Anti-US militants from across the Islamic world have been using Syria as a staging post en route for the war.
Border raid defies tactical sense
KUT IRAQ // Perhaps the strangest thing about Sunday's cross-border raid into Syria is the timing. It has been more than five years since the US invasion of Iraq and, ever since, anti-US militants from across the Islamic world have been using Syria as a staging post en route for the war. This trafficking of extremists has, according to senior US military officials, dropped dramatically of late, from 100 foreign fighters a month to 20. And for their part, the Syrians - who always denied playing an active role in the transit of fighters - have recently been locking up Islamic radicals who fought in Iraq. So, why would the United States - the most likely culprit - stage such a major incursion just as the problem is on the wane? No one has yet claimed responsibility for the military raid that left eight people dead on Sunday. Damascus has blamed US forces, and unnamed sources inside the Pentagon have indicated the attack was conducted by US units against Islamic militants. But the Iraqi and US governments have both stopped short of saying they were involved in the raid, or even that it was launched from Iraq. Mainstream US forces stationed in the west of the country denied taking part in the incident, although that does not rule out involvement by special forces, who would not necessarily be under their control. According to witnesses, four helicopters attacked al Sukkari farm in the Albou Kamal area in eastern Syria on Sunday, killing eight civilians. Two helicopters are reported to have landed and dropped soldiers, who stormed a building. "This is an outrageous raid which is against international law," said Sami al Khiyami, the Syrian ambassador to London. "It is a terrible crime. I don't know the political meaning of it. We are expecting clarifications from the Americans." Ali al Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman, yesterday said the area was used by insurgents for attacks on Iraq. But he would not say who carried out the assault. "The attacked area was the scene of activities of terrorist groups operating from Syria against Iraq," Mr Dabbagh said. "The latest of these groups? killed 13 police recruits in an [Iraqi] border village. Iraq had asked Syria to hand over this group which uses Syria as a base for its terrorist activities." Sending in four helicopters, all guns blazing, to shoot up a small border town is hardly a subtle or even clandestine operation. It is the stuff of bulls in china shops, and dramatic enough that it was always going to grab world headlines. Perhaps therefore the raid was designed to send a message to Syria that it should not get too comfortable. Things have been going well for Damascus these past months, with the Syrians riding the crest of a wave that has seen them scoring diplomatic successes without making too many compromises on the way. Syria helped overcome a dangerous political impasse in Lebanon without abandoning Hizbollah, and at the same time restarted its frozen relationship with the Europeans; Syria simultaneously conducted Turkish-mediated peace talks with Israel while cementing ties with Russia and boosting its military capabilities. Damascus was also cleared, at least provisionally, of allegations it had been building a secret nuclear weapons facility. UN nuclear inspectors have, so far, said there is no evidence of any wrongdoing. Finally, Syria and Iraq, so long at loggerheads, are experiencing their best relations in more than a generation. The first Syrian ambassador to Iraq in 26 years arrived in Baghdad this month. Damascus's strategic alliance with Tehran does not appear to have weakened in the process. A few years ago there was talk - led by the Bush administration - of regime change in Syria. Damascus has apparently, with luck and canny judgement, steered itself out of those dangerous waters. If there was a face-off between George W Bush, the US president, and Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, the latter can certainly argue that he has come out on top; he has outlasted the US president and is already looking forward to the post-Bush world. Although Syria has made it clear it holds the United States responsible for Sunday's raid, Syrian officials said they were waiting for an explanation from the United States before deciding how to respond. "We are expecting clarifications," Mr Khiyami said. "Depending what they give as reasons we will see what to do next? They killed civilians. They have to admit their mistake and they have to compensate [the people] for it." Sunday's raid may have been a parting shot from the outgoing US president, an attempt at reminding his enemies that the United States can - despite being significantly weaker than five years ago when it invaded Iraq - still cross the odd international border in the hunt for its foes if it wants. There are other, more intriguing cloak-and-dagger theories. Farhan al Mahalawi, the mayor of the Iraqi border town of al Qaim, told Reuters that Syrian troops had surrounded the area of the attack, perhaps implying complicity in the raid. Syria has its own problem with Islamic militants and, last month, Damascus was hit by a massive car bomb. Could the Syrian authorities have tipped off the US forces about a jihadist cell near the border, effectively handing them over for US troops to deal with? Was it an attempt to curry favour with Washington so that rapprochement can begin as soon as the new US president takes office? Reports on Syrian television after the raid said all the casualties were civilians, so if that far-fetched scenario has any truth to it, the mission apparently went badly wrong. The most likely scenario is probably the most straightforward. On Thursday, US Major Gen John Kelly said Iraq's borders with Saudi Arabia and Jordan were well policed by security forces in both countries but that Syria was a "different story". "The Syrian side is, I guess, uncontrolled by their side," Gen Kelly said. "We still have a certain level of foreign fighter movement." In Afghanistan, the US military has grown used to behaving as it wants in its continuing, high-priced war against Islamic militants. If that means carrying out an air strike across international boundaries and killing civilians in a remote tribal area of Pakistan, so be it. Why should Iraq and Syria be any different? In that sense Sunday's raid was, in all likelihood, nothing more and nothing less than the Bush administration doing what it has always done - exactly as it wants, regardless of the law or the consequences. firstname.lastname@example.org