WASHINGTON: A cross-border raid into Syria by US forces in Iraq, and subsequent stone-walling by US officials unwilling to divulge details, have led to rampant speculation among US analysts about the origins and meaning of the attack. "So the question is: Why?" wrote geostrategic analyst and journalist Helena Cobban on her blog, wondering if the raid could have been pulled off without explicit permission from the highest levels of George W. Bush's administration.
"So why now at the end of the Bush administration, with Washington trying to play nice with Damascus and tensions easing throughout the region, would US forces stage such a gambit?" asked Borzou Daragahi on the Babylon and Beyond blog at the Los Angeles Times Web site.
The questions started to swirl late Sunday afternoon when US helicopters allegedly crossed 8 kilometers over the desert border between Syria and Iraq. According to reports, eight US soldiers alighted when a helicopter landed, attacking Al-Sukkariya in Syria's Abu Kamal border area.
The cross-border raid - the first of its kind involving a helicopter attack and US boots on the ground that far into Syrian territory - left eight dead, according to Syrian press reports.
The attack is especially curious since, according to a report this weekend in the New York Times, Bush appears to have rolled back his initiative to lead troop-driven cross-border attacks - initially approved this summer - by Afghan-based US forces into Pakistani territory.
The raid also comes as Syria is negotiating with Israel, through Turkish mediation, presumably in a calculated effort to alleviate tensions with the West and the US The Bush administration's take on the Israel-Syria talks has been lukewarm at best. More immediately for the US, the raid could complicate negotiations on a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraqi authorities to allow US forces to keep operating in Iraq after a UN mandate - obtained after the fact of the US-led 2003 invasion - expires at the end of this year.
The talks on the SOFA have been bogged down, and one persistent Iraqi demand has been that Iraqi soil not be used as a launch pad for attacks on other countries.
"The Iraqi government rejects US aircraft bombarding posts inside Syria," Iraqi government spokesperson Ali al-Dabbagh said Tuesday. "The constitution does not allow Iraq to be used as a staging ground to attack neighboring countries."
The US Department of Defense has repeatedly declined to comment on the Syrian incident, including to a direct request by IPS, but several press reports have quoted unidentified US officials confirming the attack, and saying that it was ordered by the CIA.
One US official anonymously told Agence France Presse that the strike was aimed at Abu Ghadiya, whom the official called "one of the most prominent foreign fighter facilitators in the region." The official said he believed the target was killed.
The spokesman for the Syrian Embassy here, Ahmed Salkini, told IPS that the name did not appear on the official Syrian list of those dead.
In retaliation, Syria has ordered the closure of a US school and cultural center in Damascus, and its UN envoy has requested that the Security Council intervene to prevent further incursions into Syrian territory.
Neoconservatives and other hawks within the Bush administration have long clamored for expanding Middle Eastern conflicts into Syria, which was named as one of the three countries in Bush's infamous "Axis of Evil" speech.
Indeed, Bush's neoconservative deputy national security adviser, convicted criminal Elliott Abrams, told Israeli officials during a high-level meeting that the US would not object if Israel extended its 2006 war with Lebanon into Syria.
But if the cross-border attack was an attempt by hawks to lure Syria into a war, it appears to have failed; Syria has engaged in a measured and strictly diplomatic response.
The Syrians "[have not responded, and are not about to respond, in any way that is violent or otherwise escalates tensions," said Cobban, a well-respected commenter and veteran analyst, on her Just World News blog.
"I've been studying the behavior of this Baathist regime in Syria closely for 34 years now. They have steely nerves. They are just about impossible to 'provoke', at any point that they judge a harsh response is not in their interest," she wrote.
While foreign fighters from Syria have long been problematic to the US occupation of Iraq, since 2006, US patrols along the border and some Syrian cooperation have dramatically reduced the number of foreign fighters flowing into Iraq.
Last December, the then-US commander in Iraq and now the CENTCOM chief, General David Petraeus, said, "Syria has taken steps to reduce the flow of the foreign fighters through its borders with Iraq." Petraeus reiterated the notion this month when he reported that fighters from Syria moving into Iraq have had their monthly total reduced from about 100 to 20.
But last Thursday, the commander of US troops in western Iraq, Marine Major John Kelly, said that while there has been progress, it wasn't enough.
The suspected involvement of some of the most vociferous anti-Syria hawks at the highest levels of the Bush administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney, have combined with US silence on the matter to fuel a guessing game as to just exactly who ordered or approved Sunday's cross-border raid.
"This operation is pretty clearly run by US special operations forces pursuing a terrorist target," Colonel Pat Lang, a retired US military intelligence officer, told IPS. "Their sole mission is like a SWAT team to go around and hunt terrorists."
Lang said that these special operations forces sometimes operate distinctly outside the normal military chain of command, a habit that became more common under former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
"If left to themselves, they would do this kind of thing [the Syria raid]. That's what they do," said Lang. "They don't follow policy, they carry out their assigned mission."
Because the US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, is dealing with mounting concerns about the SOFA, Lang suspects that he'd be hesitant to directly approve such a bold a provocative attack as Sunday afternoon's. "I haven't established it yet, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the authority to do this came right out of the White House," Lang told IPS.
Asked if the decision doesn't undermine pressing US goals for commanders in Iraq, Lang said that while the considerations are there, they don't always filter up into decision making in the executive branch.
"Usually command arrangements of various kinds are messy," Lang said, "and this White House has shown a tendency to want to bypass the established chain of command and influence what's going on [in the field]."
But in addition to being a bold foreign policy move, the raid has also been interpreted by some as a political stunt, albeit one unlikely to succeed. Some journalists and experts have speculated that the raid was a Bush administration attempt to deliver an "October Surprise" - a late game-changing development favoring one candidate - for Republican candidate Senator John McCain just over a week before the presidential election in which he badly trails Democratic rival Senator Barack Obama in most polls.
McCain has been seen as holding an advantage in issues of national security. - IPS