WASHINGTON, Oct. 27 (UPI) -- The alleged U.S. helicopter raid into Syria Sunday raises a host of questions -- most of all, why now?
The Syrian government claims the raid was carried out by four U.S. helicopters at Sukkariyeh Farm near Qaim, only 5 miles from the Syrian-Iraqi border and that it killed eight people, four of who were allegedly children. The U.S. military said military helicopters weren't used in that attack, but U.S. spokesmen were generally vague about on which side of the border the fighting occurred.
A Syrian diplomat in London described the attack as an "outrageous crime," and he warned ominously that Damascus might well consider some form of retaliatory action of its own.
"This administration ... has proved to be irrational, and they have no respect for international law or human rights. We expect a clarification, and of course Syria reserves the right to respond accordingly in the proper way," Syria's press attache in London, Jihad Makdissi, told the British Broadcasting Corp.
It is certainly true that the so-called rat lines across the 360-mile border between Syria and Iraq have been feeding the Islamist insurgency in Iraq over the past five years. They help explain why so many terror attacks have been, and continue to be, carried out in Kurdish-controlled, oil-rich northern Iraq, even though the majority of the population there are strongly supportive of the U.S. armed forces.
It is often easier for the guerrillas -- most of who in that area come from outside Iraq, especially from the Maghreb countries of North Africa -- to operate there than to make the perilous, long journey down to Anbar and Diyala provinces in central Iraq, where the local Sunni Muslim population is increasingly hostile to them anyway.
The Bush administration and Sen. John McCain's faltering Republican presidential campaign have been trumpeting the success of Gen. David Petraeus' counterinsurgency policies in Iraq. Widening the war to include proactive attacks across the border into Syria risks undermining that narrative.
U.S. President George W. Bush, in fact, has flip-flopped on the advisability of permitting the military to carry out cross-border raids to interdict insurgent supply and reinforcement routes. In July, Bush authorized such a policy in Afghanistan. But only one raid so far has been carried out under that policy, into Pakistan on Sept. 3. And the fallout of protest in the wake of that attack seems to have dissuaded Bush from authorizing it again.
Since then, U.S. forces in Afghanistan have fallen back on their established tactic of using Predator unmanned aerial vehicles instead. The rate of such predator drone attacks has accelerated remarkably: Eighteen such attacks have been carried out since August, compared with only five in the previous seven months.
Cross-border attacks in any conflict carry the risk of widening it uncontrollably. That is especially the case here, since Syria is the main Middle East ally of Iran, and tensions between the United States and Iran remain high over Tehran's drive to acquire long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. And the risks of escalation are far greater when ground troops are involved in the incident, not just airstrikes.
The U.S. attack echoes the commando playbook of the Israeli armed forces in its counterinsurgency operations against guerrilla bases operating from across the Israeli border. But ironically Israel's dovish acting Prime Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak both have signaled they want peace negotiations and reduced tensions with Syria, rather than the dangers of war. Israel is far more concerned about Iran's nuclear program, especially since its successful airstrike earlier this year neutralized what is believed to have been some kind of Syrian nuclear facility that was being built with North Korean help.
Sunday's attack by U.S. forces within Syria certainly appears to have been on too small a scale to have had any directly discernible impact on the conflict within Iraq. It appears to have been intended as a warning shot across the bow to Damascus to crack down on the "rat lines." Time will tell if it worked.