The incident marks the first time U.S. forces in Iraq have attacked a target inside Syria, which the Pentagon has long accused of supporting, or turning a blind eye to, anti-coalition insurgents.
A U.S. military official in Washington confirmed that the U.S. was now “taking matters into our own hands” due to Syrian inaction against networks aiding foreign fighters, the Associated Press reported.
Coming nine days before the U.S. elections, the incident could feature in a campaign that has seen the presidential candidates differ on Iraq, on cross-border strikes against terrorists (in the Afghan-Pakistan context), and on how to deal with hostile foreign leaders.
The assault took place near the Syrian town of Abu Kamal and the Iraqi town of Qaim. The border there – roughly 350 miles north-east of Damascus and 250 miles north-west of Baghdad – has been a key infiltration point for Sunni insurgents and weapons entering Iraq.
First reports came shortly after 9 pm local time, when the state-run SANA news agency issued a flash item saying that “A number of US military helicopters launch aggression on a border region in [Abu Kamal], causing a number of victims.”
A subsequent SANA report cited an official as saying four helicopters had attacked “a civilian building under construction” eight kilometers (five miles) inside Syrian territory at 4.45 pm (9.45 am U.S. eastern time), killing eight citizens including “the wife of the building guard” before returning to Iraq. Syrian television put the death toll at nine.
Attempts to get comment from the U.S. military in Baghdad and the U.S. Embassy in Damascus were unsuccessful.
Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad summoned the U.S. and Iraqi charge d’affairs separately to condemn the incident.
“Syria, who condemns this aggressive act, holds the U.S. forces responsible for this aggression and its repercussions, and calls the Iraqi government to assume its responsibilities and make an immediate investigation into this dangerous violation and prevent using the Iraqi lands from launching aggression on Syria,” SANA said.
The incident comes less than a fortnight after Nawaf Fares, Syria’s first ambassador to Iraq in more than two decades, presented his credentials in Baghdad. Iraq reopened its embassy in Damascus in late 2006.
Syria is ruled by the Baath party, as was Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The two branches of the party, which was formed in 1940 as a nationalist, secular Arab movement, split in the 1980s over Syrian support for Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and Syrian allegations of Iraqi support for anti-government Islamists. Syria’s involvement in the 1990 Gulf War following Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait hardened the rift.
’Al-Qaeda operates openly on Syrian side’
Last April, Syrian officials told a meeting of a “border security working group” in Damascus that Syria had improved security along its side of the border with Iraq, increasing patrols and setting up checkpoints.
U.S. charge d’affairs Michael Corbin told the same gathering that terrorist facilitation networks remained a significant threat to the stability of Iraq and, by extension, the entire region.
In a report to Congress on stability and security in Iraq, delivered in June, the Pentagon said that although Syria had established relations with the Iraqi government it continued to play a “destabilizing role” and remained “a safe haven and transit point for the vast majority of foreign terrorist networks now operating in Iraq.”
“While the Syrian Government takes action against those extremists that threaten its own internal security, it has not made a similar commitment to reduce and eliminate the flow of foreign fighters and lethal aid into Iraq,” the report said.
Last Thursday, Maj.-Gen. John Kelly, commander of Multinational Forces-West, told a Pentagon teleconference briefing from Fallujah that unlike western Iraq’s other international borders – with Saudi Arabia and Jordan – the long border with Syria remained a problem.
“There hasn’t been much, in the way of a physical barrier, along that border for years,” he said. U.S. forces had been working along a 700-800 kilometer stretch to build a large sand berm and some ditching to prevent vehicles from crossing the border.
“Syria is problematic for me – but, more importantly, for the Iraqis – because it doesn’t seem that there's much being done on the other side of the border to assist this country [Iraq] in terms of maintaining the border,” Kelly said.
“The Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi intelligence forces feel that al-Qaeda operatives and others operate, live pretty openly on the Syrian side. And periodically we know that they try to come across.”
Syria has been designated by the U.S. government as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1979 – the longest of any of the countries remaining on the blacklist (the others are Iran, Sudan and Cuba).
Accused of sheltering and financing terrorists active in Israel and Lebanon, President Bashar Assad’s regime is also suspected of involvement in the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, in 2005. Israeli Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin told the Israeli cabinet Sunday that Syria was continuing to arm Lebanon’s Hezbollah terrorist group, in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution.
Assad has of late sought to soften his image, establishing diplomatic relations with Lebanon – a country Damascus occupied for years and has coveted as part of a “greater Syria” – and expressing himself ready to hold talks with Israel.
Despite the unresolved matter of the Hariri assassination, European governments are moving to end Syria’s isolation. French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the summer invited Assad to attend a summit of Mediterranean leaders in Paris, and last month became the first Western leader to pay an official visit to Damascus in five years.
The question of holding talks with leaders of countries hostile to the U.S. – including Syria – has come up frequently during the U.S. presidential campaign, since Sen. Barack Obama during a July 2007 Democratic primary debate said he would meet with such leaders, without precondition, during his first year in office as president.
His Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, called the stance naive. Obama has subsequently said his opponents were mischaracterizing his position by suggesting he would hold talks without prior preparation or lower-level exchanges.