Anne Penketh: Syrian raid is not the 'October surprise' that could benefit McCain
The Bush administration is stepping up the fight against al-Qa'ida as the US President ties up loose ends in his last days in office.
Special forces have had their boots on the ground in Pakistan, on the border with Afghanistan where the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his henchmen has escalated. Now, the US has sent its special forces on to Syrian soil, turning its attention to al-Qa'ida fighters who, according to the US and Britain, are still crossing from Syria into Iraq despite a crackdown from Damascus.
Any such raids naturally cause furore over the violation of national sovereignty by George Bush and his "war on terror", which recognises no borders.
But was this the "October surprise", just over a week before the presidential election on 4 November that would put the issue of national security back at the top of the political agenda and propel the Republican candidate, John McCain, into the White House at a time when his rival has a nationwide lead? Will it dislodge the economic meltdown as the nation's prime concern?
That seems doubtful. "I don't think this has the potential to become big enough," said Nigel Inkster, a former director of MI6 who is now a senior analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"Most people in America don't even know where Syria is," said a Syrian diplomat, expressing the view that the incident may have been a message from the neo-conservatives in the White House who remain opposed to Syria breaking out of its isolation.
The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, held talks with the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last month.
The minister was in London yesterday for talks with David Miliband, which both sides said were useful and constructive. British diplomats hope that such high-level discussions with Western governments that cover the Middle East peace process, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and counter-terrorism will prise Syria away from its key ally Iran and its "dead-end strategy". The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has taken the lead in Europe.
So the timing and motive of the US raid raised many questions. Mr al-Moualem said that the raid was a sign that "maybe some people in the administration – whom you know – don't feel happy".
"Whenever they find Syria standing independently and standing against the Americans we must expect this type of aggression."
But the most plausible explanation doing the rounds is that a "high value" al-Qa'ida operative was located near the border in Syria and the Americans decided to strike while the iron was hot. A further demonstration that the Bush administration is holding to its controversial doctrine of preemptive action until the bitter end.