U.S. Raid Into Syria Sent Two Messages

On October 26, American special operations forces conducted a cross-border raid into Syria to kill an al Qaeda leader.  That raid sent at least two messages: the U.S. will pursue its enemies no matter where, and Baghdad should embrace the U.S.-Iraq security agreement.

The raid sent a direct message that the U.S. or other affected nations have the right to pursue terrorists inside sovereign countries when hosts like Syria provide the killers sanctuary.  It also communicates an indirect message that Baghdad can stop the Americans from conducting future cross-border raids against rogues like Syria by embracing the security deal now on the table.   

The target of the American raid was Abu Ghadiyah, an Iraqi leader of a cell of foreign fighters in Iraq who has been living in Syria.  He served as al Qaeda’s head of logistics in Syria since 2004, where he has provided foreign fighters entering Iraq with passports, money, weapons, guides and safe houses.  

Sunday’s operation in Sukkariyeh, a Syrian village six miles inside the border, came in the wake of recent statements by U.S. Maj. Gen. John Kelley, the American commander in western Iraq, that the Syrian border was an “uncontrolled” gateway for fighters entering Iraq.  Kelley indicated that U.S. intelligence believes al Qaeda operatives and others “… live pretty openly on the Syrian side.”

Sukkariyeh “… was a staging ground for activities by terrorist organizations hostile to Iraq,” said Ali al-Dabbagh, the Iraqi government spokesman.  He said Iraq has repeatedly requested that Syrian officials hand over insurgents who used that area as their base.  But Damascus has done little to plug its porous border with Iraq or turn over terrorist killers to Baghdad.

Predictably, Syria condemned the raid without admitting responsibility for hosting the terrorists.  On Monday, Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, accused the U.S. of “terrorist aggression” in the raid.  “This is an outrageous raid which is against international law,” said Sami al-Khiyami, the Syrian ambassador to London.

But cross border raids are justified by international law — despite Syrian protests — because Damascus continues to harbor terrorists.  Much as the Bush administration has authorized military operations inside Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in order to kill and capture terrorists, American commanders in Iraq are now using the same authority to pursue terrorists inside Syria.

Both the Syrian and Pakistani governments are either unable or unwilling to root out terrorists, and their inaction has prompted the U.S. to act.  A 1999 U.S. Defense Department’s General Counsel assessment of legal issues has interpreted international law to authorize unilateral action under these circumstances.  

That view was outlined by the Bush administration after the September 11 attacks and again last month by President Bush at the United Nations General Assembly.  “As sovereign states, we have an obligation to govern responsibly, and solve problems before they spill over borders,” Mr. Bush said.  “We have an obligation to prevent our territory from being used as a sanctuary for terrorism and proliferation and human trafficking and organized crime.”

This interpretation is consistent with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which permits self-defense.  It has been used by Israel to legally conduct a hostage-rescue mission at Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976 and by Turkish troops pursuing Kurdish terrorists operating in northern Iraq.

Such operations as the one into Syria, argue U.S. officials, are intended to protect Iraqi and American lives from infiltrating terrorists.  But instead of doing the responsible thing and shuttering its terrorist sanctuary, Damascus has used the raid as an opportunity to politically attack America. That country’s foreign minister denounced the raid as “cowboy politics,” and Syria’s ambassador to the U.S., Imad Moustapha, alleged the raid was a political move by Washington to help Republicans in domestic elections.

The fact is that operations into Syria have taken place throughout the Iraq war.  Most incursions have been cross-border missile strikes or the occasional hot pursuit of insurgents which Damascus chose to remain quiet about.  What’s not clear is why Syria decided to publicly oppose this particular raid.  

More than 90 percent of foreign fighters have entered Iraq through Syria.  Fortunately, their numbers have declined 80 percent over the past year and as a result violence in Iraq has fallen dramatically, but not because Damascus has acted.

The decline in fighters is due primarily to the rejection of al Qaeda by Iraqis and a massive coalition effort to stave the flow of terrorists across the 370-mile border.  Iraqi and American forces have aggressively policed the border and have constructed many miles of sand berms and ditches to disrupt the age old “rat lines” that crisscross the region and provide major routes for Sunni Arab fighters seeking to enter Iraq.

Admittedly, the raid caused quite a political stir which Baghdad and the Americans want to contain.  The Iraqi foreign ministry undersecretary, Labid Abbawi, acknowledged, “We are trying to contain the fallout from the incident.  It is regrettable, and we are sorry it happened.”

It’s unlikely Baghdad regrets that we bagged another al Qaeda terrorist, but officials likely do regret any negative political consequence the raid might have for the ratification of the U.S.-Iraqi security pact.  Abbawi concedes, “Some [like Syria and Iran] will use the incident for the argument against the agreement.”

Abbawi refers to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which has been negotiated between Washington and Baghdad.  The SOFA must take effect by December 31 when a United Nations resolution authorizing the American-led mission to Iraq expires. Failure to finalize the SOFA or renew a U.N. mandate could mean most U.S. activities in Iraq would have to be suspended, which would hurt Baghdad but please Damascus and Tehran.

The SOFA is a legal document that protects the sovereignty of Iraq while American forces remain in that country. It outlines legal issues related to American military personnel and property as well as restricts combat operations and establishes new jurisdictions.

The agreement provides Baghdad a veto over future American military operations such as the recent raid.  Specifically, it creates a joint U.S.-Iraqi committee to coordinate and approve American military operations.  It also requires American combatants to secure Baghdad granted warrants before arresting Iraqis or searching their property.

But some Iraqis want more from the SOFA, and others want no agreement at all.  That’s why the raid will “…be used against the agreement and will give the Iranians reason to increase their interference here against the agreement,” Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman predicted.  Othman, who favors the SOFA, believes the raid provides another reason “… neighboring countries have a good reason to be concerned about the continued U.S. presence in Iraq,” he said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has warned of “dramatic consequences” if Washington and Baghdad do not agree on the SOFA.  Gates argues that “What really needs to happen is for us to get this SOFA done.  It’s a good agreement. … It really protects Iraqi sovereignty.”  But the secretary acknowledges, “We just have to let the Iraqi political process play out.”

The raid into Syria to kill or capture terrorists was long overdue.  Nations like Syria must understand they “…have an obligation to govern responsibly, and solve problems before they spill over borders,” as President Bush said.   When they fail to keep their house in order, those harmed have a right to take action.

And the recent raid serves another purpose.  It encourages skeptical Iraqis to embrace the SOFA as a means to restrain politically sensitive U.S. combat operations and begin to wean Iraq from America’s security umbrella.