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Following Deadly US Attack on Syria, Questions of Bush Admin Motives in its Waning Months

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The Syrian government has condemned a deadly US military raid near the Iraqi border as “terrorist aggression.” The Bush administration has remained mum, stoking fears it could be trying to provoke further conflict in its remaining months in office. We speak to Robert Dreyfuss of The Nation magazine and University of Oklahoma professor Joshua Landis. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Thousands of Syrians have taken to the streets of Damascus to protest Sunday’s US military raid that killed eight people in the Syrian village of Abu Kamal, five miles from Syria’s border with Iraq. The US embassy in Damascus is shut down for the day and surrounded by heavily armed police.

On Tuesday, Syria lodged a complaint with the UN and ordered the closure of an American school and cultural center. The Assad government is demanding a formal apology from the US and has threatened to cut off cooperation on Iraqi border security. On Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moualem called the attack an act of “terrorist aggression.”

    WALID AL-MOUALEM: Killing civilians in international law means terrorist aggression. The Americans do it under daylight. This means it is not mistake. It is by determination, by blunt determination. For that, we consider this criminal and terrorist aggression. We put the responsibility on the American government, and they need to investigate and return back to us with the result and explanation why they did it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The United States has refused to acknowledge the attack, but unnamed US officials said Monday that Special Operations Forces had targeted and killed an Iraqi al-Qaeda militant known as Abu Ghadiya, who allegedly smuggled weapons, money and fighters into Iraq.

But local eyewitnesses, as well as the Syrian government, say the US commandos killed eight civilians. Five of those killed were from the same family, and the survivors deny that the dead had any ties to al-Qaeda.

The New York Times reports the raid appears to reflect an intensifying effort by the Bush administration to find a way to attack militants beyond the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. Joshua Landis teaches Middle East history at University of Oklahoma and writes a daily newsletter on Syrian politics called “Syria Comment.” He joins us from Norman, Oklahoma. And we’re joined from Washington, D.C. by investigative reporter and contributing editor at The Nation magazine, Robert Dreyfuss, author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. His latest piece is called “The End of International Law.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! I wanted to go to Josh Landis first in Oklahoma. Talk about this raid. It hasn’t gotten very much attention, yet thousands of Syrians took to the streets. What exactly happened?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, the US claimed that they went to kill Abu Ghadiya, who was an operative, a “facilitator,” as they call him, and helped for years to smuggle people across the border. Syria claims that they did not kill him, that they killed his family. We’re not sure what’s exactly right.

But this indicates a larger failure on the border to — between the United States and Syria to come to some kind of political agreement on how to deal with the border, because Syria has been willing in the past, but it’s asked for a political price.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the Syrian government has condemned the raid, but there have been some press reports that it actually may have green-lighted it, and because it was — appeared to be no interference with the US forces that crossed the border.

JOSHUA LANDIS: That’s — I think that is spurious. Syria would never green-light a raid on their own territory. I mean, that’s some kind of — I think that’s false information. Syria is very unhappy about this.

A year and a half ago at Sharm-el Sheik, Secretary of State Rice asked Walid Moualem, who you just heard, to send two American generals to Damascus to restart intelligence sharing that had been broken off due to the worsening Syria-US relation. Syria said, “We are eager to do it. We want to. We have shared interests on the border. We don’t want al-Qaeda coming back and forth.” But they asked for a price. They said, “You have to send back your — the US ambassador as a token of our cooperation and to show that we are — we’re working together.”

Rice would not do this, because, for whatever political reasons, the President demanded that Syria do the things he’s demanding without any kind of reward. And that caused a political agreement that could have established better security on the border to collapse, and it left the military in Iraq very frustrated. And they have this problem. And the only way that they were left to solve this problem was through military means, and that means going over and killing these people.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And also, what is the impact of a raid like this on — domestically within Syria? There were reports this week that a dozen human rights activists in — pro-democracy activists in Syria were sentenced to terms of two years or more in prison. Will there — could this possibly result in an even greater crackdown on those dissidents who appear to be pro-Western in their views?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, it certainly doesn’t help the dissidents. You know, the dissidents are trying to look like victims. They need that in front of the Syrian people. The trouble is, raids like this, the Syrian — it makes it very easy for the Syrian government to say that any opposition to the government at this time of national crisis is a form of cooperation with the United States, and it’s undermining the security of the state, and nobody wants to be like Iraq, and that they are, in a sense, agents of the West. And that’s what the government accuses them of, and the people tend to go along with it, when they get very angry like this. And they see that Syria is being attacked. Anybody would.

