A bloodstain and a shoe near the site of a US military helicopter attack that killed eight people in Syria near Kamal. (Photo: Hussein Malla / AP)
Washington - While US officials continue to avoid discussing the weekend strikes that killed eight people in eastern Syria, Middle East experts have condemned the attacks as a violation of international law that threatens to further destabilize US-Syria relations.
Sunday, special operations forces carried out a cross-border raid from Iraq into Syria. Press reports quote one unnamed US official who claims that the strike was successful in killing Abu Ghadiya, a terrorist leader in the region. Details of the strike have not yet been released by the US government.
However, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said the attack killed eight unarmed civilians in a farming village. Ahmed Salkini, spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in Washington, DC, condemned the strike, calling it a "criminal terrorist attack" that "intentionally targeted innocent civilians."
According to Princeton international law scholar Richard Falk, neither the US nor Syria presented sufficient evidence to back up their claims. Regardless of the intent of the raid, Falk called the US action "a serious violation of international law," which allows for the use of violence only in self-defense.
Yet, Falk does not predict that any enforcement action will be taken, because international laws regulating the use of military force have been so undermined by the US and other countries in recent years. Falk called the raid "the latest display of Washington's disregard for the restraints of international law on the use of force.
"We are witnessing a unilateral expansion of the scope of the right of self-defense [by the Bush administration]," Falk told Truthout. "This is a suspension of the rule of law in the name of counter-insurgency or homeland security. It is an extension of executive authority and the imperial presidency."
Falk pointed to a recent escalation in unauthorized and illegal cross-border attacks, calling the raid in Syria and similar US actions in Pakistan "a type of very dangerous diplomacy," which threatens to spark an international crisis and "further expand the war zone" in the region.
Violations of territorial sovereignty by the US military have stoked anti-American sentiment among civilians in the Middle East, leading to increasingly dire predicaments for political leaders trying to balance domestic circumstances with pressure from the US.
Resistance to US raids in Pakistan has escalated to the point of actual exchanges of fire between Pakistani and US forces, causing the US to roll back plans to expand military operations into the lawless Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
Sunday's raids mark a significant step backward in the US's relations with Syria, hindering counterterrorism efforts instead of helping them, according to Erik Leaver, policy outreach director for Foreign Policy In Focus.
"This does further damage to US-Syrian relations, which have been very shaky over the past few years," Leaver told Truthout. "This attack will strain relations further, making it more difficult to track terrorist movement, not easier."
The US attacks come at an odd time, because Syrian border control has been improving recently, according to Leaver. Salkini even pointed to recent encouragement from the Bush administration.
"A few weeks ago we had a positive meeting with Secretary Rice and the Syrian foreign minister," Salkini told Truthout. "They talked about positive steps forward; they complimented our efforts in the region."
Salkini called this contradictory approach a "recurrent theme" of the Bush administration.
The strange timing of the attacks may be politically calculated, according to Joshua Landis, co-director of the Center for Middle East Studies.
"Politically, it is safer now because Syria is constrained from retaliation due to its desire to get off to a new and better start with a new US administration," Landis told Truthout. "Damascus may feel that it has to swallow this aggression if it doesn't want deteriorating relations to bleed into the next administration."
The Syrian media have roundly condemned the raids, with the top national newspaper, Tishrin, calling them "cold-blooded murder."
According to another main media outlet, the Syrian Arab News Agency, the Syrian government has sent a letter to the United Nations, requesting that the UN hold the US accountable for its actions and prevent similar attacks in the future.
However, according to Salkini, Syria's anger at the raids won't translate into military aggression.
"We are not interested in a war with the United States," Salkini told Truthout. "Their policies in our region ... have brought enough war and anguish."
The Syrian raids come at a critical time in the US's relationship with Iraq. The two countries are negotiating a status of forces agreement (SOFA) that would establish a long-term US presence in Iraq. According to the most recent draft of the SOFA, supplied to Truthout by American Friends Service Committee Iraq consultant Raed Jarrar, the agreement permits the US to continue "conducting operations against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups." It does not lay down a firm deadline for withdrawal, nor does it bar cross-border attacks into surrounding nations.
"This attack on Syria is yet another reason to oppose the long-term agreement, because it shows that the US presence is not just destabilizing Iraq - it's destabilizing the entire region," Jarrar told Truthout. "With Iraq as a military base, the US can easily attack any other country in the region."
The Iraqi constitution prohibits the use of its land as a military base for launching cross-border strikes, according to a statement by Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh on Tuesday. The statement condemned the attack on Syria.
Syria has consistently opposed the US-Iraq SOFA throughout negotiations. Now, according to Landis, the raids present an imminent motivation to prevent its passage.
"You can be sure that Syria will do everything possible to pressure Iraq not to pass the SOFA," Landis said.
Meanwhile, Congress is out of session for the campaign season and has not yet stepped into the debate about the legality of the raids in Syria. Attempts to contact all twenty-one members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the majority of the House Foreign Relations Committee went unanswered by press time.
Even while in session, Congress has been hesitant to take on the issue of national-sovereignty violations in the so-called war on terror, because politicians fear voters may react negatively if they oppose military action against potential terrorist targets.
"Congress has been very passive in relation to its own authority with regard to warmaking, including Democrats, even with the mandate of the 2006 elections," Professor Falk said. "Congress hasn't been willing to insist that the government adhere to international law and the US Constitution."