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U.S. Calls Raid a Warning to Syria

U.S. military helicopters launched an extremely rare attack Sunday on Syrian territory close to the border with Iraq, killing eight people in a strike the government in Damascus condemned as "serious aggression." Video by AP

The documents included al-Qaeda in Iraq records of more than 500 foreign fighters who had entered from Syria, according to the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., where civilian analysts are examining the documents. A July report made public their latest findings.

The documents indicated that at least 95 Syrian "coordinators" were involved in moving the foreign fighters. Many of the coordinators were from smuggling families in Bedouin clans and other Syrian tribes. A number of them appeared to be cooperating with al-Qaeda in Iraq for pay rather than out of ideological sympathy.

Many recruits reported to their handlers in Iraq that they had passed through Damascus, Syria's capital, and then an area near the Iraqi border called Abu Kamal. Sunday's raid occurred in Abu Kamal.

U.S. officers long have called the Syrian smuggling routes "ratlines." American forces in western Anbar province sustained some of the highest losses of the war in 2006 and 2007, as U.S. troops fought to drive out al-Qaeda in Iraq from border towns and shut down the smuggling of fighters, weapons and money.

The "Syrian government has willingly ignored, and in some cases may have assisted, foreign fighters headed to Iraq," according to the report of the Combating Terrorism Center.

But Syria has also made some efforts to curtail the smuggling, including instances of chasing coordinators taking Libyan fighters into Iraq, according to Brian Fishman, a lead author of the report.

Certainly, "the Syrian government doesn't deserve a pass on this," he said. "But there are some things that limit their ability to act out there. The state is not as strong there as it is in other parts of the country."

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a member of the Alawite religious minority, ruling over a majority-Sunni country. The government varies between trying to crack down on the smuggling networks, and their Sunni al-Qaeda in Iraq partners, and simply trying to monitor them, Fishman said.

"Over the long run I think it's clear an Alawite government and an al-Qaeda-style network are not on the same side of history," Fishman said. "They're playing with fire to a certain extent."

Syria says it too has been targeted by al-Qaeda, citing a deadly bombing in Damascus this summer.

In the case of Pakistan, the United States has justified cross-border artillery and missile strikes and at least one ground raid -- a widely publicized helicopter-borne assault on Sept. 3 -- as acts of self-defense.

"We will do what is necessary to protect our troops," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in Senate testimony last month, when asked about the cross-border operations. Under questioning, Gates said that he was not an expert in international law but that he assumed the State Department had consulted such laws before the U.S. military was granted authority to make such strikes.

More broadly, U.S. military and intelligence officials and analysts have asserted for years that such strikes are justified if a country is unwilling or unable to control its own territory or the threats emanating from inside its borders. U.S. strikes can goad such countries into action, officials say.

The military's argument is that "you can only claim sovereignty if you enforce it," said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "When you are dealing with states that do not maintain their sovereignty and become a de facto sanctuary, the only way you have to deal with them is this kind of operation," he said.

Knickmeyer reported from Cairo. Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington and correspondent Ernesto LondoƱo and special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim and Zaid Sabah in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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