U.S. Syria raid killed 80
07/17/03 (Washington Times) ) Depicted by the Pentagon as a mere border skirmish, the June 18 strike into Syria by U.S. military forces was, in fact, based on mistaken intelligence and penetrated more than 25 miles into that country, causing numerous Syrian casualties, several serving and former administration officials said.
Although diplomatic relations between the two sides have been frosty after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, the two nations have close intelligence ties, which have become strained as a result, these sources said.
"I think this was a deliberate effort to disrupt cooperation between U.S. and Syrian intelligence agencies," an administration official said.
According to a report in The New York Times, administration officials said that attack, carried out by Task Force 20, a Special Operations force, was based on intelligence that a convoy of SUVs, heading for Syria, was linked to senior fugitive Iraqi leaders.
"The (intel) was that senior Iraqis, perhaps even (former Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein were getting out of the country," a State Department official told United Press International.
The ensuing raid "was conducted under the rules of hot pursuit," an administration official told UPI on condition his name not be used.
In the same Times report, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the attack, saying it was based on "solid intelligence."
"We had good intelligence, and it indicated that there were people moving around during their curfew close to the border in a convoy of SUV's and our forces went in and stopped them," the Times quoted Rumsfeld as saying.
But one administration official described the intelligence as "totally false," and a former CIA official labeled it "flimsy" and another former U.S. intelligence official called it "almost non-existent."
One former senior CIA official with access to current intelligence information said he believed the source of the intelligence was Israel, which for months has said either Saddam or weapons of mass destruction were being smuggled into Syria.
"The Izzies (Israelis) have been pitching this to anyone who would listen," the former CIA official said.
Chief Israeli Embassy spokesman, Mark Regev, said only: "I simply don't ever discuss such matters."
But Anthony Cordesman, national security expert at the Center For Strategic And International Studies, defended the intelligence and the attack it triggered: "You have to act quickly on rumors in that situation. You have zero time."
He also pointed out that U.S. means of intelligence-collection in the area suffers from "extremely serious limitations."
For one thing, unmanned aerial vehicles or drones "can produce only a limited coverage of patterns" while even signals intelligence "can be fragmentary and unreliable," he said.
And the question of Israeli intelligence?
"Do we tend to over-rely on the Israelis? Probably, but you have to remember too that the CIA is permanently pissed by Israel and likes to discredit it," he said.
A former very senior CIA official told UPI: "Too often the Israeli intelligence product is hard to distinguish from Israel political messages."
The Times report said Task Force 20, supported by helicopters and AC-130 gunships, struck the convoy and a housing compound "in a village not far from the Syria border." Task Force 20 captured 20 Iraqis, all of whom were later released, the Times and other news reports said.
But one senior administration official told UPI the attack crossed "25 miles or more" into Syria, and the Pentagon had initial reports of 80 Syrians "who were KIA (killed in action)."
Cordesman said he believed this to be possible because "the fighting between our forces and the Syrians was extremely intense."
But instead of capturing any high-value Iraqi targets, the Task Force destroyed "a gas smuggling ring," a former senior U.S. intelligence official said. This official labeled the attack "a colossal blunder."
His view was supported by a half-dozen administration officials interviewed by UPI.
The former senior U.S. intelligence official said the Task Force had destroyed SUVs "on both sides of the border" that had been fitted out as mini-gas tankers. The Task Force blew up "a great number of these vehicles," causing huge explosions and fireballs when they were hit, he said.
"The explosions could account for the casualties," he said.
A spokesman from U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, said: "We are unable to comment on any cross-border raids, especially if they involved Special Forces."
Serving and former U.S. intelligence officials attributed a political motive to the attacks, alleging they were designed to disrupt cooperation between the CIA and Syrian intelligence.
"Syria has given us invaluable help on hunting down members of al-Qaida, and they were instrumental in ex-filtrating some major Iraqi fugitives back to Baghdad," one former senior CIA official said. "That is not to everyone's liking."
In early May, two top Iraqi biological scientists who had been hiding in safe havens in Syria were ex-filtrated back to Iraq where they were captured by U.S. military forces, former CIA officials said.
A U.S. intelligence official told UPI: "It was a gift to Secretary of State Colin Powell" and also an effort by Damascus to compensate for its apparent lack of cooperation with the United States in closing the Damascus offices of Palestinian militant groups, which are on Washington's list of terrorist organizations.
But CIA-Syria cooperation was far more extensive, former and serving U.S. intelligence officials said.
According to these sources, Syria and the CIA have a joint exploitation center based in Aleppo, plus Syria turned over to the agency all its intelligence networks in Germany as well as all of Syria's cover companies there. As a result, the agency learned that Sept. 11, 2001, hijacker Mohammed Atta once worked in Germany for a Syrian cover company, these sources said.
"Syria was not the only source, but they were very helpful in this matter," a former senior CIA official said.
The CIA was also grateful to Damascus for giving early warning of a planned al-Qaida attack on U.S. installations in Bahrain, using an explosives-laden glider, which would be invisible to radar, according to these sources.
"The Syrians have been an incredible help in sharing intelligence," one serving U.S. intelligence officer said.
Senior Pentagon leaders, who administration officials describe as being very close to Israel, have been unhappy with the increasingly close CIA-Syria ties and used the June 18 attack to disrupt the CIA-Syrian intelligence relationship.
"I think that certain Pentagon officials want to see (Syrian president) Bashar Assad deposed and Syria sign a peace treaty with Israel," said former senior DIA official Pat Lang.
But other U.S. officials disagreed.
"Syria is playing a double-game," said one administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Hamas terrorists are returning to Damascus, a lot of towns in East Syria are nothing but transit points for Iraqi officials who are free to go in and out. I wouldn't put much trust in Syria."
But a serving U.S. intelligence official disagreed.
"Syria is obviously making an effort. It has gotten the message of our military victory and our aim of democratizing the region." He added: "Syria clearly realizes that it has a great deal to gain by being a friend of America and everything to lose if it turns away from friendship."
As of now, the Pentagon had ignored State Department requests for additional details on the June 18 strike, administration officials said.
Four days of phone calls to the Office of the Secretary of Defense brought no comment on the raid from any Pentagon official.
copyright © 2003 News World Communications, Inc.
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