High Risk, Limited Payoff
In Syria, a dangerous new escalation of the war on terror.
The Oct. 26 air raid in which two dozen U.S. commandos and four Black Hawk helicopters crossed Iraq's border * and killed eight people on Syrian territory marks a new phase in the Bush administration's war on terror—a phase rife with limited payoffs and astonishingly high risks.
U.S. officials say the cross-border attack was aimed at, and killed, a high-level al-Qaida agent known as Abu Ghadiyah, who has long been smuggling jihadists and arms into western Iraq.
However, Syrian officials say the strikes killed civilians, including a woman and children. They filed a complaint with the U. N. Security Council, closed down the American School in Damascus, and canceled their participation in the upcoming regional conference on Iraqi security.
Even the Iraqi government has joined the Syrians in condemning the airstrikes and is now insisting that a new Status of Forces Agreement—the treaty that permits U.S. troops to remain in Iraq—must include a clause forbidding those troops from using Iraq as a base for attacking other countries.
Finally, at a time when some members of the Bush administration have begun to see the merits of reaching out to Syria—as an inducement to pry it away from Iran, sever its ties with Hezbollah, stabilize Lebanon, and secure the borders of Iraq—the air raid, a deliberate violation of Syrian sovereignty, pushes those goals further out of reach.
The strikes have also enflamed the passions of the Syrian people—thousands protested in the streets today—so that, if President Bashar Assad should ever want to cooperate with America, he might provoke still more protests, potentially a radical uprising. (All the evidence suggests that Assad would like to restore relations; his police are keeping the protesters away from the U.S. Embassy, a sign that he wants to keep things from getting out of hand.)
Certainly Iraq's porous borders are a problem, which foreign jihadists have been exploiting for years now. However, earlier this month, Gen. David Petraeus, the recently departed commander of U.S. forces in Iraq (now commander of Central Command), said that the number of these incursions has dropped to just 20 a month, down from 120 per month a year ago. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani also told President Bush just last month that Syria was no longer much of a problem.
Still, that doesn't mean it's no problem, and the argument could be made that, if a high-level target like Abu Ghadiyah shows up on the scanners just a few miles across the border, we might want to exploit the opportunity.
But that temptation at least should be weighed. On the one hand, what is the tactical benefit of killing him and maybe taking out this particular safe house—to what extent will the act shock or foil the enemy, or cut down the flow of foreign fighters and arms? On the other hand, what is the strategic cost of violating international law, alienating the regional powers, and impeding a political settlement of the war in Iraq?
The intelligence isn't in yet, but early indications are that the first answer is "Not much" and the second is "Quite a lot."
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Syrians by Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images.