America has already killed a Syrian border guard during its disastrous occupation of Iraq. And now it has sent four helicopter gunships eight kilometres into Syrian territory and killed at least eight Syrian citizens.
A reader of Syriacomment.com sent in this post, which is the best information I’ve heard yet on the raid itself:
“I just spoke on the phone with a doctor in ABou Kamal- He confirmed that the attack happened around sunset. The 4 helicopters came from the East of the township, he saw them coming. The soldiers debarked and shot people who were working in a building under construction on the periphery of the township. 9 people were pronounced dead on arrival to the hospital- Two more are severely wounded and are being operated on right now [he does not expect them to survive]- He has not read the papers (there are none to read at this time of the night) nor listened to the news and there is no internet there….His report was completely spontaneous. I was not able to get the details on the ages of the injured but he described them as poor simple people (Masakeen)from the town.”
And this is from the Guardian:
“Intriguingly, Farhan al-Mahalawi, mayor of the nearby Iraqi border town of Qaim, told the Reuters news agency that the targeted village had been surrounded by Syrian troops.”
It isn’t clear if those killed were a farming family, a family of smugglers, or labourers on a construction site. The Americans, having had a day in which to work out their story, claim that an al-Qa’ida militant was targetted. The sentence from the Guardian (although one wonders how the mayor of al-Qaim would know) suggests the Syrians may have been aware of a militant presence in the area and were keeping their own eye on it. It doesn’t necessarily suggest the people killed were the same militants. (As one would expect, most of the western media have taken American claims more seriously than Syrian reports. In fact, the US military’s description of the attack as “a warning to Syria” was anticipated by western headline writers by 24 hours.)
Even if it turns out that the dead were Wahhabi-nihilists, which I very much doubt, America’s action remains what it was: an unprovoked terrorist attack on a sovereign state. An act of war.
The Syrian-Iraqi border area has often been a zone of confrontation. When I travelled there in the late 90s I found the remains of ancient fortifications along the banks of the Euphrates, sites such as Dura Europos, a Macedonian city garrisoned to hold the line against Sassanid Persians. In more recent times the border was the frontier between two rival wings of the Ba’ath Party, and it was usually closed. Still, car bombs and smuggled goods passed through, because all borders are permeable and this more than most – the people on both sides belong to the same tribes. I saw the border itself from a distance, from a high waterside outside Aal Bukamal, and it was nothing but a tiny Syrian checkpoint, a half kilometre of scrub, and then a tiny Iraqi checkpoint.
There was an obvious mukhabarat presence in Aal Bukamal, watching out for Iraqi infiltrators. My friend and I, like almost everyone else in town, wore gellabiyehs. But we weren’t wearing the known faces of the Bukamal tribe, so we were called over to present our papers and introduce ourselves. I handed over the British passport and explained my strange ancestry. The plainclothes man looked hard into my eyes, then slowly said: “Manaatu…anta shawi min ingeltra.” – “This means…that you’re a Beduin from England.” Everybody laughed and slapped their thighs and the plainclothes man offered tea.
Further north, the dusty souq of Deir ez-Zor, a souq which Damascenes would scorn, was full of swooning Iraqis not believing the luxury, the variety, the quality. By then the Iraqi middle class had been destroyed by sanctions.
Syria had joined the American side in the Kuwait war of 91. This was an enormously unpopular move inside Syria, but it paid off. Syrian troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia, so they didn’t have to shed Arab blood. In the war’s aftermath a Syrian peace prevailed in Lebanon, and Israel was dragged to the negotiating table in Madrid. (This rare moment of American pressure on Israel, applied by George Bush the father, made many Arabs imagine that Bush the son would be a friendly president).
In the last years of the Saddam Hussain regime Syria opened the border. There was a sense at the time that, as far as Iraq was concerned, enough was enough. It was one thing for the Syrians to have their old enemy cut down to size, but quite another to watch a neighbouring Arab society collapse under the brutal sanctions regime.
