In an raid inside Syrian territory, U.S. special forces are reported to have killed eight people. This raid is significant for a number of reasons. First of all it represents the first time U.S. forces have launched an all out attack inside Syria, and at a time when almost everyone recognizes that regional diplomacy with the Syrians and other Iraqi neighbors is critical to stabilize the Iraqi security situation. Iran and Russia condemned the attacks and Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, called the raid "cowboy politics" adding that if there are futures attacks "we would defend our
territories." A number of analysts have called this a "a parting shot" or "good bye salute" from the Bush administration to Syria.
Joshua Landis at the blog Syria Comment asks the obvious question: "Why Now?":
But the real question is why now. Syria has been improving border
compliance steadily. Petraeus announced this month that Syria has
brought down infiltration from 100 to 20 a month. (As quoted in the LA Times)
In the past 5 years, the US has had plenty of reason and opportunity
to pursue cross border raids, but did not do so because it believed
that the way to solve the problem was by cooperating with Syria, not by
bombing it. Undoubtedly, policy makers also feared that Syria might
punish the US in response. Both the State Department and DOD have consistently pushed
for intelligence sharing with Damascus only to be shot down by the Vice
President’s office. This was told to me by a high ranking intelligence
officer in Washington.
Secretary of State, Rice asked Syria’s F.M. at Sharm al-Shaykh in
May 2007 for permission to send two US generals to Damascus to restart
intelligence sharing. Damascus was excited by this prospect because it
is in Syria’s national interest. But Damascus demanded that Washington
appoint an Ambassador to Damascus in recognition of Syria’s support and
cooperation. The White House refused to permit the normalization of
relations, so Syria refused to allow the US generals into Syria.
In Dec. 2007, Petraeus himself tried to go to Damascus to restart
intelligence cooperation. The Vice President refused him permission.
This was the time that Petraeus announced that Syria had improved compliance and cut back infiltration across the border.
The second and potentially larger issue is a pattern of cross-border attacks in the region that includes the U.S. military conducting more frequent attacks inside countries we are not at war with (and who we need help from). The U.S. has increased attacks inside of Pakistan with 25 recorded attacks this year and 18 since August. Could Iran be next?
The thought of U.S. attacks across the border in Iran is not far fetched. In fact, some voices in the U.S. — including Senator Joe Lieberman — have called in the past for the U.S. to attack inside Iran if Iran continues to meddle inside Iraq. “I think we’ve got to be prepared to take aggressive military action
against the Iranians to stop them from killing Americans in Iraq,” Lieberman told Meet the Press last year. At the same time Iran has been hinting it might cross the Iraqi border because of attacks on Iran from Kurdish militants operating from Iraq. These are the kind of cross border attacks that spread conflicts in unpredictable ways. All parties would be best off treading very carefully.