30 October 2008

* Why Syria, Why Now?

So the question is: Why?", geostrategic analyst and journalist Helena Cobban wrote on her blog, wondering if the raid could have been pulled off without explicit permission from the highest levels of the President George W Bush administration.

"Why now at the end of the Bush administration, with Washington trying to play nice with Damascus and tensions easing throughout the region, would US forces stage such a gambit?" echoed Borzou Daragahi on the Babylon and Beyond blog at the Los Angeles Times website.

The questions started to swirl late on Sunday afternoon when US helicopters allegedly crossed eight kilometers over the desert border between Syria and Iraq. According to reports, eight US soldiers were deployed when a helicopter landed, attacking the al-Sukkari farm in the Syrian Abu Kamal border area.

The cross-border raid - the first of its kind involving a helicopter attack and US boots on the ground that far into Syrian territory - left eight dead, according to Syrian press reports.

The attack is especially curious since, according to a report this weekend in the New York Times, Bush appears to have rolled back his initiative of troop-driven cross-border attacks - initially approved this summer - by Afghan-based US forces into Pakistani territory.

The raid also comes as Syria is negotiating with Israel, through Turkish mediation, presumably in a calculated effort to alleviate tensions with the West and the US. The Bush administration's take on the Israel-Syria talks has been lukewarm at best.

More immediately for the US, the raid could complicate negotiations on a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraqi authorities which would allow US forces to keep operating in Iraq after the United Nations mandate expires at the end of this year.

The talks on the SOFA have been bogged down, and a persistent Iraqi demand has been that Iraqi soil not be used as a launch pad for attacks on other countries.

"The Iraqi government rejects US aircraft bombarding posts inside Syria," a government spokesperson, Ali al-Dabbagh, said on Tuesday. "The constitution does not allow Iraq to be used as a staging ground to attack neighboring countries."

Dabbagh said Iraq had opened an investigation into the incident and urged US forces not to repeat it.

The US Department of Defense has repeatedly declined to comment on the Syrian incident, including to a direct request by Inter Press Service, but several press reports have quoted unnamed US officials confirming the attack, and saying that it was ordered by the Central Intelligence Agency.

One US official anonymously told Agence France-Presse that the strike was aimed at Abu Ghadiya, whom the official called "one of the most prominent foreign fighter facilitators in the region". The official said he believed the target was killed.

The spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in Washington, Ahmed Salkini, told IPS that the name did not appear on the official Syrian list of those dead.

In retaliation, Syria has shut down a US school and cultural center in Damascus, and its United Nations envoy has requested that the Security Council intervene to prevent further incursions into Syrian territory.

"This act of aggression perpetrated by the US forces against Syrian civilians indicates the US administration's determination to go on in its policies that brought nothing but killing and destruction to the region," said Syria's letter to the Security Council.

Neo-conservatives and hawks within the Bush administration have long clamored for expanding Middle Eastern conflicts into Syria, which was named as one of the three countries in Bush's famous "axis of evil".

Indeed, Bush's neo-conservative deputy national security adviser, Elliott Abrams, told Israeli officials during a high-level meeting that the US would not object if Israel extended its 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon into Syria.

But if the cross-border attack was an attempt by hawks to lure Syria into a war, it appears to have failed; Syria has engaged in a measured response, although it did call the act of aggression "a dangerous violation of the Syrian sovereignty and the UN principles and conventions", in its letter to the UN.

Syria's press attache in London, Jihad Makdissi, told the British Broadcasting Corporation that the US should have approach Syria first.

"If they have any proof of any insurgency, instead of applying the law of the jungle and penetrating, unprovoked, a sovereign country, they should come to the Syrians first and share this information," he said.

Cobban, a well-respected commentator and veteran analyst, said on her Just World News blog that the Syrians had not responded, and are not about to respond, in any way that is violent or otherwise escalates tensions.

"I've been studying the behavior of this Ba'athist regime in Syria closely for 34 years now. They have steely nerves. They are just about impossible to 'provoke', at any point that they judge a harsh response is not in their interest," she wrote.

While foreign fighters from Syria have long been problematic to the US occupation of Iraq, since 2006, US patrols along the border and some Syrian cooperation have dramatically reduced the number of foreign fighters flowing into Iraq.

Last December, the former US commander in Iraq and now the CENTCOM chief, General David Petraeus, said, "Syria has taken steps to reduce the flow of the foreign fighters through its borders with Iraq."

Petraeus reiterated the notion this month when he reported that fighters from Syria moving into Iraq have had their monthly total reduced from about 100 to 20.

But last Thursday, the commander of US troops in western Iraq, Marine Major John Kelly, said that while there has been progress, it wasn't enough.

The suspected involvement of some of the most vociferous anti-Syria hawks at the highest levels of the Bush administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney, have combined with US silence on the matter to fuel a guessing game as to just exactly who ordered or approved Sunday's cross-border raid.

"This operation was pretty clearly run by US special operations forces pursuing a terrorist target," Colonel Pat Lang, a retired US military intelligence officer, told IPS. "Their sole mission is like a SWAT team to go around and hunt terrorists."

Lang said that these special operations forces sometimes operate distinctly outside the normal military chain of command by design of hawkish former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld.

"If left to themselves, they would do this kind of thing [the Syria raid]. That's what they do," said Lang. "They don't follow policy, they carry out their assigned mission."

Because the US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, is dealing with mounting concerns about the SOFA, Lang suspects that he'd be hesitant to directly approve such a bold a provocative attack as Sunday afternoon's.

"I haven't established it yet, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the authority to do this came right out of the White House," Lang told IPS.

Asked if the decision undermines pressing US goals for commanders in Iraq, Lang said that while the considerations are there, they don't always filter up into decision-making in the executive branch.

"Usually command arrangements of various kinds are messy," Lang said, "and this White House has shown a tendency to want to bypass the established chain of command and influence what's going on [in the field]."

But in addition to being a bold foreign policy move, the raid has also been interpreted by some as a political stunt, albeit one unlikely to succeed.

Some journalists and experts have speculated that the raid was a Bush administration attempt to deliver an "October Surprise" - a late game-changing development favoring one candidate - for Republican candidate Senator John McCain just over a week before the presidential election in which he badly trails Democratic rival Senator Barack Obama in most polls.

McCain has been seen as holding an advantage in issues of national security, but the strike does not appear to have made too much immediate impact, as on Wednesday the Democrat led McCain by 52-45% in the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll.


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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.