Posted by Joshua on Thursday, October 30th, 2008
MARK MACKINNON, Globe and Mail, October 30, 2008
…. Mr. Assad in recent months appears to have made a strategic choice to come in from the cold by improving Syria’s relations with Europe, opening diplomatic relations with the new government in Beirut and even flirting with Israel via back-channel peace talks over the Golan Heights. Though the Bush administration remains ideologically opposed to reconciling with Damascus, Syria has made no secret of its hope for better ties with the next administration, particularly if it’s led by Barack Obama.
Such incomplete moves have left Damascus in awkward limbo between a cautious West and its fuming long-time ally, Iran. Analysts in both Syria and the United States say that Syria’s strategic limbo may explain why the U.S. military decided to take action now after five years of complaining about the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq via Syria.
Some suggest that political considerations in the United States may have also been a factor, as the U.S. military may have been trying to set a precedent for action in Syria before the next administration takes over.
“Syria has its hands tied behind its back. It can’t allow its anger to rule this moment,” said Joshua Landis, co-director of the Centre for Peace Studies at the University of Oklahoma and editor of the syriacomment.com website. “In the past, clearly, the [U.S.] military in Iraq would have been very anxious about what Syria could do in retaliation.”
…. For now, the back-channel talks between Syria and Israel remain alive, though frozen while Israel heads into new elections. But Mr. Assad received critical diplomatic support when France, Britain and the European Union spoke out against the U.S. raid. The Iraqi government also condemned the assault, saying its territory should not have been used for an attack against a neighbour.
Mr. Assad likely believes that he only has to outlast Mr. Bush to see his new policy course bear fruit. Few in Syria make any secret of the fact that they’re pining for Jan. 20, 2009, the day the next U.S. president will be sworn in.
“The whole world is waiting for the end of Bush’s presidency,” Prof. Kabalan said. “Syria especially.”
Below I copy the note from a new Fulbrighter in Damascus. I became fascinated with Syria as a Fulbrighter in 1981-82, the year of Hama and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It is a truly wonderful program that has done more for US-Syria understanding than anything else. I hope it will not fall victim to the latest attack.
Dear Josh Landis,
Just a note from a recently arrived Fulbrighter in Damascus, where things are getting increasingly interesting and unsettling. I read your blog daily here; you probably know having been here that it’s often easier to get news about Syria from sources outside the country than from the media here in Cham. Today we found out, during a break in a’amia class at the American Cultural Center, that the building might be shut down along with the American School. We were not told yet what effect this will have on the Fulbright program. Certainly the Syrian government could cancel our visas if they chose to go that far. That seems far away and hopefully will stay that way. We all arrived here under strict travel restrictions and plenty of State Department prep talk about the risks of grant study in Syria. The Embassy has said nothing official yet beyond a standard “Warden’s Message” about “maintaing vigilance” and avoiding protests; their hands are tied by Washington, it seems, which is saying nothing. But for how long? I write a blog here and am sending you the link as a lark:
Here’s hoping all of us on Fulbright are able to stay in the country and enjoy life and studies here, which are grand except when you read all day about a Special Forces helicopter raid on a farm near the Iraqi border.
Best, Freddy Deknatel
Syria puts US embassy under guard as tens of thousands join protest
Haroon Siddique and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Thursday October 30 2008
Hundreds of Syrian riot police surrounded the US embassy in Damascus today as tens of thousands of protesters gathered nearby to denounce a US raid that killed eight people near the Iraqi border.
The crowds converged on Youssef al-Azmi square, about a mile from the embassy – which has been closed for the day because of security concerns.
Troops wearing helmets and carrying batons and shields took up positions around the embassy and the adjacent US residence building. Two fire engines were also parked nearby.
But there were no signs of violence as protesters formed circles and danced traditional dances
“America the sponsor of destruction and wars,” read one banner, as protesters waved national flags and pictures of President Bashar Assad.
“We will not submit to terrorism,” read another.
Hussam Baayoun, a 20-year-old university student, said the US raid was a “criminal act” and added: “We want the Americans to stop their acts of terrorism in Syria, in Iraq and the rest of the world.”
The Syrian government has demanded a US apology for the attack in the eastern border community, which it says left eight civilians dead, and has threatened to cut off cooperation on Iraqi border security if there are more raids on its territory.
Syrian security around the embassy is usually tight and Americans in the country are generally made to feel welcome but when the US invaded Iraq protesters attacked the embassy.
The American school has also been shut for the day. The Syrian government has ordered the closure of the school, expected within a week, and the immediate closing of the American cultural centre linked to the embassy.
