On the face of it, last weekend’s raid by U.S. Special Forces on Iraqi insurgents sheltering just over the border in Syria was a risky roll of the dice. After all, the political and diplomatic balances in the region are in a state of flux, anticipating possible changes resulting from forthcoming elections in America, Israel, Iran and Iraq, and also peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and possibly Syria. And then there are the troubled negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would allow U.S. forces to continue operating in Iraq next year, in which the Iraqis are particularly concerned to avoid their country being used as a platform from which the U.S. can attack their neighbors.
Still, the attack on al-Qaeda weapons smuggler Abu Ghadiya may not have been quite as risky as it may appear. Sure it embarrassed the Iraqi government, which loudly condemned the action. And it was grist to the mill for Iran, which has strongly opposed the SOFA deal because of its own fears about the presence of U.S. troops on its doorstep, and which remains influential within the Iraqi ruling coalition. Syria, obviously, felt compelled to ritually denounce what it called “terrorist aggression.” But unable to either prevent the Americans entering its territory or to retaliate directly, the Assad regime was left to demand that the U.N. ban such cross-border raids, and to shut down the American Community school and an American cultural center in the Syrian capital.
But the Syria attack is unlikely to have any real impact on the prospects for reaching agreement on SOFA — those were looking grim even before the raid, largely because Iraq’s leaders, who face regional and national elections over the next year, are mindful of the fact that most Iraqis want foreign troops out of Iraq as soon as possible, and that in the ballot booth, they might not look favorably on politicians who had invited the American forces to stay. At the same time, Iraqi public opinion is hardly opposed to the U.S. killing jihadis and smugglers who have wrought terrible carnage in this country. Iraqis have been more inclined to ask why Syria seems to still be harboring the kind of terrorists who have killed so many innocent civilians here.
And even Syria may not be as angry with the American actions as the vitriol out of Damascus would suggest. Although reading the goings-on in the opaque authoritarian regime is never easy, it’s certainly clear that Syria faces its own jihadi problem, which may have festered as a result of its own policies: After the U.S. invaded Iraq and began talking about regime-change in Damascus as well, the Syrian government began turning a blind eye toward — even possibly supporting — Ba’athist Iraq insurgents and foreign jihadis who used the Euphrates River valley (where last weekend’s attack occurred) as a kind of a Ho Chi Minh trail into Iraq. But in the last year or so, the Syrians had begun clamping down on the jihadis, in part because they feared the danger of being dragged into a chaotic conflict if Iraq falls apart. And the secular regime in Damascus has long been a target of a homegrown Sunni insugency. But Syria may be having more trouble reining in the jihadis than it expected. Earlier this month, a car bomb exploded in Damascus, an attack that many interpreted as a retaliation from jihadi groups. If so, the Syrians may not be all that sad to see the last of Abu Ghadiya and his ilk.
Damascus has much to fear from allowing a robust jihadi insurgent underground to grow roots on Syrian soil, and much to gain from U.S.-sponsored peace talks with Israel, which Syria says its wants so badly. Allowing American incursions now to pass without response may give the Syrians more leverage when they finally get to the bargaining table.
But that’s not to say that these cross-border incursions won�t have consequences. The Bush administration is claiming the right to go after terrorist groups even if that means violating the sovereignty of other countries. But others may be inclined to make use of the precedent in a manner less welcome to Washington. Already, Turkey has been launching strikes against the PKK, a militant group of Turkish Kurds hiding in the mountains of northern Iraq. The Turks say this is self-defense, but Iraq’s Kurds worry this is just the beginning of a move to crush Kurdish aspirations for autonomy. And one day Iran could decide that it, too, has a right to attack militant groups — some of them allegedly receiving covert U.S. backing — that are launching attacks on Iran from the mountains of northern Iraq. And to the extent that Iran fears cross-border raids from U.S. forces in Iraq, it has plenty of incentive to do whatever it can to dissuade its Iraqi allies, who include key players in the current government, from agreeing to extend the American presence.