America’s Military Attack in Syria—Possible Reasons and Likely Costs

 This piece appears at Huffington Post

Details are finally emerging of the American military operation inside Syria in Abu Kamal on Sunday afternoon. While there still has been no official on-record briefing from the Pentagon, unnamed DoD sources have filled in some of the gaps and reports on the operation appear inIMG today’s press. The target was apparently “Abu al-Ghadiyah” (Badran al-Mazidi), described alternatively as a high-ranking AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) operative or facilitator of smugglings and infiltration networks from Syria into Iraq, and vice versa. While it appears that there have been instances of cross-border “hot pursuit” by U.S. forces across Syrian borders before, today’s Washington Post makes the assertion that this is “the first acknowledged instance of U.S. ground forces operating in Syria.” Syrian and Arab T.V. have been full of pictures of the area of the raid and its aftermath, interviews with the civilian wounded in hospitals, and now images of thousands attending the funerals of the 8 civilians who it is claimed also fell victim to this attack (there are claims that American forces nabbed two AQI operatives–these are as yet unconfirmed–there might still be a DoD briefing today).

Condemnations have been prevalent in the Arab media, with the headline of the UAE daily al-Khaleej being typical: “U.S. Aggression Against Syria”. And criticism has not only come from the obvious places–Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world–but also from Russia, Europe and beyond. There have also been some interesting exceptions to this trend within the Arab world–notably Saudi Arabia, leading some to speculate that the Saudis encouraged or were even complicit in this operation. But even as the details are emerging many are still baffled as to why this raid took place, and especially why now. As ever when it comes to the Middle East, and especially where Syria is concerned, tantalizing and mischievous theories proliferate. Here is an attempt, then, to make sense of why this happened, and what the implications might be.

The most obvious explanation, the one seemingly offered by the Pentagon, and the least complicated, is of this being a target of opportunity that was simply too good to resist. Juan Cole is as usual the best source for the low-down on the apparent target, Badran al-Mazidi. Here’s what Cole says on his blog:

“Abu al-Ghadiyah” (Badran al-Mazidi) of Mosul, a member of the fundamentalist vigilante group of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (originally called “Monotheism and Holy War” but more recently “The Islamic State of Iraq”). Al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006. US intelligence fingered al-Mazidi as a major facilitator for networks of fundamentalist vigilantes who were infiltrating into Iraq from Syria. The administration allegation is that it struck when it did because it got especially good information on al-Mazidi’s exact whereabouts.

But Cole then goes on to assert that as with so many decapitation exercises that we are familiar with–whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Palestine, “Washington also tends to over-estimate the importance of individual leaders such as…al-Mazidi. Mostly they are fairly easily replaced.” But even if al-Mazidi was a particularly cherished prize, it is hard to believe that this is the first time that America has had actionable intelligence regarding such a target’s whereabouts inside Syria (after all, the Americans themselves have recognized that compared to the previous years of the Iraq War, there are less border infiltrations from Syria today–so there must have been more such targets in the past). Yet in the past, for the first five and a half years of the Iraq War, America did not carry out such missions inside of Syria. So it really begs the question of why now. In the less than 48 hours since the raid, there has been no shortage of attempts to answer that question, although none seem particularly authoritative.

The favorite for conspiracy theorists is to see this as the mini-version of the long awaited “October Surprise”. The raid was designed at a minimum to push the American election agenda back to national security issues, thereby supposedly favoring McCain, or even better, it triggers a wider military escalation and a week of McCain looking commander-in-chief-like, towering over the inexperienced punk Obama (Ilan Goldenberg makes a great argument on Obama-McCain and who is more responsible on this Syria attack issue). I don’t buy that for one moment. This is not a situation that looks likely to escalate, Obama justifiably has closed the gap on national security, and those characterizations never really gained traction and rightly so.

Human error is always a possibility, but that seems equally unlikely. As is the notion of this being a rogue operation that was not cleared at the highest decision-making levels (even if “going rogue” is the vogue phrase of this week).