AMY GOODMAN: The White House has refused to comment on the raid into Syrian territory. This is an excerpt from Monday’s White House press briefing with Dana Perino.

    DANA PERINO: Jim, what I can tell you is that I am not able to comment on reports about this reported incident, and I’m not going to —- I’m not going to do so. You can come up here and try to beat it out of me, but I will not be commenting on this in any way, shape or form today. Or tomorrow -—

    REPORTER: What about another agency? Nobody? If it comes, it’s going to come from here, and so it’s not going to —- nothing is going to come out of it?

    DANA PERINO: I don’t believe anybody is commenting on this at all. April?

    REPORTER: Dana, why can’t you comment? Is it a reason for national security, or is it political? I mean, why not -—

    DANA PERINO: To give you an answer to that would be commenting in some way on it, and I’m not going to do it. So, I —

    REPORTER: But, I mean, Dana, you can’t give us anything? I mean, this is a major issue.

    DANA PERINO: Nothing.

    REPORTER: This is a major issue.

    DANA PERINO: I understand the reports are serious, but it’s not something I’m going to comment on in any way.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn now to Robert Dreyfuss in Washington. First, since they’re not commenting at all, can you explain how you understand the raid went down? What exactly happened? For our radio listeners, on our TV show we’re showing the video of the aftermath, of the bodies, of the coffins, of the people mourning and people marching in the streets. Robert Dreyfuss?

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Well, you know, part of the problem, of course, is that there are conflicting reports about what happened and what didn’t happen. But it appears, at least, that this was not just an air raid, but this was actually a raid involving commandos and helicopters, something like the attack, I would say, that happened on September 3rd, the one and only time that we know about in Afghanistan where American forces crossed into Pakistan and conducted an on-the-ground raid inside Pakistan.

In both of these cases, they seem to be the logical expression of a decision that was made over the summer by the President, allowing US Special Operations Forces to conduct these cross-border or hot-pursuit raids into countries — in Pakistan’s case, an ally, and in Syria’s case, an adversary, I guess — to conduct these cross-border raids against people who the United States decided that it didn’t like, based on intelligence. We have, you know, extremely aggressive intelligence methods and surveillance and drone aircraft and everything else that watch these people, sometimes for hours or days at a time. And it, in turn, raises the question now of whether the United States might consider similar raids into Iran, which is in — over the past two years, has been increasingly blamed by the United States for supporting militant activity by especially Shiites in Iraq, based in training camps and transit facilities and so forth, both outside Tehran and along the Iran-Iraq border.

I describe this as kind of a parallel doctrine to the Bush Doctrine, where you had earlier the Bush Doctrine that said we can conduct preventive military action against countries that, you know, we perceive to be possibly threatening. In this case now, we’re conducting Special Forces or commando attacks against bases or facilities in countries that we think are harboring people who are conducting attacks on American or allied forces. This is a very, very, very troubling thing. If you go back to the origins, the beginning of the so-called war on terrorism, this is what it was supposed to look like.

And last week, I went to see Mike Vickers, who commands the Special Operations Forces — not commands them, but he’s the Assistant Secretary of Defense. He described how that unit — that those forces have doubled pretty much under the Bush administration and are set for further expansion. And this is a huge tool that’s now been created that can be used in many, many situations, in many countries. He said they operate now in sixty countries. So, this is potentially a major escalation of the war on terrorism just at the declining days of the Bush administration.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Robert Dreyfuss, the impact within Iraq itself? I mean, obviously already, one of the sticking points in reaching an agreement with the Iraqi government over the retention of US forces in Iraq is the issue that the Iraqi government is now saying, “Well, we want this agreement to include that there will be no attacks on other countries by US forces on Iraqi soil.”

