BAGHDAD – The raid by U.S. troops into Syria had all the hallmarks of a Hollywood blockbuster: U.S. Special Forces flying low over the desert, intent on smiting a vicious and deadly adversary. Approaching their target, weapons hot, the American troops open fire deep inside enemy territory, killing eight people. They fly off back to base, mission accomplished.
As with almost every story in the Middle East, scratch the surface and another reality emerges.
For years, the U.S. military has voiced concerns about Iraq’s long, porous border with its western neighbor, Syria. With vast expanses of open scrubland, and a paucity of official border crossing points, the whole area is difficult to police and patrol.
There’s no doubt that Al Qaeda has had great success moving people, money and weapons between Syria and Iraq. Several U.S.-fronted military operations have sought to clamp down on Al Qaeda’s freedom of movement along the frontier. This strike appears to be no different.
According to U.S. intelligence sources, Sunday’s strike was specifically targeted at Abu Ghadiyain, Al Qaeda's senior coordinator operating in Syria, who was closely associated with the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Syrian state-run media reported that the target was not an Al Qaeda staging post, but a construction site. The dead, it says, were eight civilians — including four women.
In Iraq, a country where information is a very valuable and an often scarce commodity, it was even more difficult to get details on the strike. Each day dozens of press releases are distributed by the U.S. military. On Monday, there was silence on this particular topic, and press officers simply said it was unlikely any press releases would be issued.
In contrast, the Syrian government mobilized to get its version of the strike out to the media. A host of pan-Arab media networks as well as international outlets such as Sky, BBC and CNN carried a press conference with the Syrian Foreign Minister, and early in the day SKY News in London had interviews with well-spoken Syrian officials.
One woman interviewed said she was shot during the raid. She told an Associated Press camera crew: “I work at the construction site… there were four helicopters, two landed and the other two remained in the air. They started shooting at us. When I went out to get my child, they shot me."
The Iraqi government made its own effort to get information out. Ali Dabbagh, the Iraqi prime minister’s spokesman, said the area where the raid occurred "is a theater of military operations where anti-Iraq terrorist activity takes place." Interestingly, his language is similar to that which is often seen in U.S. military press releases.
However, for some it appears the government may have been wrong-footed by the U.S. attack. Mahmoud Othman, a prominent Kurdish politician, claimed the raid was carried out without the knowledge of the Iraqi government. Labib Abbawi, a diplomat with the Iraqi foreign ministry, said his government was trying to contain the fallout from the incident, calling it “regrettable.”
If the U.S. acted without Iraqi government cooperation, time may have been running out on conducting such a mission in the future. The pending Status of Forces Agreement between Iraq and America could severely limit the scope of American operations.
If the pending treaty gets signed and ratified in the next couple of months, unilateral military actions conducted by American troops from bases inside Iraq on countries like Syria or Iran, for example, may be illegal.
Last week Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said “the agreement is very explicit in ensuring that Iraq will not be used as a launching pad for any attacks against any of our neighbors. We want to live in peace with ourselves to start with, but we also want to live at peace with our neighbors.”
But the real question is whether Iraqi forces can handle border security. The border between Iraq and Syria runs mostly through Anbar Province. At the beginning of September, the U.S. handed over responsibility for Anbar's security to Iraqi forces. They're now supposed to be taking the lead on all matters of security — including border security.
In addition, the U.S. Marine Corps last week withdrew and handed the Iraqis control of their operating base at Al Qaim — located just on the Iraqi side of the border, relatively close to where Sunday’s strike took place. Sunday’s attack by U.S. Special Forces — in a part of the country where Iraqis are in theory in charge of security — is hardly a ringing endorsement of their ability to keep the border secure.