July 17, 2003
U.S. Syria raid killed 80
By RICHARD SALE, UPI Intelligence Correspondent
Depicted by the Pentagon as a mere border skirmish, the June 18 strike
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
"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
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 attacks,
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
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,
months has said either Saddam or weapons of mass destruction were being
"The Izzies (Israelis) have been pitching this to anyone who would
the former CIA official said.
Chief Israeli Embassy spokesman, Mark Regev, said only: "I simply don't
discuss such matters."
But Anthony Cordesman, national security expert that the Center For
Strategic And International Studies, defended the intelligence and the
it triggered: "You have to act quickly on rumors in that situation. You have
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
and unreliable," he said.
And the question of Israeli intelligence?
"Do we tend to over-rely on the Israelis? Probably, but you have to
too that the CIA is permanently pissed by Israel and likes to discredit it,"
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
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
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
This official labeled the attack "a colossal blunder."
His view was supported by a half a 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
tankers. The Task Force blew up "a great number of these vehicles," causing
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
involved Special Forces."
Serving and former U.S. intelligence officials attributed a political
motive to the attacks, alleging they were designed to disrupt cooperation
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
Baghdad," one former senior CIA official said. "That is not to everyone's
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
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
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
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
in Germany for a Syrian cover company, these sources said.
"Syria was not the only source, but they were very helpful in this
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
ties and used the June 18 attack to disrupt the CIA-Syrian intelligence
"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
on condition of anonymity. "Hamas terrorists are returning to Damascus, a
of towns in East Syria are nothing but transit points for Iraqi officials
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
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
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 from any Pentagon official.