War Stories

High Risk, Limited Payoff

In Syria, a dangerous new escalation of the war on terror.

Syrians carry the body of a relative killed in a U.S. attack.

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.”

Perhaps the raid could be justified if it were a one-time—or even a very rare—operation. But it seems we will be seeing more of these raids in Syria, Pakistan, and perhaps elsewhere. (Meanwhile, the Pakistani government has also formally protested the U.S. airstrikes in the frontier territories across the border of Afghanistan.)

Eli Lake reports in the New Republic that President Bush signed a decision in July allowing commanders on the ground to decide whether to launch tactical attacks across borders. The attack on Syria and the recent attacks on northwestern Pakistan—all taken without the permission of the Syrian or Pakistani government—are all of a piece.

One can understand the impulse behind this decision. If, say, Osama Bin Laden were spotted just across the border, why waste the time it would take to phone Washington for permission to strike? He might get away. But this is a rare, and hypothetical, example. It doesn’t justify giving colonels or generals a broad blank check to make the sort of decision—essentially, committing an act of war—that should be made, and made very carefully, by the commander in chief.

Another consideration here: Recent history shows that there are other ways to deal with the threat of incursions from Syria.

In May 2007, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met for a half-hour with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem precisely to discuss border security. (The two were at a regional conference; Rice approached him for a private face-to-face talk.) In the weeks and months after Sept. 11, 2001, Syria had cooperated extensively with the United States, providing some of the most useful intelligence information about al-Qaida. Syria ended this relationship in March 2003, when Bush invaded Iraq. Relations deteriorated further in 2005 when Syria was implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, and in response, the United States withdrew its ambassador.

At the 2007 meeting with Secretary Rice, Foreign Minister Moallem said that Syria would like to resume cooperating with Washington on security and intelligence, if Washington resumed diplomatic relations—that is, if a U.S. ambassador were returned to Damascus. The White House nixed the deal.

Later that year, Gen. Petraeus, increasingly frustrated with cross-border trafficking, wanted to go to Damascus to talk with military officers about possible security measures. The White House refused to let him go.

Bush and especially Vice President Dick Cheney were still firmly wedded to the belief that deals should not be made with dictators—or at least not with dictators who were not our allies—on the grounds that even sitting down with them legitimizes their regime.

At the time, whether covering for her superiors or speaking for herself, Rice justified the refusal to make a deal by saying, “The Syrians know what they have to do.” Maybe they did, but they didn’t know what they would get in return. That’s what diplomacy is about. The Syrians got, and still get, many goodies for their ties with Iran. To break away from that benefactor, they need to know we’ll supply them with goodies in exchange.

Israel is talking with Syria. Iraq is not only talking with Syria but also joining Syria in condemning a U.S. action. What is the point of our continued refusal?

If Rice or Petraeus had been allowed to take their talks further in 2007, last weekend’s airstrike might not have been necessary.

Maybe the next president will reconsider the costs and benefits.

Correction, Nov. 1, 2008: This article incorrectly stated that U.S. special-operations pilots flew two dozen Black Hawk helicopters across Iraq’s border and killed eight people on Syrian territory. In fact, two dozen U.S. commandos and four Black Hawk helicopters performed the operation. (Return to the corrected sentence.)