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Yeah. This pretty much, you know, puts the final nail in the coffin of the idea that the US and Iraq are going to come to some kind of Status of Forces Agreement. I’ve been saying for six months that there was no chance that this agreement could be signed, because of opposition inside Iraq.

The big irony here is that, only recently, Syria decided to send an ambassador to Iraq and, by the way, also send an ambassador to Lebanon, two major steps by Syria to try to build bridges both to its neighboring countries, but to the world at large. And this is a huge slap in the face to that effort.

The Iraqis now have protested the attack on Syria. They’ve promised the Syrians that they would conduct their own investigation and report to Damascus about what they find out. And this has created a nationalist backlash inside Iraq that I think is astonishingly bad for any effort by the Bush administration to try to conclude this agreement about what US forces can and can’t do from Iraq. Now, maybe that happened because they realize that it’s already too late for that agreement, and there won’t be any agreements. So it looks like that’s going back to the United Nations sometime next month.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Dreyfuss, in your piece, “The End of International Law,” you have a quote of Robert Gates in the Washington Post, saying, “We’ll do what’s necessary to protect our troops.” That’s what he said in the Senate, when asked about cross-border operations. He said he was not an expert in international law but assumed the State Department had consulted such laws before the US military was granted authority to make such strikes. You go on to talk about Robert Gates in the context of an Obama administration. Let’s put this now in the context of the last days of this campaign. First, Barack Obama and what he has said about Defense Secretary Robert Gates?

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Well, several of Barack Obama’s advisers, especially Richard Danzig, who is his key inside adviser on military affairs, has suggested overtly, publicly, that Senator Obama might keep Robert Gates on as Secretary of Defense. And several of Obama’s advisers have suggested to me privately the same thing.

I mean, I would find that very troubling if he is going to continue to keep Gates on as Secretary of Defense, not only because of his association with Bush and the war on terrorism, but his own past as someone who has manipulated intelligence. You know, he’s got a long record, going back to the 1980s, as someone who has rigged the intelligence game to fix it in favor of policy. I don’t know whether Obama will in fact keep Gates on, but certainly, by saying that he, you know, doesn’t know much about international law, he didn’t make a good case for himself, I would say.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of Obama, himself, and policy in the region, obviously, while he’s been opposed to the Iraq war, he continues to support the increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan. And in your interviews with Susan Rice, one of his major foreign policy advisers, you suggest that he will be much more aggressive when it comes to, quote, “humanitarian interventions” by the United States around the world.

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Yeah. Well, this is something that is going to have to get resolved early on in an Obama administration. There’s no question that there are many people around Senator Obama who think that the use of American military force to solve not only, of course, cases of genocide, but of civil violence and severe repression and violation of human rights in other countries, is something that the United States has to consider. And as often as not, and certainly in the case of Iraq, that was used as one of the main pretexts for going into Iraq, that Saddam had gassed his own people. You’ll remember President Bush saying that. And so, the idea that we’re going to use more and not less military force abroad is something that I think Obama is going to have to make very clear whether that’s his view or not.

He has called, as you said, for an escalation of the war in Afghanistan. He has called for intensified military pressure on Pakistan, including endorsing the idea of cross-border attacks there against what he calls “high-value targets.” I don’t know. He hasn’t said whether he means that to be just Islamic militants or actually top al-Qaeda leaders, but in any case, he’s certainly left the door open for this kind of activity.

And when I asked — when I saw Mike Vickers, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations last week, I asked him if he was prepared for a new administration, if his unit at the Pentagon and 60,000 operators, including many of them in covert form, are prepared for a new boss in the White House and what he expects. He kind of ducked the question. And that’s another huge military apparatus that the new president is going to have to decide what he wants to do with and whether he wants to continue to grow it. All the signs are that Senator Obama does, in fact, look with favor on the continued growth of the US Special Operations Command.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Dreyfuss, I want to thank you for being with this, investigative reporter, contributing editor at The Nation, author of Devil’s Game. His blog is “The Dreyfuss Report”. Joshua Landis, co-director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He writes “Syria Comment,” a daily online newsletter on Syrian politics, at joshualandis.com/blog.

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