US special forces attack site in Syria, killing 8
Raid criticized by Damascus; Qaeda targeted
DAMASCUS - US helicopters launched an extremely rare attack yesterday on Syrian territory close to the border with Iraq, killing eight people in a strike the government in Damascus condemned as "serious aggression."
A US military official said the raid by special forces targeted the network of Al Qaeda-linked foreign fighters moving through Syria into Iraq. The Americans have been unable to dismantle the network because Syria was out of the military's reach.
"We are taking matters into our own hands," the official told the Associated Press in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of cross-border raids.
The attack came days after the commander of US forces in western Iraq said American troops were redoubling efforts to secure the Syrian border, which he called an "uncontrolled" gateway for fighters entering Iraq.
A Syrian government statement said the helicopters attacked the Sukkariyeh Farm near the town of Abu Kamal, 5 miles inside the Syrian border. Four helicopters attacked a civilian building under construction near sundown and fired on workers inside, the statement said.
The government said civilians were among the dead, including four children.
A resident of the nearby village of Hwijeh said some of the helicopters landed and troops left the aircraft and fired on a building.
Syria's Foreign Ministry said it summoned the charges d'affaires of the United States and Iraq to protest against the strike.
"Syria condemns this aggression and holds the American forces responsible for this aggression and all its repercussions. Syria also calls on the Iraqi government to shoulder its responsibilities and launch an immediate investigation into this serious violation and prevent the use of Iraqi territory for aggression against Syria," the government statement said.
The area targeted is near the Iraqi city of Qaim, which had been a major crossing point for fighters, weapons, and money coming into Iraq to fuel the Sunni insurgency.
On Thursday, US Major General John Kelly said that Iraq's western borders with Saudi Arabia and Jordan were fairly tight as a result of good policing by security forces in those countries but that Syria was a "different story."
"The Syrian side is, I guess, uncontrolled by their side," Kelly said. "We still have a certain level of foreign fighter movement."
He added that the United States was helping construct a sand berm and ditches along the border.
"There hasn't been much, in the way of a physical barrier, along that border for years," Kelly said.
The foreign fighters network sends militants from North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East to Syria, where elements of the Syrian military assist Al Qaeda and loyalists of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party, the US military official said.
He said that while American forces have had considerable success, with help from Iraq and governments in North Africa, in shutting down the "rat lines" in Iraq, the Syrian node has been out of reach.
The White House in August approved similar special forces raids from Afghanistan across the border of Pakistan to target Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives. At least one has been carried out.
The flow of foreign fighters into Iraq has been cut to an estimated 20 a month, a senior US military intelligence official told the Associated Press in July. That's a a fifth of the estimated 100 foreign fighters who were infiltrating Iraq a year ago, according to the official.