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US crossing more borders in terror war?

The alleged incursions into Syria, and previously into Pakistan, could be risky.

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It is not clear if the same accord, if it exists, would apply to Syria. But Sunday's alleged incident raises broader questions about the efficacy of the US's apparent new strategy on violating a country's sovereignty to hunt down terrorists.

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Every incursion across a sovereign border carries risk, says Tony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. An incident can and often does stir national resentment toward the US. But if the US is to go after insurgents, it cannot allow them a haven just across a border.

"If you do, you are basically saying that you have an open border forever," says Mr. Cordesman.

The trade-offs of these kinds of incursions must be assessed in terms of the value of the target and the "message" sent as a result of the raid, he says. Like Pakistan, Syria may be beginning to recognize the danger of extremist elements inside its own borders. "How willing it is to crack down and how openly it will do it is uncertain," Cordesman says of Syria.A comparison of the US approach in Pakistan with whatever it may be doing in Syria can only go so far, says Brian Fishman, director of research for the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.The US has not allied with Syria in the war on terrorism in the way it has with Pakistan, and Syria's political calculus about going after extremists within its borders is likely not to be viewed in the same way. That said, Fishman agrees that the increased security situation in Iraq may be forcing Syria to look at the dangers extremists pose differently.

Mr. O'Hanlon of Brookings says he will reserve judgment on whether this particular alleged raid is a good idea. But he asks, "Why now?"

Whatever the benefits for the US may be, says O'Hanlon, the raid comes more than five years after the US has been operating in Iraq and at a time when the inflow of foreign fighters into Iraq is down significantly from what it was even a year ago.

"We did not take this kind of action [then]," he says. "I would just wonder why, what has changed?"

Maj. Gen. John Kelly, the top Marine commander in western Iraq, told reporters Thursday that the Syrian border remains a problem. Syria, he said, has not done enough to prevent militants from entering Iraq from there.

Syria is "problematic," he says, "because it doesn't seem that there's much being done on the other side of the border to assist this country in terms of maintaining the border and the integrity of ... Iraqi sovereignty."

The Syrian border is one of the longest in Iraq and has little in the way of a physical infrastructure to prevent the cross-border activity that has contributed to some of the violence in Iraq, General Kelly said.

"We believe certainly ... [and] the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi intelligence forces feel that Al Qaeda operatives and others operate, live pretty openly on the Syrian side," he said.