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What is Syria Up To?

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It's a little difficult to put all the pieces together, and it is tempting to fall into one of several made-to-order narratives. Which might, in fact be true - but that doesn't mean that they are complete.

First, the basics. American troops attacked a farmhouse 8 kilometers inside Syria, killing 7 0r 8 people, one of whom was Abu Ghadiya, a senior figure in Al Qaeda in Iraq. U.S. intelligence sources have said that there was information that Abu Ghadiya was planning an attack inside Iraq, and that while women and children were present, none were injured. Syrian sources say that women and children were among the dead, killed when U.S. Special Forces opened fire on the building form outside.

This attack in Syria follows recent attacks into Pakistan that were apparently similarly based on actionable intelligence. (In other words, the Bush administration is acting rather in the manner that Barack Obama has suggested. John McCain has called Obama "naïve" and worse for saying out loud that he would consider such cross-border raids; the Bush administration appears less reticent. But that particular irony is a tangent I do not want to pursue at the moment.)

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.

The immediate reactions from Syria and Iran were predictable: the Syrian Foreign Minister called the raid an act of "terrorist aggression" and warned darkly "if they do it again, we will defend our territories." The Iraqi government spokesman tried to have it both ways, condemning the attack on the grounds that the Iraqi constitution prohibits the use of its territory to attack neighboring countries - a fairly clear reference to the increasingly hostile negotiations between the Bush administration and the Maliki government over the terms of an agreement to permit U.S. troops to remain in Iraq - and also called on Syria to improve border security.

There are several easy America-centered narratives. One is that the intelligence was specific enough and the target important enough that other consequences were simply pushed aside. Another is a conspiracy theory about attempts by the White House to influence the election. And a third has Bush either taking advantage of the opportunity to act between now and January or, alternatively, ensuring that Al Qaeda and others do not assume that the U.S. is so distracted by the election its aftermath that they can act with impunity. (If you really want to get paranoid, there is also the Somalia Theory: that Bush is deliberately creating a disaster for his successor to inherit.)

All perfectly plausible. But there is still an element of weirdness in the story. As recently as last month, Secretary of State Rice was saying nice things about the progress Syria was making in securing its borders, although she said that there remained much work to be done. The EU has been working to ease Syria's isolation. The U.S., for all our complaints about them, have been sending suspected terrorists to Syria to be tortured - er, questioned - for years, and may be continuing to do so. This month Syria opened official relations with an independent Lebanon. In other words, there were several reasons to think that relations between Damascus and Washington were beginning to thaw, which I have argued repeatedly would be a very good thing, if only to give Assad some alternative to an alliance with Teheran.

So the timing is a little odd. That can be explained, perhaps, by the unpredictable fact of actionable intelligence becoming available, but then there is the weirdness of the very moderate Syrian reaction. Bluster aside, the Syrian response has been . . . to close the American School in Damascus. Despite talks of "next time we will defend our territories" there are no reports of troop movements to the Iraqi border, unlike the movement of 10,000 Syrian troops to the Lebanese border in September. There was no talk of siccing Hezbollah on Israel; there was no mention of Israel, period. What's going on in Damascus?

Here's some possibly relevant background. In February of this year, Imad Mughniyah, a senior Hezbollah official, was mysteriously assassinated in Syria; one might plausibly assume that the Syrian government was involved. In September of this year, a car bomb in Damascus near the office of security killed 17 people. Assad may be deciding he has had just about enough of Iran's mujahadeen, and Al Qaeda, too. It's worth reminding ourselves that Syria has a secular government dominated by members of a minority Allawite sect and a predominantly Sunni population. Radical Islam is not likely to sit well with Assad's Baathist regime (any more than it sat well with Saddam Hussein).

More context. Israel is about to have elections, as is the United States. In the U.S., the mad neocon empire-builders are on their way out, but John "we are all Georgians" McCain - the only person in the U.S. or Iraq who does not accept the idea of a withdrawal of U.S. forceas - is not much of an improvement. In Israel, in the person of Bibi Netanyahu, the Bush-era neocon Weltgeist could be on its way back in. (This is not an idle analogy: Richard Perle and Douglas Feith worked for Netanyahu's government during the 1990s, producing the famous 1996 working paper describing a grand strategic vision that included a U.S. attack to get rid of Saddam Hussein; that kind of talk doesn't play well over here any more, but Netanyahu - who got 90% of his primary financing from outside Israel -- is still living the dream). In 2006, during the Lebanon War, neocons in the Bush administration were urging Israel to attack Syria directly. The Olmert government dismissed the idea as crazy, but a Netanyahu government might be a danger to itself and others. (There was a very odd moment during that conflict in which an Israeli government spokesman explained a troop build-up as aimed at Syria, which caused the Syrian military to go on high alert, but that appears to have been a comedy of errors; the Israeli spokesman preferred to make a provocative and potentially destabilizing statement rather than admit that the high command had lost control over the situation.) And never mind attacking Syria; if Israel launches a pre-emptive attack on Iran, what are Syria's choices for a course of action? The Israeli elections may present Assad with an opportunity, or a threat.

There is also the likelihood that the Americans may not be in the neighborhood much longer. The Iraqi government has proposed amendments to the agreement with the U.S. that would call for all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq - regardless of conditions on the ground - no later than 2011, and include an acceleration clause that would permit total withdrawal on 12 months' notice at Iraq's request. The U.S. has threatened to cut off all support and all operations of any kind inside Iraq on January 1 if the original draft of the agreement is not signed. But one way or another, it looks likely that the U.S. military role in Iraq will at a minimum be very greatly curtailed in the near future: even a McCain administration cannot get away with forcing a continued presence against the will of the elected government, at least not for long. At that point we would be confronted with the preposterous situation of Iraq appealing to the U.N. to impose sanctions on the U.S.

So here's a thought. Is it possible that Assad is tired of Hezbollah and Al Qaeda both, and maybe even of being tied to Iran? Is it possible that the reason Syrian reaction to the raid is so relatively muted is that they didn't really object, and may even have known about the raid in advance? This would be interesting as all get-out, if it's true. If this is true, it needs to be pursued. From the U.S. perspective nothing is more important than turning Syria away from Iran. Particularly as the Kurds in northern Iraq appear to be becoming increasingly aggressive, Syria is going to be a key player in post-U.S. arrangements. From Israel's perspective the case is even starker. Nothing serves Israel's interests more right now than giving Syria a good reason to stop supporting Hezbollah and Hamas. It is also possible that Assad has an eye on the elections and does not want to do anything to strengthen Netanyahu and McCain, because he is hoping for administrations he can talk to. Assad is a pure pragmatist with no ties to religious extremists and serious economic needs. He is also notoriously difficult to deal with, but that's what our diplomats get paid for (sorry, guys.) High level talks without preconditions with Syria this Winter? A consummation devoutly to be wished.