Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Raid riles Syria

Syrian ire follows apparent US raid across Iraq's border

Damascus lashed out at Washington over charges that American forces killed at least eight civilians when US helicopters were on a mission to shut down insurgent "rat lines."

by Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor, October 27, 2008
Terrorism and Security Update

Syria has issued strong protests after accusing the US military of conducting a deadly cross-border raid from Iraq that left at least eight civilians dead.

Syrian state media reported that four US helicopters entered Syrian airspace around 4:45 p.m. Sunday and struck a construction site in the al-Boukamal region.

An unnamed US military official quoted by the Associated Press (AP) confirmed the attack, saying the US was trying to shut down "rat lines" sending Al Qaeda-linked insurgents and other foreign fighters into Iraq from Syria.

The raid appears to be straining already tense US-Syrian relations, even as Syria has reached out to the Iraqi government and Lebanon, entered into indirect talks with Israel, and held talks with the European Union.

SANA, the Syrian Arab News Agency, quoting an unnamed "official media source," said the helicopters attacked a civilian site about five miles inside Syria, "leading to the martyrdom of eight citizens," including the building guard and his wife.

Citing an "official source," SANA said the Syrian government had summoned the top American diplomat in Damascus to condemn and complain about the "dangerous aggression." The Iraq chargé d'affaires was also summoned, the report said.

Agence France-Presse quoted a commentary in the Syrian government newspaper Tishrin Monday: "The American forces from Iraq committed cold-blooded murder.... They committed a war crime in killing eight Syrian civilians in a quiet village."

AP reported Monday that clergy were preparing the dead for burial as angry Syrian villagers chanted, "May God's wrath fall on them." The report quoted Jumaa Ahmad al-Hamad – a nephew of one of the dead – who saw the helicopters open fire on the building.

The New York Times reported Monday that Iraqi police in Anbar Province, which borders Syria, "did not indicate on which side of the border the blast had taken place," raising some question about the details of the incident. It also noted that Iran joined Syria in lashing out at the Americans, according to AP, calling the apparent attack a "violation of the territorial integrity" of Syria.

AP cited an unnamed US military official as saying the raid targeted "elements of a robust foreign fighter logistics network." The official said the US had taken action because Syria has not stopped the flow of foreign fighters across the border into Iraq.

While U.S. forces have had considerable success in shutting down the "rat lines" in Iraq with help from Iraq and governments in North Africa, the Syrian part of the network has been out of reach, he said.

"The one piece of the puzzle we have not been showing success on is the nexus in Syria," the official said. "We are taking matters into our own hands."

Ninety percent of the foreign fighters [in Iraq] enter through Syria, and foreign fighters toting cash have been Al Qaeda in Iraq's chief source of income, according to U.S. intelligence.

Bloomberg noted that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last month said that Syria had reduced the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, but that US-Syria relations still had "a long way to go."

The Guardian reported that while Syria-US relations remain prickly, Damascus has been taking a more moderate tack in its ties with Lebanon, Israel, and the EU.

Late last year the then US commander, General David Petraeus, praised Syria's cooperation in reducing violence in Iraq. But Syria has since refused to restart intelligence sharing with the US until Washington recognizes its assistance by returning an ambassador to Damascus....

In recent months Syria has established diplomatic relations with Lebanon and held several rounds of indirect talks with Israel, with Turkey acting as broker. In July, President [Bashar] Assad was invited to an EU summit in Paris.

On a Los Angeles Times blog, Tony Perry wrote that the US raid occurred just a few miles from a former American military base. The US turned over the base to the Iraqis this month.

Was the weekend raid a way for the U.S. to warn the insurgents, and their Syrian cohorts, that although the U.S. is retreating from the border, it is still on watch and able to strike?

Writing in The Times, a UK daily, James Hider said the raid may have been in part a warning to Damascus.

While it is a secular regime, Syria has allowed extreme Islamist groups to operate from its territory, using them both as an internal political pressure valve and to tie down US forces inside Iraq....

US commanders may have calculated that a cross-border raid was tactically necessary to tackle Islamist extremists using Syrian territory, [and] the attack also sent a tough strategic message to Syria that it is not inviolate and must choose carefully whom it supports.

Josh Landis, codirector of the Center for Middle East Studies University of Oklahoma, wrote on his blog Syria Comment that with the raid, the Bush administration may have been giving Syria a parting shot for its unwillingness to comply with intelligence-sharing and other US demands.

The Bush administration seems to be ratcheting up action against Syria during its last days in power….

White House analysts may assume that it can have a 'freebee' – taking a bit of personal revenge on Syria without the US paying a price. Damascus may just have to write it off as a good bye salute from its friends in Washington.

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