America and Syria: a political raid

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
30 October 2008

A single incident can often reveal much about the thinking of its architects. This is certainly true of the United States's military raid across the Iraq-Syria border on 26 October 2008, even though at present it is still surrounded by more speculation than fact. The attack in the Abu Kamal region seems to have killed eight people - most of whom were civilians, according to local sources. The briefings from US officials contest this, and claim that the raid succeeded in its objective: to kill Badran Turki Hishan al-Mazidi (Abu Ghadiya), the former dentist and veteran of the Afghan jihad who had been involved in smuggling paramilitary fighters across the border into Iraq. In turn his erstwhile comrades offer a different story of the real fate of this elusive figure.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

Washington has long claimed that the Syrian government has not done nearly enough to prevent the cross-border movements of would-be insurgents, and cite this in justification of the attack. For their own part, the Syrians responded angrily to the loss of life, and pointed to a lack of Iraqi or US patrols on the Iraqi side of the border. The fierce language of the foreign minister Walid al-Moallem was echoed in a massive demonstration on the streets of Damascus on 30 October. It is notable that the Iraqi government too criticised the US action (see Patrick Cockburn, "Iraq condemns US raid on Syrian village", Independent, 29 October 2008(.

The strike could in be regarded as little more than a reminder from the United States that it is prepared to cross the border as and when it sees fit. Some analysts have sought two more general explanations, however. The first, with an eye on the presidential-election timetable, cites the George W Bush administration's need to remind domestic audiences that the US must have the kind of leadership that only John McCain can provide.

The second suggests that the raid might be the start of an escalation in the wider Iraqi theatre to consolidate the "narrative of victory", part of a determined effort by elements of the administration and its neo-conservative supporters to salvage something from more than five years of bitter conflict. If this is so, and if Barack Obama wins the election on 4 November, then the implication is that there might be more such raids before Bush leaves office in January 2009 - including perhaps some attacks in Iran to target Revolutionary Guard units (see "Iraq task, Iran risk", 3 July 2008).

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed

There is not yet enough evidence for a conclusive assessment of these explanations. For the moment, then, it makes sense also to see the Syrian raid in the context of other developments - in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as in Iraq and its immediate region.

The predatory theatre

In this frame, the Syrian attack raises three points. The first is a basic but necessary reminder: that in addition to the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military has been involved in frequent such actions in several other countries in the region - irrespective of the international-law implications. There are, for example, ongoing US actions in Somalia that includes the use of Predator attack-drones; attacks on paramilitary groups in Yemen that have used drones, and strong indications at least that Syria too has previously been a target. In addition, there are unconfirmed reports of special-forces and CIA operations in Iran.

In western Pakistan, the use of Predators and other drones has escalated hugely in recent months. In the first ten months of 2008 there have been twenty-five recorded cross-border raids, eighteen of them in September-October alone; this compares to ten in the whole of 2007. Most of these have involved the use of Predators (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "US, Pakistan mission on target", Asia Times, 28 October 2008).

An attack on 16 October on a village near Wana, South Waziristan, is reported to have killed a key (Moroccan-born) al-Qaida leader in Pakistan, Khalid Habib. He was one of the most important operatives in the region, which itself makes the tools used in his death the clearest indication to the Pentagon of their value.

The second point is the increased reliance on such actions. This has to be viewed through the lens of a powerful state that really does believe it has the fundamental right to attack and kill opponents - wherever they may be. The recent weapon of choice in this respect has been the Predator; but this is now being replaced by the MQ-9 Reaper, which is four times the size of the Predator (carrying up to fourteen Hellfire air-to-ground missiles compared to the Predator's four) and is capable of using laser, infra-red and radar targeting. A squadron of Reapers is being deployed to Balad air-base, north of Baghdad (see "The hi-tech battlefield", 27 September 2007)

In due course there are even plans to fit conventional warheads to intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, replacing the nuclear warheads. This "prompt global strike" programme will enable a future president to order a strike on a target anywhere in the world, knowing that it will be implemented within hours, possibly minutes (see "Global security: a vision for change", 11 April 2007). For the time being, though, this kind of global strike is not feasible, so there is a need for local bases in the main areas of military need.

This leads to the third point: that this move towards "robotic power projection" embodies the US military's perception that it needs to maintain a few large bases in Iraq for the very long term - in part as compensation for the prospective removal of some of the huge contingents of ground troops deployed in the country since 2003. This in turn makes it essential to Washington that the Iraqi government accept a "status-of-forces agreement" (SOFA) whose terms allow this to happen (see Patrick Cockburn, "Revealed: Secret plan to keep Iraq under US control", Independent, 5 June 2008).

