U.S. forces crossed five miles into Syria by helicopter and launched a commando raid yesterday near the Iraqi border that left at least eight people dead, Syrian news outlets and sources reported.
Details of yesterday's attack were sketchy. A military officer in Iraq confirmed that U.S. forces had conducted a raid into Syria but declined to provide further information. In Washington, military representatives did not deny that a raid had taken place. Though they would not confirm the attack, they used language typically employed after raids conducted by Special Operations Forces.
Syria has long been a conduit for foreign fighters attempting to slip into Iraq to attack U.S. troops. U.S. officials say that military action inside Iraq has reduced their number. But U.S. officials say that militants still operate openly in Syria and that the Damascus government needs to do more to rein them in. They say that fighters who crossed from Syria fomented recent trouble in the northern city of Mosul and conducted an attack in May that killed 11 Iraqi police officers.
In the waning days of the Bush administration, the United States has shown a greater willingness to launch cross-border clandestine operations in another military theater, Pakistan, to protect U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan or to capture or kill Islamic militants.
Damascus' official Syrian Arab News Agency said U.S. military helicopters entered the country along the Iraqi border in Bukamal near the town of Deir Ezzor, which is considered a haven for Sunni Arab militants infiltrating Iraq.
Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, is also near the site of a Sept. 6, 2007, Israeli airstrike on what U.S. officials have said was a plutonium plant built with the assistance of North Korea.
The Syrian news agency said four U.S. helicopters crossed into Syrian airspace about 4:45 p.m. and fired on people who appeared to be laborers at their jobs on the second day of the Syrian work week. It said a man identified as Daoud Mohammed Abdullah, his wife and four of his sons were killed.
"All victims were civilians," said Syria's Dunya private television.
Witnesses said that two helicopters landed and eight U.S. soldiers disembarked. Syrian state television said they stormed a building.
There have been rare reports of the U.S. military firing across the Syrian border since fighting began in Iraq in 2003. But the attack, if confirmed, would appear to mark the first time that U.S. troops have launched an attack inside Syria.
Damascus and Washington have taken steps recently toward easing their strained relations. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem met briefly with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last month.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry summoned the top U.S. and Iraqi diplomats in Damascus yesterday and complained of "dangerous aggression," the news agency said. It demanded that Iraq launch an immediate investigation into the attack and that it prevent foreign forces from using Iraqi territory to launch attacks.
It was unclear how the raid would affect U.S.-Iraqi negotiations over an agreement to extend the American military presence in Iraq. Syria and Iran have opposed the agreement, in part out of fear that U.S. forces would use Iraq as a base to strike at them.
U.S. officials have asked Arab leaders in the past to pressure Syria to tighten its visa restrictions on military-age males in an effort to prevent would-be militants from flying to Damascus then making their way to the Iraqi border. Military units inside Iraq have focused on shutting down the "rat lines" that shuttle militants from the Syrian border to Ramadi and then to Baghdad.
This month, Gen. David Petraeus, the former top commander in Iraq, said those efforts had helped cut the number of foreign fighters crossing the Syrian border from about 100 a month to 20. But he made clear that more needs to be done.
In recent weeks, U.S. commanders have increased their focus on the threat from militants within Syria and blamed for cross-border attacks in western Iraq and for fueling violence in Mosul.
"The Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi intelligence forces feel that al-Qaida operatives and others operate, live, pretty openly on the Syrian side," Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. troops in western Iraq, said at a briefing for reporters last week. "And periodically, we know that they try to come across."
Kelly said that after the May attack Iraqi security forces have tried harder to secure the border.