Dispatches From The Edge—Syria Attack: Changing the Rules

By Conn Hallinan
Thursday December 04, 2008 - 09:54:00 AM

A little more than a month ago, four U.S. Blackhawk helicopters cros-sed the Syrian border from Iraq and attacked a civilian farmhouse near the town of al-Sukkariyeh. The U.S. claims the farmhouse was an al-Qaeda way station and the eight men killed during the raid were terrorists, including a major al-Qaeda leader, Abu Ghadiya. The Syrians say the dead—five of them members of the same family—were building a house and had nothing to do with terrorism or al-Qaeda. A BBC report found that most of the dead appeared to be construction workers, including a night watchman, which suggests the raid may have been botched. 

Sorting out what happened, who authorized the attack, and what the motivations behind it were is not an academic exercise, but one that goes to the heart of the Bush Administration’s “pre-emptive war” policy and the problems the doctrine presents to the in-coming Obama Administration. 

When President George W. Bush outlined the strategy of pre-emptive war in his 2002 West Point address, he broke with more than 50 years of international law and a central tenent of the United Nations Charter. One of the pivotal initiatives that emerged from the carnage of World War II were rules to prevent unilateral attacks by one country on another. Since the aggressors in WW II-Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and imperial Japan—all claimed they were fighting “preventive wars,” the UN insisted that only an actual or “imminent” armed attack could trigger an all-out conflict. And such wars were only legal if the U.N. Security Council authorized them. 

There are a number of countries that have ignored these restrictions. The U.S., the Soviet Union, China, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Israel, South Africa, Morocco and Britain all invaded other nations without bothering to get the blessing of the Security Council, mostly because it would not have been forthcoming. Still, the philosophy of “imminent danger” did play a certain restraining role through much of the last half century. For instance, the U.S. went through the process of obtaining UN authorization for Gulf War I. 

But in the name of “liberal interventionism,” the Clinton Administration and NATO openly broke with the covenant in 1999 and launched a 75-day air war on Serbia. Indeed, on a number of occasions the Bush White House has pointed to the Yugoslav War as a precedent for its own pre-emptive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

The Bush administration, however, added “terrorism” as a rationale for war. As the 2002 National Security Strategy document puts it, “The United States of America is fighting a war against terrorists of global reach. The enemy is not a single political regime or person or religion or ideology. The enemy is terrorism—premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetuated against innocents.” 

Elevating “terrorism” to “imminent danger” has allowed the Bush administration to invade two countries, expand the powers of the executive, undermine constitutional checks on surveillance, and ignore U.S. and international laws on torture and incarceration.  

Since “terrorism” is a tactic and a stratagem likely to be with us as long as one side in a conflict is vastly more powerful than the other, to wage “war on terror” is to fight a never-ending conflict. 

In his book Terror and Consent, Philip Bobbitt, a Columbia law professor and former national security advisor in the administrations of Jimmy Carter, George H. Bush, and Bill Clinton, and foreign policy advisor to John McCain, argues that “nation states” are passé, because terrorism is everywhere and nowhere. If you believe there are terrorists in Syria you can invade because the old rules of national sovereignty no long apply. (For a fuller discussion of Bobbitt, see David Cole’s discussion of his philosophy in the Dec. 4 New York Review of Books).  

So what was the attack on Syria about, and who authorized it? Was it a strategic decision made at the highest levels of government? Or CIA and Special Forces hot shots—Task Force 88 is rumored to be the unit involved—snorting too much meth-amphetamine? 

The latter explanation is possible. When Donald Rumsfeld was Defense Secretary he endowed the Special Forces with a great deal of independence, and it is not entirely out the question that the attack was just the military doing what the military does.  

According to U.S. Col. Pat Lang, a retired intelligence officer, Special Forces many times operate outside of the established military command structure. “If left to themselves, they would do this kind of thing. They don’t follow policy, they carried out their assigned mission,” he says. 

Which doesn’t mean that the highest levels of the Administration were not involved. Lang says the White House has often “bypassed the established chain of command” and that he has a “sneaking suspicion that the authority to do this comes right out of the White House.”  

That “authority” is based on a 2004 classified order by the Bush Administration giving the U.S. the right to attack “terrorists” in some 15 to 20 nations, including Pakistan, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, and Iran. According to the New York Times, “Each specific mission requires high-level government approval.” 

The timing of the raid was certainly odd. While back in 2002 the Bush Administration declared Syria part of the “axis of evil,” relations between Washington and Damascus have improved in the last year. 

The former U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, recently praised Syria for tightening its border with Iraq, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem at the UN in September. Syria also agreed to open an embassy in Baghdad, established diplomatic relations with Lebanon, and helped broker a ceasefire between the warring parties in that country.  

Damascus has improved its relations with the European Union (EU) as well, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Lastly, with Turkey as a middleman, Syria and Israel have been discussing a peace treaty and a return of the Golan Heights. In short, Syria is beginning to break out of the isolation imposed on it by the U.S. and the EU. 

Which may be why it was targeted. A number of hawks in the Bush Administration, in particular Deputy National Security Advisor for the Middle East, Elliot Abrams and Vice-President Dick Cheney, have long advocated “regime change” in Syria. According to the Financial Times, the Bush Administration has discussed who should replace Assad, and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley was put in charge of the operation. Cross border attacks were seen as a way to make Assad look “weak,” thus encouraging a military coup.  

Abrams has long been close to Benjamin Netanyahu, who may be Israel’s next prime minister and who is implacably opposed to negotiations with either Syria or the Palestinians. A Netanyahu policy paper titled “A Clean Break” and authored by Cheney’s national security advisor, David Wurmser, advocates war with Syria. According to Israeli diplomats, during the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon, Abrams encouraged Tel Aviv to attack Syria. 

So was this a hit by the hawks? An attack on Syria would not only derail the delicate negotiations over Golan, it would also fire a shot across the bow of the EU. Jonathan Freedland of the British Guardian says that the raid was to remind “those uppity Europeans who’s in charge.” 

The Syrians are being very careful about how they react to the attack. While Damascus announced it would close a U.S. school, it has done little more than issue verbal protests. Syrian Foreign Minister al-Moallem told Der Speigel that Damascus has no wish to “escalate the situation,” nor give the U.S. an excuse to widen the attack. “We are not Georgia,” he added. 

Whether it was Special Forces out of control—unlikely—or a high level effort by hawks in the Bush Administration to torpedo efforts to reduce tensions in the region—likely—once again the U.S. has committed what in any other era would be considered an act of war. Princeton international law scholar Richard Falk called the raid a “serious violation of international law” and charged the Administration with “a unilateral expansion of the scope of the right of self-defense.” 

President-elect Barak Obama has somewhat contradictory views on this question of “pre-emptive war.” During the election he openly called for violating Pakistan’s borders: “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and (then Pakistan) President Musharraf won’t act, we will.”  

On the other hand, he says he wants to strengthen international organizations like the U.N. And while his bellicosity on Afghanistan is worrisome, it might be more an effort to finesse a withdrawal from Iraq, and counter charges that he is “weak on terrorism,” than a full-blown commitment to escalate the conflict. 

For the past several decades the U.S. has felt it had the right to define its own sovereignty as pre-empting all others. That philosophy has led to several ruinous wars and deep international animosity directed at this country. If the Obama administration is serious about change it can start by rejecting force as a policy tool, a philosophy that has more in common with the law of the jungle than international law.