US Attack in Syria Are More Cross-Border Attacks on the Way?

The US commando attack on al-Qaida operatives in Syria has raised some uncomfortable questions. How broadly can self defense be interpreted? And will the US conduct more operations like this in the immediate future?

Death came from the sky. On Sunday, Oct. 26, two US military helicopters landed near a farmhouse in the Syrian village of Sukkariyeh located on the banks of the Euphrates River. Under covering fire from two additional helicopters, special agents jumped out and shot eight people dead. According to Syria, all of the casualties were civilians, but a senior US military official in Washington has reportedly claimed that the dead included Abu Ghadiyah , a senior al-Qaida figure, and some of his fellow insurgents.

Villagers in Syria praying at a mass funeral for the victims of the American cross-border raid at the end of October.

Villagers in Syria praying at a mass funeral for the victims of the American cross-border raid at the end of October.


One thing remains clear: The military raid has outraged Syria and could ignite a new military conflict in the Middle East.

"As sovereign states, we have an obligation to … solve problems before they spill across borders," US President George W. Bush said in a speech he delivered before the United Nations General Assembly in September. Following the raid in Syria, a US security expert interpreted the president’s words as meaning that, if a country is incapable of sweeping terrorists out of its own "backyard, then we will have to take matters into our own hands."

But the operation also raises many questions. How will this military strike affect the 11 delicate weeks between the US general elections and January's swearing-in ceremony of the new president? What does it mean for Syria, for Iraq and for other countries around the world who feel that their neighbors are not doing enough to protect them from their enemies?

The attack struck a country that was working its way back into the international fold . There is little doubt that insurgents continue to slip over the Syrian border to wage jihad in Iraq. US General David Petraeus, though, insists the stream of terrorists is diminishing and that a maximum of 20 terrorists are currently crossing the border into Iraq each month. And Damascus has been cooperative elsewhere as well. Syria will be sending envoys to Baghdad and Beirut, and it is holding talks with the Israelis.

Nonetheless, Syria remains under suspicion. Last week, for example, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) once again demanded that it be allowed to inspect an abandoned factory 170 kilometers (105 miles) northwest of Sukkariyeh. Israel bombed the site a year ago based on intelligence that it housed a clandestine nuclear reactor, which Syria was allegedly building with assistance from North Korea. But while Damascus has remained tight-lipped about that affair, it has not held back when it comes to condemning last week's cross-border raid by the US. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem labeled the attack "terrorist aggression" and "cowboy politics."

Uncomfortable Neighbors

The US military operation has been particularly vexing for Iraq's government. On the Monday following the incident, the Iraqi government reacted positively to the raid, but on Tuesday it spoke of it as an "unfortunate act" and said that it hoped that it would not disturb the "brotherly relations" between Iraq and Syria.

Then, on Wednesday, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh cited the cross-border raid in demanding that a clear ban on similar operations be inserted into the troop-stationing agreement his government is currently negotiating with the Americans. "If we sign the pact with the United States and then it hits any neighboring country using Iraqi territory, Iraq will no longer be bound by the agreement," he said.

One reason for the Iraqis' change of course is that, in addition to dismaying Arab states, the attack has prompted criticism from Russia, France and China. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was in Pakistan last week -- where just last September the US launched military raids across the border from Afghanistan -- warned of renewed instability in the region and lamented the civilian casualties.

Setting Bad Precedents

Nevertheless, cross-border anti-terror operations are widely viewed as self-defense and Article 51 of the UN Charter has been invoked in support of this interpretation. This justification has been used in many conflict areas around the world -- usually at the risk of provoking dangerous regional escalations. For instance, Turkey has pursued the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) deep into Iraq, and Russia has hunted down militant Chechens in Georgia on a number of occasions.

One intelligence source told the US magazine The New Republic that this controversial approach was like institutionalizing the "Chicago Way" -- -- an allusion to Sean Connery's famous soliloquy in the 1987 movie "The Untouchables" about bringing a gun to a knife fight. There is concern in the Middle East that the US could take a liking to the method following the operation in Syria.

From a military perspective, the operation was a success, says Bruce Riedel, a CIA veteran and author of the forthcoming book "The Search for Al Qaeda." The US has eliminated Abu Ghadiyah, who Riedel believes to be perhaps the most important person responsible for smuggling fighters across the border into Iraq. Riedel hints that more such attacks may be on the way, particularly, he says, since the Bush administration won't be around to deal with the aftermath of any such operations.

It remains to be seen what position Bush's successor will take when it comes to making cross-border raids. Neither of the two top candidates for president has commented on the latest operation in Syria. But, in February, 2008, Barack Obama made a very clear remark on Pakistan: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and (then) President Musharraf won't act, we will."

Republican candidate John McCain, on the other hand, criticized Obama for the remark -- not for wanting to bomb Pakistan but, rather, for the "naivety" of announcing the attack beforehand.