Syria opposed the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. All the leaderships in the region claimed to be against the invasion, but all except Syria, Turkey and Iran actively aided it. If Syria was on anything like equal military terms with the invader it would have fought to defend its neighbour, just as Britain would defend France or Russia would defend South Ossettia. But Syria could do nothing more than make clear its abhorrence and refusal of an imperialist occupation of Iraq, however bad Iraq’s leader (an American client for years anyway) might be.
And Syria was of course right. Talking about yesterday’s raid, an American military official said, “We took things into our own hands.” Since Americans took things into their own hands in Iraq a million Iraqis have died, and the ancient social fabric of this country that gave the world writing has been ripped to bloody shreds.
As a result of America’s war Syria has had to take in up to two million Iraqi refugees. House prices and rents have rocketed. Prostitution and drug dealing have exploded. Resurgent sectarianism threatens the future.
When ‘shock and awe’ descended on Baghdad, enthusiastic Syrian shabab crossed the border to fight. That’s how shocked and awed they were. I have a friend who joined the general rush. At the time, Syrian border officials were allowing anyone with a valid passport to pass. Fortunately, my friend didn’t have a passport, and returned home before his family realised he was missing. Many like him – with basic military service under their belts – did get through, and found work to do in Iraq. And most of them had nothing to do with al-Qa’ida. My friend was religiously observant but by no means fanatical; he opposed sectarianism and Saddam Hussein’s regime as much as he opposed America and Israel. He says he wanted to fight for nationalist reasons, to defend Syria as much as Iraq, because America would come to eat Syria once it had eaten Iraq.
So Syria didn’t fight America, but it allowed people who may have been fighters to cross the border fairly easily, in both directions. Most of these fighters were indistinguishable from anyone else, because they were also in many cases refugees, or members of the tribes which straddle the border. And there was a point of principle which the people wanted the regime to uphold: why should Syria hold itself responsible for the security of the occupier?
As the war continued in Iraq, however, Syria made much more strenuous efforts to police the border, to the extent that in some places mukhabarat and soldiers outnumbered the locals. Why the change in attitude? Certainly American pressure had a role, but also Iraq had degenerated into civil war, and American policy and Gulf money had made al-Qa’ida a huge threat to everybody in the vicinity. Now there’s a sand barrier for much of the long desert plain frontier. General Petraeus says the Syrian measures have dramatically cut insurgent flow into Iraq, down from 100 a month in 2006 to 20 a month today.
Most of the al-Qa’ida types entering Iraq are Saudis, but America doesn’t bomb its best Arab friend. Britain is watching Salafi nihilists in Birmingham and Manchester, but America doesn’t bomb Britain to deliver “a warning.” Syria’s crime is that it hasn’t yet surrendered to the imperial order (or chaos). So the empire must bomb.
America is said to be specifically upset because Syria won’t resume security cooperation. Syria wants the Americans to send their ambassador back to Damascus first. It’s surely a good thing for human rights in Syria for this standoff to continue; ‘security cooperation’ often meant the Americans subcontracting the torture of unfortunates like Maher Arar to Damascus. On the other hand, Syria provided the US with plenty of usable information on Wahhabi-nihilists after September 11th 2001. It was America that rejected the cooperation.
Perhaps the attack outside Aal Bukamal was ordered by Bush himself, perhaps to help McCain in the election, perhaps in a fit of impotence and spite. Perhaps the attack was carried out by a secret command, some Rumsfeld-dreamed-up unit accountable to none. Perhaps it was designed to kill an initiative (I’m imagining) due to be announced by the Syrian and British foreign ministers after their meeting today. In any case, what is clear is that the empire has given up all pretence at recognising national sovereignty. Very worryingly for those looking forward to an Obama Whitehouse, it was Obama who first called for American attacks on Pakistan. I’ll be very pleasantly astounded if he condemns the raid on Syria.
America’s war is now murdering and displacing civilians across a great swathe of Afro-Asia, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia.
So why do they hate us? The people of Aal Bukamal have some fresh new answers to that question.