A bumpy ride for the US over Syria
By Farrah Hassen
With one deadly strike, the George W Bush administration has offered a fitting
epitaph to its "might makes right" policy towards Syria - and the rest of the
On October 26, nine days before the election, American special operations
forces, allegedly pursuing a "top operative" from al-Qaeda in Iraq, carried out
a helicopter attack on Sukkariyah, a small Syrian village nine kilometers 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, "[Democratic presidential candidate Barack]
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 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 Bush and
neo-conservatives 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 against the Taliban
along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. 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
counter-terrorism operations? Imagine if Cuba offered a similar justification
for going after scores of Cuban exiles in Miami who have acted anti-former
Cuban president Fidel Castro, 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 crew members on board.
US accusations against Syria that it's "not doing enough" to secure its porous,
480-kilometer-long border with Iraq are not new, but a look at the facts offers
a contradictory view.
As a country that has absorbed at least 1.5 million Iraqi refugees since 2003
(more than any of Iraq's other neighbors) which fears the spillover effects of
violence and sectarianism on its own borders, and as one which has pursued a
strategy of engaging 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 Ayad Allawi visited Damascus in
July 2004 and met with President Bashar al-Assad, Syria and Iraq formed a joint
security committee to monitor their borders.
The US State Department's 2006 Country Report on Terrorism further acknowledged
that Damascus had "upgraded physical security conditions on the border and
began to give closer scrutiny to military-age Arab males entering Syria".
The 2007 edition noted, " ... 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
Syria also participated in two ministerial-level Iraq Neighbors' Conferences,
according to the report, which said US and Iraqi officials had witnessed a
"marked reduction" in the flow of foreign terrorists transiting through Syria
into Iraq in 2007.
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, who
takes over the helm at Central Command on October 31, acknowledged Syria's
cooperative role in improving border security.
Last month, according to the al-Jazeera news agency, 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 US raid on October 26 is not 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-Central Intelligence Agency 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, which authorized the transfer of prisoners from one state to another,
for interrogation without a formal extradition process.
Assad's government had thought such cooperation would help improve Syrian-US
relations. However, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and
neo-conservatives 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' relations with
Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine 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, 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
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
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
in protest against 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,
that a peace accord was brokered 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 United Arab Emirates 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
Republican presidential candidate John McCain should be mindful of. Neither
does pursuing a policy of "might makes right", in Syria or elsewhere in the
name of pursuing terrorists.
Bush's illogical policy towards Syria throughout his administration, which was
dominated by threats, coercion, and isolation with only a few glimpses of
cooperation, actually offers the next US president clear guidelines on what not
to do in the Middle East.
Farrah Hassen is the 2008 Carol Jean and Edward F Newman Fellow of the
Institute for Policy Studies and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. She
wrote her Master's thesis in 2007 on Syria and the Iraq War at American
University's School of International Service.