the facts offers a contradictory view. That is, as Iraq’s neighbor, as a country that has absorbed at least 1.5 million Iraqi refugees since 2003 (more than any of Iraq’s other neighbors), as a country that fears the spillover effects of violence and sectarianism on its own borders and has pursued a strategy of engaging with Iraq’s various political players (Moqtada al-Sadr traveled to Damascus in February 2006), Syria logically has good reason to work towards the emergence of a stable Iraq. In the next few weeks, high-level Iraqi and Syrian officials are scheduled to meet to discuss Iraqi security alongside American officials, which raises further questions about the purpose and timing of the strike.

Earlier this month, Syria’s first ambassador to Iraq in 26 years took his post in Baghdad, in a further sign of improving relations. Approximately 10,000 Syrian troops patrol the Iraq border. Many of them had previously monitored Syria’s border with Israel, yet were transferred to the east in response to US demands. After interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi visited Damascus in July 2004 and met with President Bashar al-Asad, Syria and Iraq formed a joint security committee to monitor their borders.

The State Department’s 2006 Country Reports on Terrorism further acknowledged that Damascus "upgraded physical security conditions on the border and began to give closer scrutiny to military-age Arab males entering Syria." The 2007 edition noted that "the Syrian government worked to increase security cooperation with Iraq. In July, Syria hosted a meeting of technical border security experts representing Iraq’s neighbors, the United States, and other countries. Syria also participated in two ministerial-level Iraq Neighbors’ Conferences in May and November, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and Istanbul, respectively… According to US and Iraqi officials, 2007 witnessed a marked reduction in the flow of foreign terrorists transiting through Syria into Iraq."

The August 2007 National Intelligence Estimate reiterated that Damascus has "cracked down on some Sunni extremist groups attempting to infiltrate fighters into Iraq through Syria because of threats they pose to Syrian stability." And just last December, outgoing US Commander in Iraq General David Petraeus acknowledged Syria’s cooperative role in improving border security. Last month, according to Al Jazeera, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani told Bush that Syria and Iran "no longer pose a problem to Iraqi security." Such facts contradict US claims that Syria hasn’t cooperated with the Americans and Iraqis in working towards stability in Iraq. Moreover, as the Syrians are learning yet again with the recent strike, when it comes to relations with Washington, no good deed goes unpunished.

Dashing Hopes for Better Relations

In fact, the October 26 US raid doesn’t represent the first time that Special Operations forces in neighboring Iraq have violated Syrian sovereignty, to chase down alleged al-Qaeda linked insurgents. Back in June 2003, as Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker, Task Force 20, an American Special Operations team in Iraq, expanded its operations into Syria, carrying out a botched attack near the Iraqi border that left nearly 80 people killed. The Syrian response to the attack was muted, as they still hoped for improved relations with the US in exchange for security cooperation.

At the time, then-CIA Director George Tenet had called for increased intelligence cooperation with the Syrians, based on the dossiers of intelligence on al-Qaeda that the US had received from Syria after 9/11. In one example, Damascus provided intelligence that helped prevent an attack on the US Navy’s 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain. Flynt Leverett, a former member of Bush’s National Security Council during his first term, confirmed that Syrian cooperation helped "thwart an operation that, if carried out, would have killed a lot of Americans."

In a more gruesome example of anti-terrorism "cooperation" between 2001 and 2002, Syria even participated in Bush’s infamous "extraordinary rendition" program. Asad’s government had bet that such cooperation would help improve Syrian-US relations. However, Donald Rumsfeld and neoconservatives in the Department of Defense didn’t share Tenet’s same enthusiasm for engaging with Damascus. They viewed cooperating with Syria as "rewarding terrorist sympathizers," because of Damascus’s relations with Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran.

Immediately following the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, Bush accused Syria of facilitating the entry of foreign fighters into Iraq and providing Iraqi fighters with military equipment. Officials, including then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, issued warnings to Damascus that it could be next on the regime-change list if it didn’t cooperate with the Americans in Iraq. At this same time, the United States pursued a policy of isolating Damascus and issued a series of demands to Syria as conditions for improved relations, such as ending its political support for Hamas and Hezbollah.

In December 2003, President Bush signed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SALSA), legislation that banned US exports to Syria and Syrian aircraft from flying into and leaving the United States. He has continued to renew sanctions under SALSA since 2004 (never mind that Syrian planes don’t fly to the United States). In May 2005, as the United States escalated its accusations against Damascus, particularly in the wake of the February 14, 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (which a UN tribunal is investigating), Syria announced that it would end formal intelligence cooperation with the United States.

Failed Policy

Clearly, Bush’s policy of isolating Syria hasn’t worked, particularly as the administration has acknowledged the need to engage Damascus in Iraq (such as to address border security and Iraqi refugees) and the larger Middle East peace process. The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group reached this conclusion in December 2006.

Nevertheless, while Syria has asked the United States to again post an ambassador to Damascus (the United States withdrew the last one there in 2005, to protest Hariri’s assassination) and US engagement in restarting peace talks between Syria and Israel, the Bush administration has refused.

Putting the US attack on Syria into perspective, it says little about the Bush administration’s ability to promote regional security. This past year alone, Syria and Israel have been engaging in indirect talks, under Turkey’s leadership. The administration had advised Israel against responding to Syrian peace feelers over the past years, and now Turkey has stepped in an attempt to restart the peace process between those two countries. For 18 months, Lebanon went without a government and it was through the leadership of Qatar, the Arab League and specifically Syria’s participation, which led to the brokering of a peace accord this past May in Doha, ending the political impasse there. Syria has also used its influence in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, helping to broker a fragile ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. All of this puts a big question mark on the US government’s ability to resolve, instead of create and inflame, regional crises.

Whatever details may later emerge, the US strike in Syria further represents another example of how the Iraq War is destabilizing the entire region. Through the violent deaths of Syrian civilians, a spotlight has been cast on the direct consequences of the war on Iraq’s neighbors. As a result of the war, 2.7 million Iraqis are internally displaced and over 2.4 million refugees have sought safety in Jordan, Syria, and elsewhere in the region, creating new stresses and new instabilities.

Syrian Ambassador to the United States Imad Moustapha, in an interview two years ago, observed, "the war has further destabilized the whole region, creating more violence and bloodshed in a region already troubled by too many wars. The long-term effects are yet to be seen… Anti-Western sentiments have been stirred across the Middle East-this will have a long-lasting effect and cause problems for the US and Arab states."

Already, according to the 2008 Arab Public Opinion Poll, conducted by Professor Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, 83% of those polled in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and the UAE hold an unfavorable view of the United States. The latest strike in Syria won’t help burnish that impression.

Increased anti-American sentiment does precious little to enhance US interests in the Middle East and throughout the world – a fact both Barack Obama and John McCain should be mindful of. Neither does pursuing a policy of "might makes right," whether in Syria or elsewhere in the name of pursuing terrorists. Bush’s illogical policy towards Syria throughout his administration, dominated by threats, coercion, and isolation with only a few glimpses of cooperation, offers the next US president with a clear guideline of what not to do in the Middle East.

Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy In Focus.