It is hard not to see this as a huge going away present for the neoconservatives in the Bush Administration. They have had Syria in their crosshairs since day 1, or long before actually. Syria, for the neocons, was due to be next in line after the Iraq “cakewalk”, and they have grown increasingly frustrated as the clock runs out on Bush-driven regime change in Damascus. Ian Black, writing in the Guardian, called it a “final vengeful lunge against a country that others are now wooing but which still attracts profound hostility in Washington.” And today’s Washington Post editorial page, so often a neocon echo chamber when it comes to the Middle East, appears to bemoan that this kind of attack on Syria did not happen sooner. Assuming that Syria would not respond given the Assad regime’s expectations of better relations with the next U.S. Administration, this was something of a freebie whack at the Syrians–something that Josh Landis mentions on his informative blog, ‘Syria Comment’.

This all has a nice internal logic to it and no doubt the neocons are clucking and delighted to have established this new precedent, and yet it suggests a last gasp reclaiming of neocon ownership on the Syria file for which there is little evidence. American policy has been drifting away from confrontation with Damascus, not towards it. Secretary Rice recently met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, which all suggests that there is probably more to this than a 9th inning neocon walk-off homerun.

Then there is the diametrically opposite explanation (there always is with Syria): namely, that the entire thing was preplanned and coordinated between America and Syria as part of an ongoing effort and shared interest to undermine al-Qaeda, and that was actually a prelude to warmer bilateral relations.

It is certainly the case that Syria has been plagued recently by the actions of Salafist Jihadi groups, some emanating from Lebanon, and some from Iraq. There is also evidence that Syria and the U.S. have cooperated in the past in pushing back al-Qaeda activities. Juan Cole speculated on this yesterday, and Israeli intelligence analyst at the leading Israeli daily, Yediot Aharonot, Ronen Bergman, takes the claim several steps further today, and states, sourcing two unnamed American officials, that “the American commando attack in Syrian territory on the Iraqi border was coordinated in advance with Syrian military intelligence (translated from the Hebrew-DL).” Bergman sites as evidence that no anti-aircraft guns were used on the American helicopters, nor did local Syrian military units engage, although this occurred in broad daylight and in a police state where the presence of security service personnel is ubiquitous. Bergman is a respected commentator in Israel. He also of course is reliant on sources that may be using him as a mouthpiece for their own psyche-ops and propaganda. In this scenario, the shrill response of Syrian officials to the raid, which Baath party number two Mohammed Saeed Bkheitan called an “act of piracy” and “state terrorism”, becomes part of the game.

Some Syria analysts do see a struggle going on in Damascus right now within the Assad regime, in broad terms between a modernizing, open up to the West approach of Bashar Assad, and a ‘hunker down, stick with our trusted allies, don’t rock the boat’ demand led by some in the military and intelligence community. The recent suicide bombing in Damascus which killed 17 is sometimes explained in this context. So might this be part of the reality of a split and shaky regime? Could Assad be using an American raid to send a signal to some of his own military? While nothing can be ruled out, this sounds to me like a serious stretch.

Perhaps the reality lies somewhere in between the two more extreme explanations of collision or collusion. Here are some things we do know. The Pentagon sees Syrian efforts to seal the border with Iraq as having been a mixed bag, and they would certainly want further improvements. General Petraeus has acknowledged these improvements and carries with him a PowerPoint presentation that includes a box entitled “Improved Relations and Coordination with Syria”. The Pentagon would also have noted that shortly after an Israeli air raid against a suspected nascent Syrian nuclear program, the Israelis and Syrians were actually conducting peace talks via Turkish mediation (the Israeli press has made much of this analogy–the storm before the calm). So this might be a calculated American move that sends a message to Syria that “we are not bullshitting, we are ready to use force, but we would much prefer that you respond to our diplomatic asks and overtures.”