In Washington, state department deputy spokesman Robert Wood said yesterday that the government was considering how to respond to the order to shut the cultural centre and American school and stressed the US expected the Syrian government to “provide adequate security for the buildings”. The US embassy warned its citizens in Syria to be vigilant.
There has been no formal acknowledgment of the raid from Washington, but US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed the raid killed Badran Turki al-Mazidih, a top al-Qaida figure in Iraq who operated a network smuggling fighters into the war-torn country. An Iraqi national, he also goes by the name Abu Ghadiyah.
Washington lists Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism and has operated sanctions since 2004. But in recent months Damascus has been trying to end years of global seclusion. Assad is seen as less hardline than his father, who preceded him as president.
US accusations that Syria is not doing enough to prevent foreign fighters from crossing its borders into Iraq remain a sore point in relations. Syria says it is doing all it can to safeguard its long, porous border
The End of International Law?
By Robert Dreyfuss in the Nation
A parallel new Bush doctrine is emerging, in the last days of the soon-to-be-ancien regime, and it needs to be strangled in its crib. Like the original Bush doctrine — the one that Sarah Palin couldn’t name, which called for preventive military action against emerging threats — this one also casts international law aside by insisting that the United States has an inherent right to cross international borders in “hot pursuit” of anyone it doesn’t like.
They’re already applying it to Pakistan, and this week Syria was the target. Is Iran next?
Why the West wants Syria to dump all its old friends
By David Blair, 29-Oct – 2008
The West and Israel both want Syria to acquire the habit of spurning allies. The friends they want Mr Assad to shake off are, in ascending order of importance, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran.
In return for dumping all his allies, Mr Assad would get a normal relationship with the West, the lifting of US sanctions and, in the event of a peace agreement with Israel, the return of the Golan Heights. If this happened, the strategic balance of the Middle East would be transformed. At present, Syria forms the crucial supply route linking Hizbollah with its chief paymaster and arms dealer, Iran. Mr Assad’s goodwill also saves Iran from near total diplomatic isolation in the Middle East.
By reaching an accommodation with Syria, the West could gravely weaken both Iran and Hizbollah with a single blow. Hence the importance that Britain attaches to sounding out Mr Assad. As it happens, his wife, Asma, is half-British and the couple met when Mr Assad was a doctor in London.
Even if he was willing to make this extraordinary leap, would Israel hand over the Golan Heights? At present, Israel sees the talks with the Palestinians as a higher priority.
“When you look at the Palestinian issue, there’s a sense of urgency. There’s no sense of urgency with Syria,” said Professor Asher Susser, the head of Middle East Studies at Tel Aviv University. “I don’t see any Israeli government handing over the Golan.”
This would be doubly true if Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party wins Israel’s forthcoming election. If so, this would let Mr Assad off the hook and allow him to continue his eternal game of keeping all doors open and every bridge unburnt.
…”The attack on Syria is an attack on every inch of the Arab world and means that no Arab land is safe from U.S. attacks,” said a statement read by Deputy Najeh Momani.
The statement was made in a session of parliament, which was designed for Q&A with the government but MPs took the opportunity to condemn the U.S. aggression on Syria, describing it as a terrorist strike.
The national bloc also criticized the government’s reaction to the event as “disappointing”….
What is Syria Up To?
By Howard Schweber
The Huffington Post, 30 October 2008
….Although there has been no comment from either the White House or the State Department about the most recent raid, officials quoted in several sources say that it reflects the administrations broad interpretation of Article 51 of the U.N. Charter which provides the right of individual or collective self-defense to member states. This is the same provision that Israel has repeatedly cited to justify its own military actions including its attack on Something Mysterious in Syria last September; it has also been used by Turkish troops pursuing Kurdish militants in their sanctuaries in northern Iraq. President Bush hinted at the scope of the theory in his speech to the U.N. this past month: “As sovereign states, we have an obligation to govern responsibly . . . We have an obligation to prevent our territory from being used as a sanctuary for terrorism and proliferation and human trafficking and organized crime.” It is important to note that this is not the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive attack, it is a theory of “self-defense” that according to administration sources justifies attacks on insurgents in other nations if they threaten “the forces, allies, or interests of the United States” according to U.S. officials. The word “interest,” of course, makes the scope of this theory essentially infinite…
Iraq’s Security Agreement Demands Revealed: No US Attacks On Neighbors
By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA
The Huffington Post, 30 October 2008
Iraq wants a security agreement with the U.S. to include a clear ban on U.S. troops using Iraqi territory to attack Iraq’s neighbors, the government spokesman said Wednesday, three days after a dramatic U.S. raid on Syria.
Also Wednesday, the country’s most influential Shiite cleric expressed concerned that Iraqi sovereignty be protected in the pact. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani wields vast influence among the Shiite majority and his explicit opposition could scuttle the deal.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the ban was among four proposed amendments to the draft agreement approved by the Cabinet this week and forwarded to the U.S.
