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Tensions Between U.S. and Syria Continue to Heighten in Wake of Raid

October 29, 2008 05:22 PM
by Josh Katz
The U.S. attack on Syrian soil over the weekend has sparked strong reactions from commentators and from Syria, raising doubts about the safety of Americans there.

Possible Embassy and School Closures in Syria

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The U.S. Embassy in Syria said it could “close to the public” because of the United States’ tense relations with the country following the American helicopter raid in Syrian territory this weekend that killed eight people, the Associated Press reports.

On Tuesday, the Syrian government called for the closing of an American school and cultural center in Damascus, but both continued their operations on Wednesday. An embassy official said the government had not taken any further steps to forcefully shut down the Damascus Community School, known as the “American School” in the country because some American students and other international students attend it.

The message from the U.S. Embassy warning American citizens that the facility could close was dated Monday but released to the public on Wednesday. It said, “The American community in Syria should be aware that unforeseen events or circumstances may occur that could cause the U.S. Embassy in Damascus to close to the public for an unspecified period of time,” the AP reports.

Also on Wednesday, the government of Iraq said it would share with Syria the information gathered during its investigation into the incident. Iraq, eager to foster friendships with its neighboring countries, has criticized its ally, the United States, for launching the attack from Iraqi land. “Iraq hopes this unfortunate act will not disturb brotherly relations between the two countries,” it said in a statement.

Background: The U.S. raid and the Syrian response

The U.S. sent two dozen commandos in four Black Hawk helicopters into the village of Al-Sukkari, Syria on Sunday, Oct. 25. The Bush administration remained quiet about the raid, which was widely criticized by the Syrian government and people. U.S. officials claim that the target of the mission was Abu Ghadiya, a senior al-Qaida leader responsible for moving supplies and fighters into Iraq, and that he was killed in the attack, the Times of London writes.

Syria has claimed that innocent civilians were killed in the raid and charged the United States with “terrorist aggression,” Reuters reports.

A senior American official, speaking anonymously, shot back: “You have to clean up the global threat that is in your backyard—and if you don’t do that, we are left with no choice but to take these matters into our own hands,” according to the Times of London.

But there are also rumors that the U.S. may have planned the attacks with the prior consent of Syria. An Oct. 29 article from Sky News quotes Ronen Bergman, author of “The Secret War with Iran,” who allegedly spoke with senior U.S. officials on the matter. He says that the Syrian government told the United States, “If you want to do this, do it. We are going to give you a corridor and carte blanche. We will not harm your troops.”

Bergman points out how strange it was that Syria did not respond militarily to the American raid: “The Syrians have invested so much in aerial defences, especially against choppers and the Americans go in in daylight and nothing is being done.” According to Berman, Syria and the United States have worked together under the radar “for some time in its war with al-Qaeda,” Sky News writes.

Opinion & Analysis: The significance of the raid and the aftermath

Syrian political analyst Sami Moubayed traces the history of the United States' relations with Syria since World War II, and explains how the Bush administration has torn down the friendly foreign policy between the two countries. During the first Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush courted Syria for assistance, and President Bill Clinton continued that amity. But relations soured when President George W. Bush’s administration blamed Syria for hindering the war in Iraq and by 2005, relations hit their nadir with the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister. Moubayed argues that administration made an intelligence error in the recent attack, as evidenced by their silence on the subject. He says a friendly relationship could manifest again under a new president, but “not someone who invades air space and kills civilians, like George W. Bush.”

A Washington Post editorial, reprinted by the Toronto Star, calls Syria’s enraged response to the American mission hypocritical. According to the Post, Syria’s recent past is filled with highly reprehensible actions, including its involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Rafik Hariri; its assistance to Hezbollah militants bent on attacking Israel; and its harboring of al-Qaida fighters. The editorial claims that Israel has not hesitated to launch preemptive strikes on Syrian soil, as it did earlier this year by bombing a reputed nuclear site, and the United States should make clear that it, too “is no longer prepared to respect the sovereignty of a criminal regime.”

The Guardian disagrees with The Washington Post’s opinion, contending that “the attack was another sign of a US administration which shoots first and thinks later.” The U.S. strike comes at a time when the world needs Syria’s cooperation more than ever, especially if the United States scales down forces in Iraq, says The Guardian. The editorial also claims that Syria has been making great strides in world diplomacy. Furthermore, “If America ignores Syria’s borders, to what extent will they honour Iraq’s sovereignty?”

But a Los Angeles Times blog claims that, “for the timing, it’s better for Damascus to let the U.S. finish the job now and blame the Bush administration, whose reputation in the Middle East could hardly get worse, and make a fresh start with the Obama or McCain teams.”
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