Syria: Next Target in the War on Terror?

By: Greg C. Reeson

Last weekend, U.S. military forces conducted a raid inside Syrian territory in an attempt to capture or kill the leader of a network that funneled foreign fighters, weapons, and money into Iraq to combat coalition and Iraqi forces. In early September, the United States launched the first known ground incursion into Pakistan after receiving authorization from President Bush in July to conduct raids on Pakistani soil.

Most analysts and media outlets said these events were meant to send a message to other countries: take the actions necessary to control your borders or we’ll do it for you. But there was another, not so obvious message being sent by the U.S., and it was directed at Syria: get your act together or you could be the next target in the United States’ global war on terrorism.

Last weekend’s raid five miles inside Syria really wasn’t anything new. U.S. forces have entered Syria before, and this latest attack targeting Abu Ghadiyah, reportedly named commander for Syrian logistics in 2004 by the now deceased Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, was part of a recurring pattern of U.S. military actions along the Iraq-Syria border designed to stop the flow of foreign fighters and materiel into Iraq.

The raid was not something new, but the timing of it was a bit peculiar. By all accounts, the Syrians have taken more extensive measures of late to control the border with Iraq. Syrian cooperation has been praised by Defense Department officials, and the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq from Syria, as reported by American commanders in Iraq, has dropped dramatically over the past year.

And, when these attacks have occurred in the past, the fallout has been pretty minor. Syria has rarely batted an eye when U.S. forces have crossed its border. This time, though, the reaction was different. This time Syrian officials called the raid “criminal,” lodged a protest with the United Nations, and ordered closed an American school and cultural center in Damascus.

After conducting these sorts of raids several times in the past, and after finally getting some cooperation from Syria along the Iraq border, the United States conducts a highly visible attack that draws a significant Syrian response. Why? I suspect it is because the United States is acknowledging that it cannot hope to provide any measure of stability in the Middle East unless it does something about Syria, and it is signaling to Syria that the day of reckoning is coming.

Syria has been one of the most destabilizing forces in the region for decades, and Damascus has the ability, and possibly the will, to make life in the Middle East very painful for the United States. The list of problems associated with Syria is long, and extremely complex: state sponsor of terrorism and supporter of both Hamas and Hezbollah; dangerously allied with Iran and openly sabotaging the Lebanese government; harboring members of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime who are financing Iraqi insurgents and allowing the flow of foreign fighters, weapons, and money from Syria into Iraq. None of these issues can be ignored if the United States is truly waging a global war against terrorism.

Violating the sovereignty of a nation we are not at war with is serious and dangerous and should only be done as a last resort. Incursions like the ones into Pakistan and Syria can and should be justified if a nation cannot or will not control its territory or threats that originate from its territory. The United States has implicitly, if not directly, acknowledged that Pakistan is part of the Afghan theater of war. Now, it appears the United States is warning Syria of things to come if Damascus does not start acting like a responsible regional player.

It appears that the U.S. has gotten Syria’s attention. Now is the time to make sure the message is being heard, and that there is no doubt about the resolve of the United States to take the actions necessary to protect its troops and its allies in the Middle East, and to take the offensive to terrorist groups and the states they operate from. American military forces are undertaking more overt actions, demonstrating the will and the ability of the United States to act when action is needed. A strong diplomatic effort immediately on the heels of this latest operation could give Syria a chance to reevaluate its position and take steps to alleviate American concerns about its behavior.

The ball is in Syria’s court. What will Damascus do?

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