President Bush said Wednesday that the U.S. had received and negotiators were analyzing the Iraqis’ proposed amendments to the so-called Status of Forces Agreement.
“We obviously want to be helpful and constructive without undermining basic principles,” Bush said in the Oval Office during a meeting with Massoud Barzani, the president of the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. “I remain very open and confident that the SOFA will get passed.”
Al-Dabbagh said the Iraqis want the right to declare the agreement null and void if the U.S. unilaterally attacks one of Iraq’s neighbors.
U.S. troops launched a daring daylight attack Sunday a few miles into Syrian territory against what U.S. officials said was a key figure in al-Qaida’s operation that moves foreign fighters and weapons into Iraq.
A senior U.S. official said the al-Qaida figure, an Iraqi known as Abu Ghadiyah, was killed. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the raid was classified. Syria says eight civilians died and has demanded an apology…
Bush to Highlight Success in War Against Terrorism
By John D. McKinnon
The Wall Street Journal, 29 October 2008
President George W. Bush, riding low in the polls, isn’t doing any out-and-out campaigning for Republicans this week. But he’s still hoping to score a few points with voters on the national-security front.
In a speech scheduled for Thursday, Bush plans to highlight his administration’s success in preventing another terrorist attack in the U.S., making perhaps his strongest claim for credit yet.
“More than seven years have passed without another attack on our soil. This is not an accident,” Bush plans to say, according to an advance text of the speech released by the White House. “Since 9/11, we have gone on the offense against the terrorists abroad – so we do not have to face them here at home. And we are standing with young democracies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond as they seek to replace the hateful ideology of the extremists with an alternative vision of liberty and hope.”
With only five days to go until Election Day, Bush’s speech to a graduating class of FBI agents isn’t likely to garner much attention. Even if it does, the war on terrorism has slipped on many voters’ list of worries, given all the economic and financial problems that have emerged.
Still, it marks a success of sorts for Republicans that the war against terrorism has faded – or at least been overshadowed – so much as an issue. In recent days, a number of conservatives have been pointing to the U.S. success.
In his speech, Bush plans to give the FBI a share of the credit.
“Since 9/11, the Bureau has worked with our partners around the world to disrupt planned terrorist attacks,” he will say, according to the advance text. “Most Americans will never know the full stories of how these attacks were stopped, and how many lives were saved. But we do know this: The men and women of the FBI are working tirelessly to keep our nation safe, and they have earned the thanks of every American.”
Pakistan to US: Stop missile strikes near border
By STEPHEN GRAHAM
AP, 29 October 2008
Pakistan’s government summoned the U.S. ambassador on Wednesday to urge an immediate halt to missile strikes on suspected militant hide-outs near the Afghan border.
Missile strikes have killed at least two senior al-Qaida commanders in Pakistan, putting some pressure on extremist groups accused of planning attacks in Afghanistan — and perhaps terror strikes in the West.
However, a marked uptick in frequency of the missile attacks has badly strained America’s seven-year alliance with Pakistan, where rising violence is exacerbating economic problems gnawing at the nuclear-armed Islamic republic’s stability.
Having called in U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson on Wednesday, “a strong protest was lodged on the continued missile attacks by U.S. drones inside Pakistani territory,” a Foreign Ministry statement said.
The attacks have led to the loss of “precious lives and property” and “undermine public support for the government’s counterterrorism policies,” the statement said.
“It was emphasized that such attacks were a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and should be stopped immediately,” it said.
A U.S. embassy spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
American commanders complain that Pakistani forces have not put enough pressure on militants in its remote and impoverished border regions, an area considered a possible hiding place for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri.
Reflecting that frustration, U.S. military and CIA drones that patrol the frontier region are believed to have carried out at least 15 strikes since mid-August, including one that killed about 20 people at the home of a Taliban commander on Monday.
The United States rarely confirms or denies involvement.
Lawmakers on Monday pass a resolution condemning the attacks and calling on the government to take “more effective measures” to stop them.
The Foreign Ministry said it gave a copy of the resolution to Patterson on Wednesday.
ANALYSIS: Legality of US strike in Syria debatable
By Mike McCarthy
DPA, 29 October 2008
The US raid against a top al-Qaeda operative this week in Syria was the latest effort by the Bush administration to step up pressure on the terrorist network, even by striking in countries without the approval of their governments. Syria strongly protested the helicopter-borne attack on Sunday, 8 kilometres beyond the Iraqi border, where the United States is believed to have killed an al-Qaeda lieutenant responsible for smuggling fighters, weapons and money into Iraq.
