The strike that shattered US-Syria ties
DAMASCUS - Strained relations between Washington and Damascus shifted from bad to worse on Sunday when a United States commando raid on a Syrian border compound near the Iraq border reportedly left eight civilians dead - including one woman. Syrian television has called the attack an "American massacre", but details continue to emerge.
The US broke its silence on the incident on Tuesday, claiming that top al-Qaeda operative Abu Ghadiyah was targeted and killed during what is being described in Western media as a pre-emptive strike. The Associated Press, quoting an unnamed US military official, reported that Ghadiyah was about to carry out an attack in Iraq. Ghadiyah, whose real name is Badran Turki Hishan Al Mazidih, is the leader a prolific network that moves foreign al-Qaeda fighters into underground resistance factions in war-torn Iraq.
The attack came days after a top US commander in Iraq told reporters that US troops bolstering their presence on the Syrian border, which he called an "uncontrolled" gateway for fighters entering Iraq.
The unconfirmed details and unquestionable tragedy of the raid have left once-promising US-Syria ties in tatters. Top officials in Damascus have blasted the "cowboy" tactics of US forces, and Syrian public opinion has become vociferously anti-American.
The so-called "massacre" won't lead to war between the US and Syria, but it marks an important turning point in a turbulent and unpredictable relationship that stretches back some 60 years.
A legacy of mistrust
In 1945, Syria's first ambassador to the United States, Nazim al-Qudsi, vigorously argued with his government, trying to convince Damascus to purchase its embassy in Washington. Rent was no good, said the future president of Syria (knowing that the Syrian Foreign Ministry had no money to buy land in Washington) because America was on its way to becoming a single world power and the potential was very high for it to become Syria's number one ally. It was a profitable long-term investment, he said, to be well-rooted in Washington.
That was the United States of president Franklin D Roosevelt, which promised the Syrians freedom from the hated French Mandate system, and spoke of self-determination and freedom for people of the Third World.
But by 2005, Syrian-American relations were at their worst point ever. This was four years into the administration of George W Bush and the US was calling for regime change in Syria. After occupying Iraq in 2003, the US now shared a 605-kilometer border with Syria and was blaming it for many of the ills facing its war-battered territory. The charges in 2003 began with claims that Syria was harboring Saddam Hussein's henchmen, then evolved into accusations that Syria was sending foreign jihadis to combat the Americans in Iraq.
The relationship hit rock bottom with the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, shifting from bad to worse over the past three years. Obviously, relations reached a new low this past Sunday.
Shortly after 4 pm on October 26, four US helicopters violated Syrian airspace en route from Iraq. Two of the choppers landed in the village of Sukariyya in the township of Abu Kamal near the border with Iraq. US soldiers disembarked and opened fire on civilians - killing eight (including one woman), in a battle that lasted for 40-minutes. A short time later, a Syrian TV crew first broke the news of the attack, calling it an "American massacre in Syria".
The Foreign Ministry quickly summoned the US and Iraqi attaches in Syria to condemn the attack. Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem spoke from London, criticizing the American "cowboy" behavior and lashing out heavily on Arab states that remained silent - likely in strong reference to Saudi Arabia - waiting to see how Washington would respond.
One theory says that the entire ordeal was part of the internal US politics in the final lap of the presidential campaign, aimed at boosting the chances of Republican Senator John McCain by giving him more reason to pursue Bush's "war on terror" - this time with Syria.
Twenty-four hours after the attack, an American "source" confirmed the attack, claiming that the US Army was tracking jihadi elements that had crossed the border into Syria. Yet the State Department, Pentagon and White House remained silent suggesting that something was very amiss in Washington.
Had the Americans struck at a terrorist stronghold, the Bush team would have been the first to brag about it on all available media. The fact that the traditional US chorus remained silent seems proof that the Americans were not too proud of what they did, and that perhaps human error had come into play.
A major target
It is extremely unlikely - as well as illegal - for a nation to invade the airspace of a sovereign nation, dispatch ground troops, and shoot innocent civilians, unless a major target was being pursued. But initial reports on the casualties in Abu Kamal showed no terrorists in the abandoned building that was attacked, just ordinary day workers, and one woman.
