By Hugo Foster
Cowboy diplomacy, unilateral military action, collateral damage, violation of sovereignty, botched operation.... Sound familiar? The US military’s cross-border raid into eastern Syria last month had all the hallmarks of the global war on terror. We can only hope that the episode is nothing more than a parting shot from the outgoing Bush administration – and pray that it will serve as a timely reminder to the next administration of how not to act in the world.
As with most things that happen inside Syria’s borders, details of the raid are opaque. On 26 October, US special operations forces carried out a helicopter attack in Sukkariyah, a village 9 kilometres within Syrian territory. According to US sources, the raid targeted and successfully eliminated Abu Ghadiya, an alleged al-Qaeda operative and key conduit for militants bound for Iraq. But the raid also killed eight Syrian civilians, including three children, a farmer and a fisherman, causing a public outcry in Syria, a country where stability is prized above all else.
That the operation was conducted for genuine security purposes is entirely plausible but not really the issue. To be sure, the region around Sukkariyah, where cross-border tribal ties rule supreme, is known as a ‘gateway’ for foreign fighters entering Iraq. However, the US has refrained from giving a proper explanation for the attack, has not explained its failure to communicate its intentions with Syria beforehand, simply expounding its right to take cross-border action when it deems necessary for security purposes. Apparently then, it is okay to violate another country’s sovereignty, murder its citizens, disregard international law and the principles of the UN Charter whenever you feel like it. Just so long as you happen to be the US military.
During the five years in which the US has been bogged down in Iraq, the White House has largely chosen to ignore the reality that Syria would probably make (and at times has been) a willing and effective partner in counter-terrorism operations. This stance has not been internally coherent; according to the National Intelligence Estimate of August 2007, Damascus had ‘cracked down on some Sunni extremist groups attempting to infiltrate fighters into Iraq through Syria because of threats they pose to Syrian stability’. Four months later, General Petraeus publicly acknowledged Syria's cooperation in improving border security. The US could therefore have tipped-off Syrian intelligence with regard to Abu Ghadiya’s whereabouts and allowed it to track him down. Nonetheless, it decided to go it alone, botching the operation in the process and undermining relations between the fledgling Iraq government and a key neighbour (the Iraqi constitution does not, in actual fact, allow Iraqi territory to be used as a staging ground to attack neighbouring countries).
According to several analysts, the reckless and provocative circumstances of this episode are a sure sign that orders for the attack came right from the highest level in Washington – reflecting the frustration within the Bush administration that all of its efforts to isolate Syria politically, economically and militarily are actually not working and may be undone by the next US government. Was the attack aimed specifically at Syria itself, or as one commentator suggests ‘more of a desperate pre-election move by the Bush administration to showcase the image of stability and US resolve?’
Either way, the incumbent US administration clearly still views countries such as Syria through the muddled lens of the ‘axis of evil’, making cooperation impossible and confrontation necessary. And like the war in Iraq and the war on terror as a whole, the latest unfortunate episode is unlikely to be productive for American interests. The US is currently desperate to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Baghdad that will define the rules of engagement for future US troops in Iraq. The deal is controversial enough for both Sunni and Shia Iraqis, and nationalist and anti-American sentiments are running high. Iraq’s neighbours are likewise concerned, with some justification it would seem, that the deal will cement the presence of US troops in the region for years to come, posing a threat to their own stability. Having learnt (one would have thought) a thing or two about the will to resist occupation in the Middle East, it would have been sensible for the US to assuage these fears by acting in a controlled and responsible manner at this precise moment in time.
In the past eight years, the US has not acted as a force for peace and stability in the Middle East. In fact right now, because of its hot-headed approach, unbalanced support for Israel and refusal to negotiate with the governments and movements of undeniable importance (Syria, Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood etc) it is one of the biggest obstacles to peace and stability. On a global scale, its reckless behaviour has set a dangerous precedent, one that prioritises counter-terrorism interests over territorial sovereignty, stability and human rights. The mistakes of the recent past are there for all to see, as is the challenge for the next administration to learn from them.