The Chosen Arena: Iraq

Officials in Washington tried to puzzle out what Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem meant when he threatened a “painful response” for the US helicopter-borne commando raid of a farm near Abu Kemal 7 km from the Iraqi border on Oct. 26, in which 8 people were killed, including Syria’s senior terrorist recruiter, Abu Ghadiyah.


Wednesday, Oct. 29, they had their answer: Syria pulled its 3rd Army back from the Iraqi border, DEBKANet-Weekly‘s sources report. This force had been positioned there a year ago by common consent between US and Syria to seal the border against terrorist and insurgent movements into Iraq.


The removal of the Syrian 3rd Army laid the border open to unrestricted terrorist movement, including that of al Qaeda, between the two countries. Since the US-backed tribal Awakening Councils are in control of the Iraqi side of the border, the Americans expect small terrorist bands, including al Qaeda and the new recruits for the Iraqi Sunni Islamic Army and Mujaheddin, will try and slip through to snipe at US forces and return to their Syrian havens. The presumption in Damascus is that these incidents will build up into a spiral generating more US cross-border operations to strike at these havens.


Tension was also high this week at the US embassy in Damascus, which shut down Thursday, Oct. 30, for fear of Syrian reprisals, which could range from a siege of the building to violent mass demonstrations or an armed assault that would force the evacuation of embassy staff.


These expectations prompted the embassy Monday, Oct. 27 to issue a warning on its Web site to Americans in the country to “remain alert,” avoid demonstrations and review their personal security. Thursday, the embassy shut it doors for an indefinite period as tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out in Damascus to protest against the US raid.


The embassy spokesman declined to comment on whether the number or status of US diplomats in Syria could change.


 


Damascus fears more US strikes coming


 


American diplomats still recall the attack on the embassy by three armed men in September 2006. To this day, they have not been identified.


In the tense debate held by Syria’s top echelons over how to retaliate for the American action, the winning argument backed by Syria’s security and intelligence chiefs was this: Damascus had already invested so much effort and money in the penetration of Iraqi Sunni fighting groups, so why not use them and send them into action against US targets in Iraq now?


Indeed, it was argued, Syria’s failure to do so would convince the Sunni insurgent leaders that Damascus was running scared of the Americans and would never pluck up the courage to send them into action.


An even more pressing argument, revealed by Our Middle East sources, was Syria’s conviction that the US would not stop at one raid, but more were coming and some might involve Iraqi special forces.


The Syrians were worried in earnest by a statement Monday by the Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. He defended the American operation in Syria on the grounds that the area attacked was “used by insurgents for cross-border attacks in Iraq.”


 


Iraq was the jumping-off base


 


A couple of days later, after Tehran interceded with the Maliki government at the request of Damascus, the spokesman backtracked.


He said: “The Iraqi government rejects US aircraft bombardments inside Syria. The constitution does not allow Iraq to be used as a staging ground to attack neighboring countries.” Iraq had launched an investigation into the incident, he said, and urged US forces not to repeat it.


Damascus was not reassured. In London, the Syrian foreign minister told reporters: “…if the US attacked again, Syria would be forced to defend its territory.”


Asked why Syria had not responded to Israel’s attack more than a year ago on the nuclear reactor under construction at Al Kibar – an operation far broader in scale than the American raid – Muallem had his answer pat: The Israel attack had come from an enemy state, while the American assault was staged by a foreign army occupying an Arab nation and using it as a jumping-off base to attack Syria.


The Syrian foreign minister was implying that if his government let the US off without striking back, it would lose face in the Arab world.

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