WASHINGTON, Oct 28, 2008 (IPS) - A cross-border raid into Syria by U.S. forces in Iraq, and a subsequent stonewalling by U.S. officials unwilling to divulge details, has led to rampant speculation among U.S. analysts about the origins and meaning of the attack.
"So the question is: Why?" wrote geo-strategic 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 the President George W. Bush 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 U.S. forces stage such a gambit?" echoed Borzou Daragahi on the Babylon and Beyond blog at the Los Angeles Times website.
The questions started to swirl late Sunday afternoon when U.S. helicopters allegedly crossed five miles over the desert border between Syria and Iraq. According to reports, eight U.S. soldiers alighted when a helicopter landed, attacking the al-Sukkari farm in the Syrian Abu Kamal border area.
The cross-border raid -- the first of its kind involving a helicopter attack and U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. The Bush administration's take on the Israel-Syria talks has been lukewarm at best.
More immediately for the U.S., the raid could complicate negotiations on a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraqi authorities to allow U.S. forces to keep operating in Iraq after the U.N. mandate expires at the end of this year.
The talks on the SOFA have been bogged down, and a persistent Iraqi demand has been that Iraqi soil not be used as a launch pad for attacks on other countries.
"The Iraqi government rejects U.S. aircraft bombarding posts inside Syria," a government spokesperson, Ali al-Dabbagh, said Tuesday. "The constitution does not allow Iraq to be used as a staging ground to attack neighbouring countries."
The U.S. Department of Defence has repeatedly declined to comment on the Syrian incident, including to a direct request by IPS, but several press reports have quoted unnamed U.S. officials confirming the attack, and saying that it was ordered by the CIA.
One U.S. 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 shut down a U.S. school and cultural centre in Damascus, and its U.N. envoy has requested that the Security Council intervene to prevent further incursions into Syrian territory.
Neoconservatives and hawks within the administration have long clamoured for expanding Middle Eastern conflicts into Syria, which was named as one of the three countries in Bush's famous "Axis of Evil".
Indeed, Bush's neoconservative deputy national security adviser, Elliott Abrams, told Israeli officials during a high-level meeting that the U.S. would not object if Israel extended its 2006 war with Hezbollah 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.
"[...T]he 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 U.S. occupation of Iraq, since 2006, U.S. patrols along the border and some Syrian cooperation have dramatically reduced the number of foreign fighters flowing into Iraq.
Last December, the former U.S. commander in Iraq and now the CENTCOM chief, Gen. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. special operations forces pursuing a terrorist target," Col. Pat Lang, a retired U.S. 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 by design of hawkish former Pentagon chief 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 U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. 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 U.S. 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 favouring one candidate -- for Republican candidate Sen. John McCain just over a week before the presidential election in which he badly trails Democratic rival Sen. Barack Obama in most polls.
McCain has been seen as holding an advantage in issues of national security.