And perhaps Syria was not the main intended recipient of the message sent by this operation at all. A number of other possible addresses come to mind. Most obviously there is Iran. If the U.S. can conduct cross border raids in Pakistan and in Syria with impunity, then surely Iran is not off the agenda, as Kaveh Afrasiabi discusses in this Asia Times online piece, ‘U.S. Raid in Syria Spooks Iran’. Then there is Russia, which has been increasing its Syrian cooperation lately, is upping its sales of arms to Damascus and which hosted President Assad in Moscow just days after the Georgia crisis. This might in part be a shot across the Russian bow. Given the timing of the attack–it coincides with Syrian FM Moallem’s high profile visit to London–one cannot exclude that America was sending a message of displeasure to the Europeans regarding their increasing openness to the Assad regime (although it seems to me that in this instance, the timing was coincidental and more a case of “who cares if we insult and embarrass our closest European allies”).

So how do we pull this all together, and what are the implications? In U.S. terms, there may well have been a convergence of interests at work–a kind of internal U.S. win-win. The Administration hawks would always be happy to poke Assad in the eye, while the pro-engagement folks may have been convinced that this would do no harm and might even elicit a more positive Syrian response, with the Pentagon eager to further extend the principle of the violability of sovereign borders when it comes to pursuing those that harm Americans and hoping that Syria might be nudged toward greater cooperation. To take this last point a step further, a more general effort seems to be afoot, now extended from the Afghan-Pakistan border region to the Iraq-Syria border with regard to U.S. military freedom of action in cross border missions, with today’s New York Times quoting several “senior administration officials” expressing hope that this rationale “would be embraced by the next President as well.” That begins to sound like a problematic attempt to box-in a new Administration. Even if such an internal win-win might exist, it is far from certain that a similar calculation applies to the external consequences of this action.

Most immediate may be the effect on American efforts to negotiate the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) with Iraq, which already faces significant obstacles. One issue of contention has been the guarantee that American troops would not use Iraq as the staging point for attacks on neighbors. Iran, for one, is likely to push its Iraqi allies even further on this point after the Syria action. Kaveh Afrasiabi argues that “unintended consequences of the US’s raid into Syria may turn out to be more ammunition not only in the hands of Iranians but also the forces of Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr and others who have categorically opposed the security agreement as anti-Iraqi.” Afrasiabi even suggests that the Pentagon may be intentionally sabotaging the SOFA, the terms of which are increasingly disliked.

Beyond the SOFA, the cooperation that America will need from Iraq’s neighbors as it withdraws is unlikely to be well served by this latest development. Syria has made several constructive gestures over the last period, helping to broker a standoff to the Lebanese political crisis and finally establishing diplomatic relations with that country, resuming peace talks with Israel, opening an embassy in Baghdad, and drawing closer to Europe. Unless the attack was an elaborate U.S-Syrian collaboration, it endangers setting back this more constructive Syrian role, and the decision by Syria today to close an American school and cultural center in Damascus is hardly a good sign. In particular, the Israeli-Syrian peace talks are in need of American support to be both sustainable and make progress.

Another by-product would be to again fuel anger in the Arab world at a seeming indifference to the cost in civilian casualties of American military actions and disrespect for the sovereignty of Arab and Muslim countries. In that sense, Syria joins a long list, including not only Afghanistan and Iraq, but also of course Pakistan and even Somalia, Yemen, and other locales. And this is likely to just further fuel anti-Americanism. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, it really is a head-scratcher that this is happening while the Syrian Foreign Minister is visiting London. A joint press conference with British FM David Miliband had to be called off to avoid embarrassing questions. French President Sarkozy, who has invested much in getting Syria to be more constructive via diplomatic engagement, must also feel slighted (he was quick to condemn the attack).

I doubt that this was an intentional snub to the Brits or Europeans, rather another example of the kind of indifference and condescension towards allies and their needs that has characterized the Bush Administration. As today’s Guardian editorial suggested, the attack was another sign of a U.S. Administration which “shoots first and thinks later.”

In this respect, the Bush Administration has probably managed to yet further complicate the work of its successor in the Middle East with this latest act. And at this stage that really takes some doing.