Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Analysts Question Timing of Syria Raid

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Analysts Question Timing of Syria Raid

Article excerpt

A CROSS-BORDER raid into Syria by U.S. forces in Iraq, and a subsequent stonewalling by U.S. officials unwilling to divulge details, has led to rampant speculation among U.S. analysts about the origins and meaning of the attack.

"So the question is: Why?" wrote geo-strategic analyst and journalist Helena Cobban on her blog, wondering if the raid could have been pulled off without explicit permission from the highest levels of the President George W. Bush administration.

"So why now at the end of the Bush administration, with Washington trying to play nice with Damascus and tensions easing throughout the region, would U.S. forces stage such a gambit?" echoed Borzou Daragahi on the "Babylon and Beyond" blog at the Los Angeles Times Web site.

The questions started to swirl late on the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 26, when U.S. helicopters allegedly crossed five miles over the desert border between Syria and Iraq. According to reports, eight U.S. soldiers alighted when a helicopter landed, attacking the al-Sukkariyah farm in the Syrian Abu Kamal border area.

The cross-border raid-the first of its kind involving a helicopter attack and U.S. boots on the ground that far into Syrian territory-left eight dead, according to Syrian press reports.

The attack is especially curious since, according to a report in that weekend's New York Times, Bush appears to have rolled back his initiative to lead troop-driven cross-border attacks-initially approved this summer-by Afghan-based U.S. forces into Pakistani territory.

The raid also comes as Syria is negotiating with Israel, through Turkish mediation, presumably in a calculated effort to alleviate tensions with the West and the U.S. The Bush administration's take on the Israel-Syria talks has been lukewarm at best.

More immediately for the U.S., the raid could complicate negotiations on a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraqi authorities to allow U.S. forces to keep operating in Iraq after the U.N. mandate expires at the end of this year.

The talks on the SOFA have been bogged down, and a persistent Iraqi demand has been that Iraqi soil not be used as a launch pad for attacks on other countries.

"The Iraqi government rejects U.S. aircraft bombarding posts inside Syria," a government spokesperson, Ali al-Dabbagh, said on the Tuesday after the attack. "The constitution does not allow Iraq to be used as a staging ground to attack neighboring countries."

The U.S. Department of Defense has repeatedly declined to comment on the Syrian incident, including to a direct request by IPS, but several press reports have quoted unnamed U.S. officials confirming the attack, and saying that it was ordered by the CIA.

One U.S. official anonymously told Agence France-Presse that the strike was aimed at Abu Ghadiya, whom the official called "one of the most prominent foreign fighter facilitators in the region." The official said he believed the target was killed.

The spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in Washington, Ahmed Salkini, told IPS that the name did not appear on the official Syrian list of those dead.

In retaliation, Syria shut down a U.S. school and cultural center in Damascus, and its U.N. envoy has requested that the Security Council intervene to prevent further incursions into Syrian territory.

Neoconservatives and hawks within the administration have long clamored for expanding Middle Eastern conflicts into Syria, which was named as one of the three countries in Bush's famous "Axis of Evil."

Indeed, Bush's neoconservative deputy national security adviser, Elliott Abrams, told Israeli officials during a high-level meeting that the U.S. would not object if Israel extended its 2006 war with Hezbollah into Syria.

But if the cross-border attack was an attempt by hawks to lure Syria into a war, it appears to have failed; Syria has engaged in a measured and strictly diplomatic response. …

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