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Why did the US attack Syria?

There was a 30-day difference between the September 27 terrorist attack in Damascus, and the October 27 US attack on the town of Abu Kamal, near the Syrian-Iraqi border. On September 27, right after the attack which led to the killing of 17 people, there seemed to be some room for future cooperation between Syria and the US. Barriers imposed in 2003 seemed to slowly - very slowly - start coming down.

"Black Saturday" as the Syrians called it, made the Americans realise that the Syrians were not bluffing when they cried "wolf" from 2003 to 2008, claiming that militants were flooding into Syria from the chaos in Iraq. Syria was targeted by the jihadists, after all, for engaging in peace talks with Israel and for keeping tabs on the border with Iraq, thus preventing the infiltration of militant Islamists into Iraq.

Damascus was pulling out all stops to crush Islamist fundamentalism, and the Americans realised this, without publicly admitting they were wrong. They had been getting positive signals from the Syrians ever since Syria attended the Annapolis Peace Conference in November 2007, despite loud objections from Iran and Hamas.

Over the past month, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al Moualem, expressing a readiness to cooperate on the indirect talks between Syria and Israel, taking place in Turkey.

A senior US source was quoted on Israeli Radio saying that the Bush Administration was re-considering its policies towards Syria, hinting that this might lead to the lifting of the Syrian Accountability Act and the sanctions imposed on Damascus since 2003. On October 12 - according to Haaretz - Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas came to Damascus carrying a hand-written letter from US President George W. Bush to Syria's President Bashar Al Assad.

We don't know how true this report is (it sounds far-fetched) but if it has any truth to it, the offer was: American support for full return of the Golan Heights in exchange for a break in Syrian-Iranian relations. Things seemed 'positive' especially after Rice came out and strongly condemned the attack on the Syrian capital, expressing solidarity with Damascus in its "war on terror".

Things changed dramatically when four US planes invaded Syrian airspace - for the first time ever in bilateral relations between the two countries - and struck at the Sukariyya village, in the town of Abu Kamal, on October 2 in which eight innocent people were killed. What seemed to be a fruitful relationship 30-days ago now threatens to erupt into a military confrontation. The Syrians were furious. Russia and the Arab League condemned the attack right away, followed soon after by other prominent Arab nations.

Although no official response came from either Washington or the Pentagon at first (the attack was confirmed by the Americans last Monday) a senior American military source was quoted saying that the US was behind a terrorist Al Qaida network that had crossed the border into Syria. This is hard to believe, especially that recently Syria has been very cooperative on border security with Iraq.

If there was a problem with jihadists crossing the border, the Americans and the Iraqis would have informed the Syrians of their worries.

The possibility of human error stands, and the fact that it took the Americans 24-hours to announce the attack was testimony that something was wrong in the upper echelons of the US military establishment. Had the Americans struck at a terrorist building in Syria, they would have been the first to report it - and brag - on CNN.

Another theory - first put forth by George Mason University Professor Marc Gopin (then repeated by many analysts), claims that this was a 'present' from Dick Cheney to John McCain. It was what the McCain team needed to justify a new phase of the war on terror - this time with Syria, a country that has been at odds end with the US since 2003.

Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, who promised to talk to the Syrians if elected president, would ostensibly look silly, talking to a country that "harbours terrorists crossing the border into Iraq". The Syria attack would thereby serve McCain's campaign, and "embarrass" Obama.

True reasons

What happened on October 27 did not end on October 27. The true reasons behind this horrendous attack might surface in the next few weeks, as the battle for the White House nears the end in the US. For now, nobody really knows why the Americans decided to bomb Syria. In September 2007, Israelis hit Tal Abyad village, and the reasons for this attack were not made public until six-months later, when Israel and Washington DC said that Syria was ostensibly building a nuclear reactor there. That argument, for all practical purposes and according to early reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency, has proved to be false.

But that doesn't really matter now; what matters is that the Bush Administration turned a blind eye to all of the positive steps Syria has been taking in recent months.

The Syrians should not get dragged into the dirty game of US politics, raging between McCain and Bush on one front, and Obama on the other. When Pope John Paul II visited Qunaitra in 2001, the Syrian village destroyed during the war of 1967, he famously advised the Syrians: "In a special way we pray for the leaders of this noble land of Syria. Grant them wisdom, farsightedness and perseverance; may they never yield to discouragement in their challenging task of building the lasting peace for which their people yearn".

Sami Moubayed is Syrian political analyst.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:Oct 29, 2008
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