Counter-Terrorism: Sneaking Around In Syria


November 2,2008: On October 26th, four American helicopters crossed from Iraq into Syria. Two of the helicopters landed near the village of Sukariyya,  and Special Forces troops engaged in a brief gun battle with  members of the Abu Ghadiyahas network, who had been using the village as part of the smuggling network that brought money, weapons and suicide bombers into Iraq. Eight people died, two were taken captive, and the American soldiers left unharmed.

The timing of the strike is somewhat curious. President Assad of Syria had been moving to close off the border for terrorists, and was making other overtures, though slowly, probably trying to figure out how to stay in power regardless of who wins what. A strike like this, with high potential fallout should have been vetted at the highest level. Was the guy the Special Forces were going after worth it? The fallout is serious, with most Arab states in the neighborhood, including Iraq, criticizing it. Iran was particularly angry, and upset. That's probably because Iran has also supported terrorists based in its territory, and allowing them to move men, money and weapons across the border. Shia radical leader Muqtada al Sadr is hiding out in Iran, where his followers are trained to be better terrorists, then sent back to Iraq.

U.S. officials offered international law as justification for this "invasion" of Syria. It goes like this. The United Nations Charter allows nations to defend themselves when under attack, and allows operations inside a foreign nation that cannot, or will not, stop attacks on a foreign country from within its borders. This clause was included to cover a common situation, where one nation will tolerate rebels from another taking refuge inside its borders. This is usually rebels or bandits who use that bases to conduct raids and banditry inside the neighboring nation. Often, the sanctuary nation is unable to clean out the hostile gunmen, or  unwilling to do so because they support the goals of the gunmen, or simply want to weaken their neighbor by making it easier for the rebels or bandits to operate.

Afghanistan and Iraq would appear to meet these criteria. Afghan and Iraqi officials have long complained about terrorists crossing over from neighboring countries (Pakistan, Iraq and Iran), often with the assistance of border guards. Pakistan had something of an excuse, as they have never been able to control the tribes along the border, and have special laws that grant some autonomy to the border tribes, as long as they control cross-border raids. Pakistan has obviously not been controlling the Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists, so the U.S., as an ally of the Afghans, has been crossing the border, in compliance with the UN Charter, to strike at the hostile forces. This has been going on for nearly a year. Now the practice has spread to Syria, and the Iranians fear they are next.

It's this legal angle that has prevents any of the invaded countries from taking the U.S. before an international court. Syria, Pakistan and Iran know that there is a preponderance of evidence proving that terrorists are camping out in their territory, and operating across the border.

Even so, the reaction from the Syrians has been rather muted, almost pro forma – they could easily be a lot more vehement about it, let the "rioters" do lots of damage to US property, recall their ambassador, and so on. Could it be that they're not terribly unhappy the raid took place? Assad and his henchmen certainly must realize that al Qaeda ultimately is a threat to their own power, given that Syria is run by secular Shia nationalist socialists (the Baath party). Al Qaeda in Syria only holds back from attacking the government because Assad has been turning a blind eye to operations by Abu Ghadiyahas and his gang. As al Qaeda loses in Iraq, and as Iraq becomes increasingly able to handle its own security, the Abu Ghadiyahas net in Syria could pose a threat in several ways – turning against Assad directly would be the most serious, but also if they take actions that could involve risk to Syrian interests, such as trying to stir the pot in Iraq or Lebanon, or organize strikes against Israel. Going deeper, could the Americans have been tipped off by Assad to the presence of Abu Ghadiyahas with a wink and a nod, possibly through the Israelis, with whom Assad seems to be developing a covert relationship?




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