There were a number of factors behind that U.S. special forces raid into Syrian territory. First, as the U.K. Times observes, the mission was designed to send a clear message to Damascus. After years of waiting for Syria to police its eastern border--and stop the flow of jihadists into Iraq--American commanders, with the approval of Washington, took matters into their own hands.
The mission they conducted was more than a simple missile attack, aimed at key Al Qaida figures and safe houses in the al-Sukkari Farm area. According to local residents and military sources, U.S. transport helicopters landed near the village, and special forces teams disembarked. With lightning precision they hit their targets, killing at least nine suspected terrorists, while Apache gunships provided air support. The raid lasted only a few minutes.
Those details affirm that this was no ordinary mission. Not only did it represent our first strike on Syrian territory since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the ground component suggests that SOF personnel had specific targets, perhaps the leader of Al Qaida in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al Masri. As Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal reminds us, al Masri reportedly left Iraq earlier this year, after his faction lost key sanctuaries in Diyala Provinence.
If that assessment is accurate--and it is shared by U.S. intelligence--then al-Sukkari Farm would represent an ideal location for al Masri to manage his dwindling forces, beyond the reach of American forces, at least until now. So far, it's unclear if al Masri was in the village, but our SOF teams were clearly looking for individual terrorists. Otherwise, the Apaches (or Predator drones) would have leveled suspected safe houses with Predator missiles.
The raid on al-Sukkari came after a recent, successful campaign against other Al Qaida leaders in the Mosul area, which became their temporary safe haven following the Diyala offensive. On 15 October, the terrorist group's #2 leader in Iraq, Abu Qaswarah, was killed in a raid in Mosul. Lower-ranking figures and couriers were eradicated during subsequent missions; information gleaned from those operations apparently led to the cross-border strike into Syria.
While a chance to get al-Masri (or similar targets) was the over-arching motive for the raid, there were other reasons as well. While Iraqi forces are officially in charge of security in Al Anbar province, the mission offered a little reminder that U.S. forces are still around, and quite willing to take the fight to the enemy--even if it means going into Syria. With the raid on al-Sukkari, Washington has (seemingly) put Damascus on notice, letting the Assad government know that it can no longer harbor Al Qaida with impunity.
However, there may be another, political component that influenced the attack. Despite his campaign pledge to "get" senior terrorist leaders--at least those in Afghanistan--Barack Obama's willingness to pursue the bad guys in other locations is an unknown commodity. If commanders are concerned about getting the okay from an Obama administration for high-risk missions, then that may explain (in part) the sudden surge in SOF and UAV strike missions, first in Pakistan, and now in Syria.
ADDENDUM: Residents in the area now report that U.S. SOF teams took two men with them when they departed. That bold ground operation in Syria indicates that we were on the trail of Al Qaida kingpins, rather than merely disrupting the flow of terrorists into Iraq. The apprehension of those two suspects suggests that we found what we were looking for.