By Ann Scott Tyson and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post staff writers
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
U.S. troops in helicopters flew four miles into Syrian territory over the weekend to target the leader of a network that channels foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq, killing or wounding him and shooting dead several armed men, U.S. officials said Monday.
U.S. officials have long complained that the Syrian government has allowed Arab fighters to pass through the country to enter Iraq, but since last year, top military leaders have praised Syrian efforts to curb the flow. In recent months, officials have estimated that as few as 20 fighters a month have been crossing into Iraq, down from more than a hundred a month in 2006.
But officials said the raid Sunday, apparently the first acknowledged instance of U.S. ground forces operating in Syria, was intended to send a warning to the Syrian government. "You have to clean up the global threat that is in your back yard, and if you won't do that, we are left with no choice but to take these matters into our hands," said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the cross-border strike.
The United States has offered similar justifications for recent cross-border strikes in Pakistan, where it has launched missile attacks and at least one air assault against suspected members of Afghanistan's Taliban insurgency. "As targets present themselves, and are identified . . . they become more and more at risk. Just like in Pakistan, there will be steps taken to deal with it," the senior official said.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem called the operation Sunday a "criminal and terrorist aggression" that killed seven civilians. Speaking to reporters in London, he said Bush administration officials were following "the policy of cowboys" and noted that the United States has been unable to seal its own border with Mexico.
The office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy issued a statement expressing "serious concerns" about the raid and the loss of Syrian lives. Syria has lately embarked on policies that France and other Western governments have viewed favorably, including indirect peace talks with Israel. Russia also voiced concern about the operation.
In the raid, four helicopters carrying U.S. troops flew into an isolated area of scattered residences and buildings in search of an Iraqi insurgent whom the U.S. Treasury designated in February as a key facilitator of the transfer of weapons, money and fighters into Iraq. Treasury officials gave his full name as Badran Turki Hishan al-Mazidih and his nickname as Abu Ghadiyah, and said that the founder of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had named him the organization's commander for Syrian logistics in 2004.
On the ground, U.S. troops disembarked and opened fire to kill "several armed males who posed a threat to U.S. forces," according to the senior official. The official declined to say whether Mazidih was killed or injured in the fighting. Other unnamed U.S. officials were quoted in news media accounts Monday as saying he had been killed.
Moualem said U.S. troops landed at a farm where they killed a father and his three children, the farm's guard and his wife, and a fisherman.
The network run by Mazidih has smuggled hundreds of foreign fighters into Iraq, including many who became suicide bombers, officials and analysts said. "He ran one of the largest and most productive foreign fighter networks out of Syria" and was "directly responsible for hundreds of foreign fighters who killed thousands" of Iraqis, the senior official said.
The U.S. military has shown patience, the official said, but "eventually you can't wait for guys like that to come back across the border and kill scores of Iraqis or, worse, your own forces."
A summer 2007 U.S. military raid on a suspected al-Qaeda in Iraq house in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, near Syria, yielded a wealth of information about alleged Syrian smuggling networks used to move foreign fighters into Iraq.
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 Londoño and special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim and Zaid Sabah in Baghdad contributed to this report.