The White House has not publicly acknowledged the attack. Damascus says that only civilians were killed.
Syrian outrage after the strike mirrored similar complaints from Islamabad over a series of crossborder raids and strikes by US forces against al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban militants who use the rugged, ungoverned region inside Pakistan near the border as refuge.
Washington appears to be ordering the attacks based on broad legal arguments that the US can act in self-defence to protect US and coalition soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, if neighbouring countries are unwilling or unable to crack down on militants, international law experts say.
“If the state is unable to control what is going on within its territory, then the case can be made that it relinquishes some of its sovereignty to those who can,” Anthony Clark Arend, a professor of international law and diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington, said in assessing the Bush administration’s legal rationale.
Arend said he frequently disagrees with legal conclusions adopted by the Bush administration, but in the cases of the assaults in Syria and Pakistan, the White House’s position is not “an unreasonable argument.”
“But many legal scholars would say that this is per se illegal unless you can show that the state is supporting or encouraging” the militants.
Washington has long complained that Syria has not taken adequate steps to prevent the flow of militants and potential suicide bombers across its border into Iraq, but Sunday’s attack, the boldest incursion so far by the US military into Syria, came as US generals had observed in the last year a sharp drop in infiltrations…
U.S. Invokes Self-Defense in Syria Raid From Iraq Expansive Definition Rejected By Damascus
The New York Times, 29 October 2008
In seeking support in international law for its actions, the Bush administration is joining a list of nations that have cited Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which enshrines the right of individual or collective self-defense to all member states.
Over the years, a growing body of legal argument has made the case that this right of self-defense allows a nation to take military action on the territory of another sovereign nation that is unable or unwilling to take measures on its own to halt the threat.
This argument was emphasized when the Israeli military mounted a hostage-rescue mission at Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976, and similar arguments have been made to defend actions by the Colombian military against the FARC guerrillas seeking haven in neighboring countries, and Turkish troops pursuing Kurdish militants in their sanctuaries in northern Iraq.
Israel also made this argument when, in September last year, its warplanes attacked what Israel said was a nuclear reactor in Syria that was nearing operational capability.
This month, General David Petraeus, the former top commander in Iraq, said that the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq had dwindled to less than 20 a month from a peak of more than 120 a month a year ago.
But one military officer said Monday that while Syria had been able to take specific steps like detaining combat-age men found flying into Damascus airport on one-way tickets, there had been less success in halting the flow of money and weapons to the insurgency.
The Iraqi government found itself in an awkward position on Monday as it sought at once to remain on friendly terms with Syria, which is a neighbor and now home to more than a million Iraqi refugees, but also to bolster the United States in going after people believed to be fomenting antigovernment unrest in Iraq.
“This area was a staging ground for activities by terrorist organizations hostile to Iraq,” said Ali al-Dabbagh, the Iraqi government spokesman.
He said Iraq had previously requested that Syrian authorities hand over insurgents who used Syria as their base.
America’s Military Attack in Syria—Possible Reasons and Likely Costs
By Daniel Levy
Prospects for Peace, 28 October 2008
Details are finally emerging of the American military operation inside Syria in Abu Kamal on Sunday afternoon. While there still has been no official on-record briefing from the Pentagon, unnamed DoD sources have filled in some of the gaps and reports on the operation appear in today’s press. The target was apparently “Abu al-Ghadiyah” (Badran al-Mazidi), described alternatively as a high-ranking AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) operative or facilitator of smugglings and infiltration networks from Syria into Iraq, and vice versa. While it appears that there have been instances of cross-border “hot pursuit” by U.S. forces across Syrian borders before, today’s Washington Post makes the assertion that this is “the first acknowledged instance of U.S. ground forces operating in Syria.” Syrian and Arab T.V. have been full of pictures of the area of the raid and its aftermath, interviews with the civilian wounded in hospitals, and now images of thousands attending the funerals of the 8 civilians who it is claimed also fell victim to this attack (there are claims that American forces nabbed two AQI operatives–these are as yet unconfirmed–there might still be a DoD briefing today).
Condemnations have been prevalent in the Arab media, with the headline of the UAE daily al-Khaleej being typical: “U.S. Aggression Against Syria”. And criticism has not only come from the obvious places–Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world–but also from Russia, Europe and beyond. There have also been some interesting exceptions to this trend within the Arab world–notably Saudi Arabia, leading some to speculate that the Saudis encouraged or were even complicit in this operation. But even as the details are emerging many are still baffled as to why this raid took place, and especially why now. As ever when it comes to the Middle East, and especially where Syria is concerned, tantalizing and mischievous theories proliferate. Here is an attempt, then, to make sense of why this happened, and what the implications might be…