by Eric Martin
For those looking to probe the possible motives behind Sunday's coordinated airstrikes and special forces incursions into Syria, the always informative Daniel Levy surveys a sampling of the most prominent theories, as well as the likely costs. One such cost was felt almost instantly with respect to the ongoing SOFA/strategic framework negotiations:
Iraq wants a security agreement with the U.S. to include a clear ban on U.S. troops using Iraqi territory to attack Iraq's neighbors, the government spokesman said Wednesday, three days after a dramatic U.S. raid on Syria. [...]
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the ban was among four proposed amendments to the draft agreement approved by the Cabinet this week and forwarded to the U.S. [...]
Al-Dabbagh said the Iraqis want the right to declare the agreement null and void if the U.S. unilaterally attacks one of Iraq's neighbors.
Meanwhile, Eli Lake, in reliable fashion, provides the view of events from the neocon camp: that this military action is one of the first manifestations of a new doctrine of soldiers without borders.
We have entered a new phase in the war on terror. In July, according to three administration sources, the Bush administration formally gave the military new power to strike terrorist safe havens outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. Before then, a military strike in a country like Syria or Pakistan would have required President Bush's personal approval. Now, those kinds of strikes in the region can occur at the discretion of the incoming commander of Central Command (Centcomm), General David Petraeus...
The new order could pave the way for direct action in Kenya, Mali, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen--all places where the American intelligence believe al Qaeda has a significant presence, but can no longer count on the indigenous security services to act. In the parlance of the Cold War, Petraeus will now have the authority to fight a regional "dirty war."
Reliably, again, Lake keeps his eyes on the prize with respect to Iran - even if his own recounting of the new doctrine doesn't fit quite as neatly with conditions in that country. Lake says this of Iran:
Strikes within Iran could be justified by the order, since senior al Qaeda leaders such as Saif al Adel are believed to have used that country as a base for aiding the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda affiliates in Iraqi Kurdistan. [emphasis added]
That is an interesting choice of words from Lake. First, the less-than-forceful "believed to have" formulation should be recognized as the tell it is. The existing evidence is tenuous at best, and even then, much of it has filtered through dubious channels responsible for so much Iraq war misinformation. Contra Lake, Saif al-Adel is also "believed to have" been placed under house arrest by Iran, not left free to to plan and coordinate attackes, but that is not mentioned. In Internet postings and other mediums, al-Adel complains of Iran disrupting al-Qaeda's efforts and arresting large numbers of operatives looking to escape to Iraq from Afghanistan, through Iran. It's not even clear from available evidence that al-Adel is still in Iran.
Lake then attempts to apply rhetorical brick and mortar to the new framework:
The big mystery now is whether the next administration will dismantle this policy or permit Petraeus to follow it to fruition. Obama has said nothing about Sunday's strikes in Syria (a silence that has rightly earned him taunting from the McCain campaign).
Um, doesn't McCain also taunt Obama for his willingness to openly state his support for airstrikes in Pakistan ("You just don't do that my friends")? But now that Obama won't state his support for airstrikes and other military action against Syria, McCain is right to taunt Obama for his reticence? Regardless, Obama was properly following the lead of the White House and Pentagon in not commenting on military actions that were not yet formally acknowledged. As Ilan Goldenberg points out:
...[Y]ou just simply don't discuss a military operation if the White House and the military are refusing to comment. The issue is a sensitive one and a question of national security. You take your lead from them and wait until you have all the facts, instead of trying to score cheap political points.
Next, Lake sets up a false choice in an effort to steer Obama toward the neocon position on negotiations and diplomatic entreaties:
On one level, this new policy conflicts with Obama's stated desire for opening up diplomatic channels to places like Tehran and Damascus. On the other hand, this is precisely the type of policy that he has repeatedly promised at least for Pakistan, whose territory is believed to host Osama bin Laden: If America has actionable intelligence on al Qaeda leaders, and the country housing those terrorist sits on its hands, we will act. His campaign rhetoric has now become the official war policy he will inherit. Is this a development that pleases him?
I'm not so sure that Obama is bound to act elsewhere by dint of his position with respect to Pakistan. Nor is it the case that should Obama decide to strike Syria at a later date (as misguided as that would be) that such action would preclude negotiations. As Rob Farley notes:
I'm unconvinced that there's a hard choice between engaging Syria and Iran and carrying out these kinds of strikes. We do, after all, conduct diplomatic relations with Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries where we've carried out these kinds of strikes. The strike itself has nothing to do with American willingness to engage; such operations might make Tehran or Damascus more nervous, but the point of the engagement policy is to open the possibility of a bargain, not to set its particular terms.
Or as Daniel Levy put it:
The Pentagon sees Syrian efforts to seal the border with Iraq as having been a mixed bag, and they would certainly want further improvements. General Petraeus has acknowledged these improvements and carries with him a PowerPoint presentation that includes a box entitled "Improved Relations and Coordination with Syria". The Pentagon would also have noted that shortly after an Israeli air raid against a suspected nascent Syrian nuclear program, the Israelis and Syrians were actually conducting peace talks via Turkish mediation (the Israeli press has made much of this analogy--the storm before the calm). So this might be a calculated American move that sends a message to Syria that "we are not bullsh*tting, we are ready to use force, but we would much prefer that you respond to our diplomatic asks and overtures."
Further, Obama's position on Pakistan (as misguided as it may be) is based on specific criteria: the presence of a high value target (think Osama or Zawahiri) with actionable intelligence. Does the target of the Syria attack, Abu Ghadiya, fall into that category? Eli Lake would like us to believe so:
One military official told me that the elimination of Abu Ghadiya represents a significant triumph over al Qaeda in Iraq. "The organization is pretty much finished now," he told me.
But that seems like an obvious overstatement - especially considering that military sources and other interested parties have been repeating both the "al-Qaeda is now defeated" storyline for many months (see here, here and here for example), as well as the [INSERT NAME OF LATEST OPERATIVE KILLED] was a high ranking member of AQI and invaluable to the organization (most commonly, second in command).
In truth, Obama is neither bound to endorse airstrikes aimed at targets such as Abu Ghadiya in places like Syria simply because of his stance vis-a-vis high ranking al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, nor would Obama sanctioning such strikes necessarily rule out pursuing normalized relations via negotiations. That remains so despite the effort by neocons to box Obama in with walls constructed of flimsy logic and slapdash sophistry.
[UPDATE: Matt Duss has more]