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Brian Till
27 Jan 2010
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Assault in Syria: Another Mideast Bush Blunder

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Earlier this week, a team of U.S. commandos assaulted an extremist safe house along the Syrian-Iraqi border, a measure that, at face value, might appear aligned with American interest. But it isn't; the move endangers more American and Israeli lives than it can claim to protect. I spent several weeks in Syria this summer, and came away with a much greater understanding for both the power and vulnerability of president Bashar al-Assad.

In short, Syria commands the most important pressure points in the Middle East.

Second to Iran, Syria has the greatest capacity to inflict American bloodshed in the region. It has the ability to either continue to stifle or to once again facilitate the flow of jihadis into neighboring Iraq. It has the ability to push neighboring Lebanon back into civil war, and the authority to encourage Lebanese Hezbollah's aggressions towards Israel. And it, too, has the power to torment the Jewish neighbor along its Golan border. Al-Assad has a hand on all the region's levers.

But he wants to come in from the cold. Iran has proven an ally, but hardly a substitute for Soviet patronage. Syria doesn't enjoy the financial latitude of nearby gulf kingdoms; at its essence is a poor state unhappy with its current makeup of alliances and adversaries.

Bashar al-Assad himself at times seems an uncomfortable dictator, a former London optometrist forced to take up his father's mantle after a brother's tragic death. He is hardly a natural adversary to the West. But neither is modern Syria, necessarily.

Syrian troops, as Syria's ambassador to the United States Imad Moustapha stressed when I last interviewed him, joined coalition and American forces in the first Gulf War. After 9/11, U.S. diplomats acknowledged the importance of intelligence the regime shared with Washington. Al-Assad has worked at American behest to decrease the flow of fighters into Iraq, winning the praise of General David Petraeus. And, most importantly, the regime has been quietly pursuing peace with Israel via Turkish mediation over the last year.

Nonetheless, President Bush — rather than enlist Syrian support to dismantle the network — chose a Tom Clancy style raid in the night.

The target of the assault, an Iraqi in his late 20s named Abu Ghadiyah, who was charged with running a smuggling network of arms and fighters, could have likely been targeted in Iraq.

As CBS' "60 Minutes" reported earlier this fall, it's not unusual for high-value targets to be tracked for days via drones before commanders deem civilian casualties minimal enough to justify the attack. Waiting for Ghadiyah to return to Iraq before assassination or capture was well within the scope of U.S. capabilities.

But most importantly, what could have been an avenue for engagement was instead used to assault a weak and vital state's dignity. The Syrian security apparatus is well versed in shutting down violent clusters and cells; an assault on a border farmhouse is within their abilities.

The attack marks the fourth major indignation to the regime over the past year. First came an Israeli attack on a supposed nuclear site last September; then the assassination of a Hezbollah leader, Imad Mugniyah, in Damascus; the assassination of Brig. Gen. Mohammed Suleiman, a close associate of the Assads, in August; and now, finally, the U.S. incursion.

Syria becomes the fifth state — joining Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq — to have found itself under some measure of assault since the launch on the war on terror. This latest chapter only fuels the pervasive view that the U.S. is at war with Islam. Nearly every front-page in the region led with stories of the U.S. assault: "U.S. Troops Enter Syria, Kill Eight Civilians."

Al-Assad can only be provoked so many times before he's forced to respond. The regime has an important role as either a partner in peace or as a devastating opponent, with little room in between. The Syrian factor cannot be mitigated; it, like Iran, is a pivotal player in the region no matter how much we may dislike the reality. You'd think, given the power al-Assad wields over the success of George Bush's foray into the region, the president might have enlisted support rather than stomp on a dictator's toes. But that, I suppose, would fall contrary to everything we've learned about W.

Brian Till can be contacted at brian.m.till@gmail.com. To find out more about the author and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.



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