DAMASCUS, Syria – U.S. military helicopters launched an extremely rare attack Sunday on Syrian territory close to the border with Iraq, killing eight people in a strike the government in Damascus condemned as “serious aggression.”
A U.S. military official said the raid by special forces targeted the network of al-Qaida-linked foreign fighters moving through Syria into Iraq. The Americans have been unable to shut the network down in the area struck 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 just days after the commander of U.S. 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, five miles inside the Syrian border. Four helicopters attacked a civilian building under construction shortly before sundown and fired on workers inside, the statement said.
The government said civilians were among the dead, including four children.
Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, there have been some instances in which American troops crossed areas of the 370-mile Syria-Iraq border in pursuit of militants, or warplanes violated Syria’s airspace. But Sunday’s raid was the first conducted by aircraft and on such a large scale. In May 2005, Syria said American fire killed a border guard.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry said it summoned the U.S. and Iraqi charges d’affaires 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.
Syrian state television late Sunday aired footage that showed blood stains on the floor of a site under construction, with wooden beams used to mold concrete strewn on the ground. Akram Hameed, one of the injured, told the television he was fishing in the Euphrates and saw four helicopters coming from the border area under a heavy blanket of fire.
“One of the helicopters landed in an agricultural area and eight members disembarked,” the man in his 40s said. “The firing lasted about 15 minutes and when I tried to leave the area on my motorcycle, I was hit by a bullet in the right arm about 20 meters away,” he said.
The area targeted is near the Iraqi border city of Qaim, which had been a major crossing point for fighters, weapons and money coming into Iraq to fuel the Sunni insurgency.
Iraqi travelers making their way home across the border reported hearing many explosions, said Qaim Mayor Farhan al-Mahalawi.
The foreign fighters network sends militants from North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East to Syria, where elements of the Syrian military are in league with al-Qaida and loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, the U.S. military official said.
He said that while American forces have had considerable success, with Iraqi help, in shutting down the “rat lines” in Iraq, and with foreign government help in North Africa, the Syrian node has been out of reach.
“The one piece of the puzzle we have not been showing success on is the nexus in Syria,” the official said.
On Thursday, U.S. Maj. Gen. John Kelly said 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 U.S. 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 White House in August approved similar special forces raids from Afghanistan across the border of Pakistan to target al-Qaida and Taliban operatives. At least one has been carried out.