|Subject: [NYLXS - HANGOUT] London Times report
|Questions raised over Syrian complicity in US raid
Syria has denounced a US strike on its territory but sources say
Damascus secretly backed the raid
Marie Colvin and Uzi Mahnaimi
Video: Syrian minister criticises US raid
The 38-year-old farmer was watering his maize in the scrubby vastness of
eastern Syria when four Black Hawk helicopters swooped in low over the
palm trees, heading from the border with Iraq formed by the Euphrates
It was late afternoon. The light was fading and the chill of the desert
winter night was setting in. The helicopters, following their leader in
a disciplined arc, hovered just above the one-storey concrete and mud
homes of the village of Sukariyeh before the attack began.
Two of them landed next to a ramshackle building site and uniformed men
hit the ground firing. Two other helicopters gave aerial cover.
* US says attack on village was 'warning to Syria'
* A warning Syria's President Assad must heed
* Syrian minister condemns US 'terrorism'
â€œTo begin with I thought they were Syrian helicopters, but then I saw
eight or nine soldiers armed to the teeth. They carried big black M16s,â€
said Mohammad al-Ali, the farmer. His land lies closest to the site
where an American commando squad last week staged an unprecedented
strike in Syrian territory.
The guns were the clue to their identity â€“ only Americans or their
allies carry M16s; the Syrian army has Russian-made AK47s.
Ali said the troops raced to a compound of new homes, where men of the
al-Hamad family were working. â€œEven before they ran from their
helicopters they began to shoot at the workers,â€ Ali said. â€œThe whole
operation took 10 to 15 minutes and they left behind seven corpses.â€
According to one eyewitness, the Americans took two men, alive or dead,
back with them.
The Americansâ€™ target was an Al-Qaeda commander identified as Badran
Turki Hashim al-Mazidih, also known as Abu Ghadiya, an Iraqi-born
terrorist in his late twenties. It is believed that he died in the
firefight and his body was removed.
The Syrian regime immediately denounced the raid for violating its
sovereignty, froze high-level diplomatic relations with Washington and
protested at the United Nations in a ritualised show of anger.
However, sources in Washington last week revealed to The Sunday Times an
intriguingly different background to the events in Sukariyeh.
According to one source, the special forces operation had taken place
with the full cooperation of the Syrian intelligence services.
â€œImmediately after 9/11, Syrian intelligence cooperation was
remarkable,â€ said the Washington source. â€œThen ties were broken off, but
they have resumed recently.â€
Abu Ghadiya was feared by the Syrians as an agent of Islamic
fundamentalism who was hostile to the secular regime in Damascus. It
would be expedient for Syria if America would eliminate him.
The threat to the Syrian government has made the regime of President
Bashar al-Assad jittery. In September a car bomb exploded in Damascus
near its intelligence headquarters. Many of the 17 victims were Shiâ€™ite
Muslim pilgrims at a nearby shrine.
The Washington source said the Americans regularly communicate with the
Syrians through a back channel that runs through Syriaâ€™s air force
intelligence, the Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-Jawiyya.
In the time-honoured tradition of covert US operations in the Middle
East, this one seems to have gone spectacularly wrong. The Syrians, who
had agreed to turn a blind eye to a supposedly quiet â€œsnatch and grabâ€
raid, could not keep the lid on a firefight in which so many people had
The operation should have been fast and bloodless. According to the
sources, Syrian intelligence tipped off the Americans about Abu
Ghadiyaâ€™s whereabouts. US electronic intelligence then tracked his exact
location, possibly by tracing his satellite telephone, and the
helicopters were directed to him. They were supposed to kidnap him and
take him to Iraq for questioning.
According to defence sources, when the four US helicopters approached
the Syrian border, they were detected by Syrian radar. Air force
headquarters in Damascus was asked for permission to intercept.
After an Israeli airstrike against a suspected nuclear reactor in the
same region last year, Syrian air defence has been on high alert. The
request was turned down by senior officers because the American
operation was expected.
It is not clear what went wrong, but it is believed that the helicopters
were spotted by the militants on their final approach and a gun battle
broke out. That is supported by an account from a local tribal leader,
who said a rocket-propelled grenade had been launched from the compound
at the helicopter. The firefight blew the cover on a supposedly covert
Ninety minutes after the raid, according to a local tribal leader,
agents of the feared Mukhabarat, the Syrian intelligence service,
flooded into the village. â€œThey threatened us that if anyone said
anything about what happened in this area, their family members would
die,â€ he said.
Local residents were happy to identify the seven dead villagers as Daoud
al-Hamad, who owned the land, and his four sons, who were helping him to
build the new houses, along with the site watchman and his cousin. The
area is isolated and poor. Locals speak with Iraqi accents, as their
tribe extends across the border, and smuggling is the most lucrative
The tribal leader revealed that everyone in the village knew that
â€œjihadisâ€ â€“ extremist Islamic fighters â€“ were operating in the area.
â€œYou could often hear shooting from close to the border, which was not
clashes but fighters training,â€ he said.
â€œThere are areas along the border where the Mukhabarat doesnâ€™t let
people go and thatâ€™s where I think the jihadis are. The areas are some
of the best ways into Iraq.â€
Despite the furore over the raid, there can be little doubt that the
Americans will celebrate the death of Abu Ghadiya, whom they described
as the â€œmost prominentâ€ smuggler for Al-Qaeda in Iraq. He allegedly ran
guns, money and foreign fighters along the â€œrat linesâ€ that lead across
the desert into northern Iraq and sometimes led raids himself.
In February the US Treasury Department identified Abu Ghadiya as a â€œhigh
valueâ€ Al-Qaeda commander in charge of smuggling â€œmoney, weapons,
terrorists and other resources . . . to Al-Qaeda in Iraqâ€.
It described him as a Sunni Muslim born in the late 1970s in Mosul and
said he had been an aide to the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006.
Damascus may have other motives for its cooperation with Washington.
Some diplomats in the capital think the regime would like to stage its
own cross-border strikes against terror groups in Lebanon, which it sees
as a threat.
â€œSyrian cross-border incursions into northern Lebanon in pursuit of
Fatah alâ€“Islam [a group affiliated with Al-Qaeda] are plausible,â€ said
one source. They may be relying on the United States to turn a blind eye
to do so.
American officials refused to apologise for the botched raid on Syria.
They said the administration was determined to operate under a
definition of self-defence that provided for strikes on terrorist
targets in any sovereign state.
For Al-Qaeda militants, the safe haven of Syria will be looking
decidedly cooler as winter sets in.
Additional reporting: Hugh MacLeod in Beirut
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