Trick or Treat or Syria

by Jeff Huber

The war party continues to retreat; its skirmishers trail behind the main body to burn bridges, set booby traps, and otherwise harass the advancing Obama phalanx. The Syrian shenanigan is the latest tactical move in the neoconservative right's fight-another-day strategy, both in the fact of it and in the way it has been covered in our polluted mainstream media.

The story broke on October 26. The UK Telegraph reported that "Media reports gave conflicting accounts" of an air strike apparently conducted by U.S. military helicopters on Syrian civilians. The Times article first cited Syrian state television as saying an attack took place "near the Syrian border town of Abu Kamal."

Then it quoted a private Syrian TV channel saying nine people had been killed and 14 wounded when an unknown number of American helicopters attacked the village of Al-Sukkiraya.

Then it referenced and AP story that said seven people were killed and five others wounded when two American helicopters carrying U.S. soldiers raided the village of Hwijeh.

Then it cited a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Sergeant Brooke Murphy, as saying that commanders were investigating the reports.

The narrative got confusing after that.

I Didn't Tell You This, But…

On October 27 the BBC cited the official Syrian news agency Sana as reporting that four American helicopters had attacked in Sukkiraya--which is presumably the same place as Al-Sukkiraya—killing eight people including four children. The Beeb said that an unidentified "U.S. military spokesman was unable to confirm or deny the reports, saying it was a 'developing situation'." One might reasonably infer that this anonymous military spokesman was senior enough to Sergeant Murphy to know better than to allow his name to be used.

But the Beeb also reported that "later the Associated Press news agency quoted an unnamed US military official in Washington as saying that American special forces had attacked foreign fighters linked to al-Qaeda."

The Beeb also reported that Syria had condemned the strike as a "serious violation" of its territory.

On October 28, Rupert Murdoch's laughably right wing Sky News gave a somewhat different account of Syria's attitude toward the U.S. attack on its soil. The way Sky News told it, Syria secretly gave the "green light" for the raid. Sky based this remarkable interpretation of events on the testimony of a single source: Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, who has for years been trying to goad the Bush administration into attacking Iran.

Sky News partly cited an interview Bergman gave to the Israeli tabloid Yediot Ahronoth in which he said that the Syrians told the Americans, "If you want to do this, do it. We are going to give you a corridor and carte blanche. We will not harm your troops." You may not be surprised to learn that Bergman's sources were two unnamed "senior American officials." If we graciously assume these senior officials had first hand knowledge of what the Syrians said (and they probably didn't), the Sky News story is anonymously sourced fifth hand hearsay at best.

Before you form the impression that Sky News was the media leper with the least fingers on this story, though, let's take a look at what the newspaper of record had to say.

"American officials" told the New York Times that the raid was carried out by Special Operations forces who "killed an Iraqi militant responsible for running weapons, money and foreign fighters across the border into Iraq." There's no telling if these American officials are the same American officials that supposedly told Bergman the Syrians said it was okay to attack them.

And there's no way to tell if any of the aforementioned American officials are the same ones who told the NYT that "the Bush administration was determined to operate under an expansive definition of self-defense that provided a rationale for strikes on militant targets in sovereign nations without those countries’ consent." Nor can we know which American officials "declined to say whether the emerging application of self-defense could lead to strikes against camps inside Iran."

God only knows which American officials "said the mission had been mounted rapidly over the weekend on orders from the Central Intelligence Agency," or if of one of those American officials was the "United States official" who described the target, Abu Ghadiya, as "Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia’s 'most prominent' smuggler of foreign operatives crossing the Syrian border into Iraq."

And only the Almighty has a clue whether Abu Ghadiya was actually in whatever village it was that U.S. Special Forces apparently attacked for the C.I.A., or if he's really a smuggler, prominent or otherwise, of foreign operatives, or if, as yet another (or perhaps the same) American official said, he died in his tent or after he had been taken into custody, or if he died or was taken into custody at all, or if he ever even existed.

But we can be pretty clear about one thing: This monkey business with Syria was the opening volley in young Mr. Bush's third illegal war. Like the cockamamie strikes and raids he's been pulling in Pakistan and Somalia, the attack on Syria was not conducted in accordance with the letter or spirit of the War Powers Act of 1973 or of the Constitution, both of which require a president to get permission from Congress to start a foreign war. Nor was it in keeping with the Standing Rules of Engagement for U.S. Forces, which authorizes pursuit across international borders to "engage hostile forces" only if they "continue to commit hostile acts or exhibit hostile intent."

Retired Army Colonel Pat Lang, author of the celebrated 2004 essay "Drinking the Kool-Aid," said of the Syria raid, "I have a sneaking suspicion that the authority to do this came right out of the White House." I have a sneaking suspicion the authority to raid Syria came straight from the Office of the Vice President.

The Central Command billet has been gapped since March when Admiral William Fallon told young Mr. Bush to take the job and shove it, so there's been no adult influence to keep the spooks and snake eaters from running amok on order of Lord Cheney from Egypt to Kyrgyzstan. A four-star will finally take command on October 31, but the four-star will be David Petraeus, so it looks like it will be trick-or-treat in Southwest Asia from now until January.

Scary, huh kids?

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword . Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books), a lampoon on America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now. Also catch Scott Horton's interview with Jeff at Antiwar Radio.

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