Syrian Cross-Border Strike

Laura Rozen’s got the background over at the MoJo blog on what the U.S. was after in the crossborder strike into Syria: an AQI operative named Abu Ghadiya. Apparently the American government had been trying to get the Syrians to hand him over for a while, and finally got tired of waiting.

There will always be operational justifications for this sort of strike in a counterinsurgency, and it’s not like we’ve been making a habit of violating the territorial integrity of Iraq’s neighbors. In fact, if even half of what we’ve been hearing about Iran and Syria is true, we’ve shown a good deal of restraint.

But the strike does raise some concern in the context of the discussion about widening the Afghanistan War to go after safe havens in the Pakistani tribal areas, and whether it represents some sort of generalized “border-free” approach to counterinsurgency.

It occurred to me this morning that while public opinion had already begun to turn against the Vietnam War by the time Nixon decided to bomb Cambodia and Laos, those bombings not only deepened the bitter divide on the homefront (the Kent State killings came during campus protests following the initial Cambodia bombing campaign), they also led to the broader regional destabilization of Southeast Asia.

The logic of going after al-Qaida safe havens in Pakistan or Syria is dramatically different than that of going after Vietcong safe havens in Cambodia. No one in their right minds believed the Vietcong would “follow us home,” and the domino theory eventually lost its power to mobilize public support for the war.

But safe havens are one of the unresolved problems of counterinsurgency. You can’t clear and hold the other side of the border, unless you’re willing to widen the war. So these kinds of strikes amount to temporary fixes, because there’s always another Abu Ghadiya, and it’s unlikely Syria will turn him over either.

So what happens to public opinion now? And what happens to the countries we’re attacking? How long can the Syrian regime do nothing while its territorial sovereignty is violated and still maintain credibility domestically and abroad? How might they respond?

I’m sure there was a benefit to eliminating Abu Ghadiya. But I wonder if the cost was thought through thoroughly. The bitter irony of escalation is that it takes place as a result of each side believing its actions are the least costly option available, or at least less costly than doing nothing.

More World Politics Review