The Murders at al-Sukariya

Published on
by
Vanity Fair

The Murders at al-Sukariya

by
Reese Erlich and Peter Coyote

Akram Hamid scrubs the grease off his hands after a day of labor in Abu Kamal, a small Syrian town not far from the Iraqi border. Twenty minutes later, the mechanic rides his motorcycle past the autumn-dry rushes along the west bank of the placid Euphrates River, to al-Sukariya, happy to start fishing. It is dusk on a Sunday in October and the turned earth of the fields is pungent. Scattered farmers amble slowly home. A few late-season frogs pulse beneath the birds, chattering and thrashing in the rushes, as Hamid gets off his bike and scoots down the bank to drop his line.

He feels the rhythmic thwup-thwup in his stomach before he sees the helicopters. He stops to watch. He has seen helicopters, but not like these, and never four so close together. They display no markings of the Syrian Air Force, and they are the wrong color, painted black. He sees a B and a four. And they are flying low. When the door-gunners open fire, Hamid throws himself against the angled bank of the river. The men are shooting everywhere, firing from the air, spraying the ground.

Suddenly, the formation splits apart. Two helicopters hover just above the cinder-block walls that enclose a small farm, 300 feet away. One disappears inside the farm, and the last one lands about halfway between him and the wall. Eight men in uniform leap out and run quickly, crouching low, carrying weapons. They are not Syrians. They take cover farther up along the same bank, several hundred yards away.

Shells from the air are tearing out chunks of concrete, punching holes through the cinder blocks as if it were paper. The noise of the guns and motors is deafening. Hamid pulls himself along the rutted ground, peers fearfully over the edge of the bank, and slithers away, taking advantage of a lone tree for cover. He does not understand what is happening.

Some of the eight soldiers on the ground move forward and take up positions outside the high walls, but they don't seem to notice him. The hovering helicopters continue firing, tearing up the ground between him and the farm. "I thought it was safe because they didn't shoot at me," Hamid says later. After watching for about 15 minutes, he jumps on his bike to escape but, he says, "that's when they shot me." A bullet rips through his right arm, breaking it, mangling the muscles and nerves badly, and knocking him to the ground. Struggling to his feet, he sees the soldiers watching him as they climb into the helicopters and leave. "I was the last one they shot," he recalls. "No one was shooting at the soldiers," Hamid continues with certainty. "No one was shooting back."

Despite his serious wound, Hamid was lucky. U.S. troops—possibly special operations, according to some sources—killed seven people inside the walled farm that day: a father, his four sons, including a teenage boy, the father's visiting friend, and the night watchman. They also severely wounded the night watchman's wife. She and her six-year-old son, along with Hamid, would be the only survivors.

On that day, one year ago, four American helicopter gunships crossed the border from Iraq, flying about five miles into Syrian territory. Anonymous Pentagon sources said at the time that "a senior al-Qaeda terrorist," nicknamed Abu Ghadiya, had been killed in the raid. Ghadiya allegedly played a key role in smuggling men and arms across the Iraqi-Syrian border to attack American troops. According to George W. Bush's doctrines of pre-emptive war, the United States reserved the right to cross borders if the leaders of other countries failed to combat those it had designated as terrorists.

Larry Johnson, a former C.I.A. analyst and now a consultant to army special operations, who has spoken to people with knowledge of the raid, says the U.S. was sending a message to the Syrians: "We've told you in the past to stop it. Now we're serious." He calls the raid "a Jim Croce incident," referring to the 1970s singer known for the lyrics "You don't tug on Superman's cape / You don't spit into the wind / You don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger / And you don't mess around with Jim."

But Superman's cape looks decidedly different from Syria and the rest of the Middle East. What was a small blip in the American news cycle became front-page headlines across the Arab world. The raid was seen as an act of war.

Serious questions about the raid remain to this day. It appeared curious to some—including former C.I.A. field official Bob Baer—that the United States military would have successfully brought down a major terrorist without issuing a photograph or displaying other proof. The U.S. government made no official announcement about the raid. Certain government officials we spoke to regret that the attack was nothing more than another unsuccessful example of the Bush administration's cowboy tactics.

The Syrian government's reaction was surprisingly mild. Although demonstrations occurred in a town near al-Sukariya, Syria merely filed a complaint with the United Nations Security Council and ordered the closing of a cultural center and a school run by Americans. Did the low-key response reflect a tacit admission by Syria that the U.S. was correct?

The deaths at al-Sukariya never surfaced in the U.S. as a 2008 campaign issue, and the raid—likely because the human toll has been obscured by America's longitudinal two-front war—has been virtually forgotten in this country. However, solving the mystery of what actually happened one year ago, on October 26, 2008, is critical to understanding the reach, repercussions, and possible limits of U.S. military power. It may also provide valuable lessons for the Obama administration.

Was the incident a necessary blow against a shadowy terrorist enemy? Or was it an ill-conceived military adventure that risked alienating a potential ally and enraging the public? As we now see with the United States' cross-border drone attacks in Pakistan, threading that needle may prove to be one of the most vexing problems facing the Obama administration. And the thread begins for us in Syria.

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Freelance foreign correspondent Reese Erlich has covered the Middle East for 23 years and is the author of three books. His fourth, Conversations with Terrorists, will be published in September 2010. Peter Coyote has appeared as an actor in more than 130 films and television programs and is the author of numerous articles and the recently re-issued book Sleeping Where I Fall. He is currently working on a new book, Lies We Like to Believe, and three television pilots.

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