WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. helicopter attack into Syria this week underscores the Bush administration’s determination to cross borders when it can strike an enemy target, and to weather any international backlash.
The raid on Sunday killed, Abu Ghadiya, a top smuggler of foreign fighters to al Qaeda in Iraq, a U.S. official said.
Syria denied Ghadiya was a target and said eight innocent civilians were killed in the raid. Syria closed two American institutions in Damascus, and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said he was giving up hope on U.S. President George W. Bush. France and Russia also condemned the raid.
The Bush administration has declined to comment on or publicly acknowledge the strike, despite the protests. But a senior military official said, “We’ve made it very clear that we will defend our troops and our partners from threats, both broad and specific.”
Any diplomatic fallout is manageable, analysts said.
“That’s a trade-off that you do,” said James Carafano, a visiting professor at the U.S. Naval War College and researcher at the Heritage Foundation think tank. “That’s not a big price to pay.”
The raid came less than two months after a U.S. ground strike against militants hiding across Afghanistan’s border in Pakistan, which ignited harsh criticism from the Pakistani government. There have been no known repeats of the ground attack, but unmanned drone strikes have continued unabated.
Some analysts said there may have been an understanding between the United States and Syria before the attack, based on a common aim of ending instability fueled by al Qaeda activity within Syria.
“The fact that Syria has come out condemning it, doesn’t mean that they weren’t aware of it in advance,” said Matthew Levitt, counterterrorism and intelligence director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Others said this was unlikely, but Syria, despite its public protest, may view the attack with relief because it has had a growing internal problem with Islamist militants, is burdened by Iraqi refugees, and wants eventual good relations with Iraq.
“This is in Syria’s best interest,” Carafano said.
U.S. military officials say Syria has been more cooperative than in the past in dealing with the problem of foreign fighters entering Iraq, and the number has declined over the past year.
Syria also has relatively little support among Arab countries, muting its potential response, said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It certainly hasn’t been extreme,” he said.
‘WAR IN THE SHADOWS’
U.S. officials have made clear covert actions will be a durable part of the U.S. war on terrorism, carried out by the CIA and U.S. military Special Forces.
“Much of this war is a war in the shadows,” Assistant Defense Secretary Michael Vickers said last week. He was outlining aims to double the number of Special Forces commandos, to 65,000, from the level before the September 11 attacks.
“The area of covert action is absolutely central. It was the decisive instrument of the Cold War, it remains a critical instrument to the war on terror,” he said.
The analysts, however, said it was unlikely the United States would cross into Iran to strike at what it says are supporters of Iraq’s insurgency there.
Whether Republican John McCain or Democrat Barack Obama wins the U.S. presidential election next Tuesday, the United States is unlikely to abandon a policy of covert raids across borders when an opportunity or need becomes apparent, the analysts said.
Obama has said he would be willing to attack a major al Qaeda leader in Pakistan if the United States has proper intelligence and Pakistan does not act. McCain criticized Obama, but only for saying publicly he would do so.
The senior military official played down suggestions that recent military activity was linked to the U.S. political calendar.
“I don’t sense this being driven at all by the election clock. It’s not,” the official said.