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"Little Regard For International Boundaries"

Syria has released footage it says is of U.S. helicopters on their way to an attack inside Syrian on Sunday. The post headline is taken from NBC's Ri

Syria has released footage it says is of U.S. helicopters on their way to an attack inside Syrian on Sunday.

The post headline is taken from NBC's Richard Engel in Baghdad, describing special forces crossing the border into Syria on Sunday, the first time U.S. forces have invaded Syrian territory in all these years occupying Iraq. The U.S. military, in an officially unofficial leak to the AP, are claiming hot pursuit of Al Qaeda fighters out of Iraq and have said little else about it other than that the U.S. is "taking matters into its own hands". Syrian eyewitnesses are claiming that US forces shot and killed seven men and a woman, perhaps even abducting two, while the Syrian government are taking it a step further and alleging children died too. So far, though, the only funerals that have been held were for the seven dead men, which locals and the Syrian authorities say were simply construction workers (and which Fox News' Mike Tobin, pulling faux facts unsupported by evidence or even official U.S. statements out of his ass, says were known Al Qaeda operatives).

What is certain among the conflicting reports is that U.S. forces have now ignored international laws and trespassed on sovereign territory in Pakistan and Syria in pursuit of dodgy intelligence, in both cases with reasonably credible reports of civilians wrongly slain. Technically, these are acts of war and only U.S. military might prevents them becoming so. We know that Bush has ordered that he must personally approve any incursion into Pakistan, and it seems that he must have done so for this Syrian trespass too, one that is unique in all the time that the U.S. has occupied neighbouring Iraq.

So why? Why now? Well:

Joshua Landis, an American expert on Syria, commented last night: "The Bush administration must assume that an Obama victory will force Syria to behave nicely in order to win favour with the new administration. Thus White House analysts may assume that it can have a "freebee" - taking a bit of personal revenge on Syria without the US paying a price."

There's also the possibility that this is partly just another attempt at boosting flagging Republican support, since there's only one hot-head Bush ally running for president who is likely to approve of creating an international incident at such a late stage of the Iraqi occupation. But it's a move that is likely to backfire badly in the region. Arab states, including Iraq, will be angered by this mini-invasion and will point to a continued U.S. prssence in Iraq as destabilizing. Iran will, of course, back its Syrian ally. And even Israel won't be happy. As BJ noted, Israel's been progressing quite well with negotiations involving Syria on Lebanese peace and this incursion will work to derail those negotiations simply because of guilt by association. Israel also has an election coming up, and a mood of belligerence and instability can only help the hardliners, allies of the neocons who largely steer Bush and McCain's policy thinking on the region.

It helps the White House, if it is simply after a "freebie", that all of these incursions are being carried out by U.S. Special Operations forces, which have their own independent command structure (and an independent budget) headquartered in the U.S. - allowing Proconsul Petreaus and his subordinates to have some plausible denial of culpability when talking to local officials. But it's hardly likely to help long-term strategic planning. Still, the Bush administration now wants to send thousands more of these troops to Afghanistan, a move that Senator Russ Feingold has said will "only perpetuate a counterproductive game of cat and mouse that has has led to a steep erosion in Afghans' support for foreign forces."

These raids are arguably illegal war crimes by international law, destabilizing in and of themselves, counterproductive in the long term, but unlikely to lead to war with either Pakistan or Syria on their own. However it's worth thinking about something - Iran appears to be the only possible target nation for such raids that's been left out so far. If the Bush administration decide to attempt a "freebie" there, it's far more doubtful that the blowback will be so containable.

Update: Iran expert Kaveh L Afrasiabi writes at the Asia Times that Iran is spooked.

"The chances are that the US incursion into Syria is a dress rehearsal for action against Iran and the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards [Corps], just as they often portray Israel's aerial attack on Syrian territory last year as a prelude for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities," said the Tehran political scientist, adding that since the US had already branded Iran's Guards as terrorists, it had the necessary rationale to do so.

In the event the US indulges in such a gambit, the issue becomes whether it will be a one-shot single incursion or a series of raids and, more important, what will happen should Iran fight back and respond in kind, within Iraq's territory.

There are serious scenarios for major escalation nested in every micro action and US policymakers would be remiss to focus on their own action without taking into consideration the likely chain reaction that could lead to a regional flare-up.

(Many thanks to Heather for the video links)

Crossposted from Newshoggers

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