The provisional SOFA agreement under negotiation between the two sides is now subject to intense and unresolved argument, in part thanks to the deep concern among members of Iraq's political elite that it offers too many concessions to the Americans and provides no assurance that their military forces will leave the country (see Roula Khalaf, "Between Iraq's needs and dreams", Financial Times, 27 October 2008). This dispute - and in particular the issue of the American bases in Iraq - is important both in the context of Iraq itself and of the departing administration's remaining calculations about the larger conflict it is engaged in.

The Baghdad pressure-point

It may seem surprising on one level that the United States is so committed to consolidating its military bases in Iraq over the longer term. After all, it already has bases in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Diego Garcia; and if the narrative of victory in Iraq that has been a prominent current in 2008 had any substance, it might be expected that Washington could envisage full withdrawal from Iraq and be content subsequently to rely on this regional network.

But in reality, the US military and its political masters remain far less assured of the future of Iraq and their own role there than the more optimistic comment of recent months has suggested; and from the inside, there are two reasons to attempt to maximise their power in the country even vis-a-vis their putative allies in the Baghdad government.

The first is that a comprehensive withdrawal from Iraq (or indeed Afghanistan) without even a plausible claim to have improved long-term security and stability in either country (let alone victory) would after all be a form of humiliation. In strategic terms, it would also guarantee that one of the main aims of going to war in the first place - constraining Iran - would be exposed as a failure.

The second and more immediate reason is that an entrenched and costly conflict in Iraq persists, notwithstanding the decreasing levels of violence in 2007-08. In the 20-26 October period alone, for example, 145 civilians were killed across the country (see IraqBodyCount); every day there are reports of further bombings and shootings; as of 29 October 2008, the US military had itself lost 4,189 military personnel in the war (see IraqCasualtyCount). Moreover, the Iraqi government is currently engaged in a bitter struggle against insurgents in Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, where it is also seeking to weaken Kurdish influence (see Sam Dagher, "Old ethnic rifts threaten to break into violence in Mosulffensive highlights fragility of Mosul", International Herald Tribune, 28 October 2008).

This result in Washington of this combination of internal Iraqi insecurity and awareness of Iran's increasing influence in the country is an absolute determination to maintain indirect control in Iraq. This means putting as much pressure on the Nouri al-Maliki government in Baghdad as is needed to achieve the desired result.

A revealing illustration of how far the US is prepared to go is reported by one well-informed US news- agency, though it was largely ignored in the rest of the media (see Roy Gutman & Leila Fadel, "US Threatens to Halt Services to Iraq Without Troop Accord", McClatchy Newspapers, 26 October 2008). These authors write:

"The US military has warned Iraq that it will shut down military operations and other vital services throughout the country on Jan. 1 if the Iraqi government doesn't agree to a new agreement on the status of U.S. forces or a renewed United Nations mandate for the American mission in Iraq."

This could include cessation of all military operations that currently support the Iraq army and police; a halt to protection of oil exports and shipping leaving Iraqi ports on the Persian Gulf; and the closure of air-traffic control across the country. The fact that Nouri al-Maliki's government cannot survive without such US support makes this a powerful bargaining-card - indeed, it is regarded by Iraqi politicians as a threat "akin to political blackmail".

The Washington afterlife

This expression of raw power is an important part of the context in which the attack on Syria took place - and makes it less than wholly surprising. The US military, after all, is simultaneously locked in conflicts of variable intensity in Iraq and Afghanistan. This casts the targeting of Syria at such a moment in a different light. It can be seen to serve three purposes:

* it reminds both the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki where regional power really lies

* it sends a warning to Tehran that if the US is prepared to cross the Syrian border with conventional military forces as well as attack-drones, then it is quite capable of doing the same in Iran.

* more generally, it makes clear to all regional actors and potential adversaries that military requirements and political considerations can fuse in vigorous ways, overriding more cautious diplomatic considerations (and thus risking, for example, even greater anti-American feeling in Syria and elsewhere in the region)

For the Bush administration in its twilight days, this is all perfectly reasonable; it sees the United States as engaged in a bitter war against resolute enemies, and its actions as unquestionably right. But there is a further benefit to those whose ideas and ambitions have shaped the White House's policy for so long. If the vaulting actions of the US military carry unexpected consequences, it will be a new administration - led by the dangerously liberal Barack Obama or the unreliable maverick John McCain - who will have to face them. The calculation is that either would have little option but to continue the war on terror. The dominant military-security strategy of the last seven years will not change without a struggle.

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