If the Americans thought it was a base for al-Qaeda, they clearly were mistaken. Syria specialist Joshua Landis wrote that the attack "was probably constructed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and not [Vice President Dick] Cheney's office. Evidently, there are real issues at the border and [supreme US commander for Iraq and Afghanistan General David] Petraeus has been warning the Syrians that they must do more. Satellite intelligence probably picked up smugglers, which were interpreted to be al-Qaeda. Quite possibly these poor people killed in the raid were a family of smugglers."
America's hushed response may be testimony to misjudgment - and adds insult to injury by showing how brutal the US attack was, and how severely Syria was wronged. A few years ago, when asked about Syrian cooperation on the border, President Bashar Assad asked an American newspaper, "Who to cooperate with? If you go to the border, there are only Syrian guards on our side. But if you look at the Iraqi side, there is nobody. No Iraqi guards, no American guards. Nobody."
It is certain that the attack, for which full details are yet to be known, will lead to plenty of bad blood between Damascus and Washington.
Syrians already feel that the US is ungrateful for a range of accomplishments in which Syria has assisted, such as harboring 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, tightening control of the border, hammering out the Doha Agreement, ending the presidential dilemma in Lebanon, and helping moderate the behavior of Iran.
Although the US is upset that Syria has managed to shake off US-imposed isolation, Washington does realize that Syria's cooperation is needed to get things done in the Middle East. In December 1990, former US secretary of state James Baker described Syria as "a major Arab country who happens to share the same goals as we do".
But, in December 2004, US President George W Bush said, "Syria is a very weak country, and therefore it cannot be trusted."
The huge difference in US policy on Syria over the past 15 years shows how difficult it is to mend a very fractured, and perhaps irreparable, relationship. This is especially true after the events of October 27 and will remain so as long as Bush is in the White House, or if he is replaced by Senator John McCain.
When the Gulf War started in 1991, Syria was on America's blacklist because of a failed attempt to blow up an Israeli airplane at Heathrow Airport in London in 1986. In light of the Gulf War, however, Bush realized that as much as he would have loved to punish Syria for its anti-Israel behavior, he needed Syria to prevent the occurrence of similar attacks.
The late president Hafez al-Assad, eager to comply, met with Baker for the first time on September 14, 1990, signaling the start of a 10-year honeymoon between Damascus and Washington. Then, on November 23, Assad met with Bush, who requested Syrian support in Operation Desert Storm, and promised to hold an Arab-Israeli peace conference once Kuwait was liberated.
When the Gulf War broke out in January 1991, Bush made sure that Israel stayed out of the conflict, so as not to anger Syria. He even forced Israel to practice self-restraint when Saddam Hussein showered Tel Aviv with Scud missiles. Later, Bush got upset with Israeli finance minister Yitzhak Modai, who claimed that Washington should pay Israel US$2 billion in compensation for the Scud attacks it had tolerated for the sake of Syria.
In response, Bush refused to channel $400 million in housing-development loans to the Israeli housing minister, who was none other than Ariel Sharon. The money had been earmarked to settle Russian Jews coming in from the former Soviet Union into the West Bank and Gaza. Giving them a free hand in Lebanon was another reward by the US administration to the Syrians; a reward for Assad's participation in Desert Storm.
As Bush promised Assad, the Madrid Conference took place in October 1991. In 1994, he gave a speech at Tufts University in which he said, "Syria's role is important to American interests." Two years later, Baker gave another speech at Tufts, saying: "Had it not been for Syria's approval and positive position, adopted by president [Hafez] al-Assad, the peace process would not have been launched."
President Bill Clinton tried again to court Syria, meeting with Assad twice in 1994, once during an historic visit to Damascus. He noted that Syria "is the key to the achievement of enduring and comprehensive peace" in the Middle East. A satisfied Syria smiled at the initiatives and gestures of the United States.
After Sunday, Syria is no longer satisfied. History proves that when the Syrians become angry, they can do much in the Middle East. Nazem al-Qudsi was right in 1945: America is Syria's potential best friend. But this potential friendship will only work with a wise man like Roosevelt, not someone who invades air space and kills civilians, like George W Bush.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.