Targeting Syria

Print edition : November 07, 2003

The Syrian target struck by Israeli warplanes on October 5. - HUSSEIN MALLA/AP

The Israeli Air Force's attack on a Syrian target with the U.S.' sanction evokes condemnation all round, but Syria reacts with caution.

THE attack by Israeli warplanes on a Syrian target, the first time since the two countries signed a ceasefire agreement 30 years ago, has significantly raised tensions in the region. The site, 25 km away from the Syrian capital Damascus, was used as a training camp for Palestinian activists over 20 years ago. According to Syrian officials, the camp has been in disuse since then. The Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Damascus has strongly countered Israeli allegations that the camp was used for training terrorist groups.

Syrian officials have reiterated that the evidence brought out by the Israeli government was fabricated. Though the Bush administration had given the green signal to the Sharon government for the strike against Syria, American officials admitted that there was no evidence to show that Israeli Air Force's target was a guerilla training camp. They have never denied that they regularly shared intelligence information on Syria with Israel. In retrospect, the Bush administration knowingly sanctioned yet another serious violation of international law by Israel.

The attack took place a day after a suicide bomber owing allegiance to the Islamic Jihad blew herself up causing significant casualties in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa. According to liberal sections of the Israeli media, this radical group is supported only by a tiny minority of Palestinians. Unlike Hamas, the Islamic Jihad is not even interested in electoral politics. According to Amira Haas, a perceptive commentator who writes from the occupied territories, Palestinian suicide bombers feel that they represent their society. "That's their strength. They represent their society's sense that it is no use living under the occupation, with the terrible weakness against the Israeli military power, the impotence as they watch their land vandalised and degraded, the rage over the stupidity of the Palestinian leadership. They are willingly represented by the vengeance," Haas wrote recently in Haaretz.

Syrian President Bashar Assad prays after placing a wreath at a war memorial in Damascus on October 6, the 30th anniversary of the Yom Kippur war in which Syria tried to reclaim the Golan Heights, which was occupied by Israel in 1967.-SANA/AP

Israel continues to insist that Syria is one of the guiding forces behind the suicide bombers. Syrian officials point out that their government was among the first to crack down on home-grown radical Islamic movements. The Syrian government was then subjected to vitriolic attacks by Western governments when it started dealing seriously with terrorism around 30 years ago. Syrian officials say that the Israeli attack on their country was to a large extent owing to Ariel Sharon's political desperation.

On coming to power, three years ago, he had grandiosely assured the Israeli electorate that he would bring about total security to the country within the span of a 100 days. Instead, the security situation within Israel has worsened dramatically in the last three years. The attack on Syria was an obvious attempt to divert the people's attention from their domestic travails. A week before Sharon ordered his Air Force to bomb Syria, around 24 serving Israeli Air Force pilots had refused to bomb civilian targets in the occupied territories.

After the unprovoked attack, the Syrian government has chosen to react with caution. Damascus is fully aware that Israel is itching for a full blown conventional war in the region. Diplomats point out that it is not in the interest of Israel to become a "normal state". Its contemporary history has shown that it has used war as a pretext to expand its borders. "Sharon is in a corner. He wants to export his problems beyond the occupied territories on the pretext of fighting terrorism. We will not react just to satisfy the bloodthirsty Sharon. However, if we are hit again, we will not keep quiet," said a senior Syrian official.

Syria had articulated this position during the emergency United Nations Security Council meeting in the first week of October. "If Israel attacks again, the date, time and place to act in legitimate self-defence will be chosen by us," a Syrian official said. Syria, he emphasised, was not choosing the diplomatic option out of weakness.

The Bush administration is being held equally culpable for the escalation in tensions in the region. Syrian officials say that the U.S. is mistaken if it thinks that by pressuring their country it will improve its position in Iraq. Syria has taken a principled stand on the situation in Iraq, demanding the speedy withdrawal of all foreign forces from Iraq and the handing over of power to genuine representatives of the Iraqi people. The Syrian stand is unacceptable to the Bush administration, which wants Arab and Muslim troops to bail it out of the military quagmire in Iraq.

Syrian officials recall that they had broken off diplomatic relations with Baghdad soon after Saddam Hussein came to power. Diplomatic relations between the two countries are yet to be restored. After the events of September 11, Syria shared important information on sensitive security issues with the U.S. It has provided around 25,000 documents relating to terrorism in the region to the U.S.

"American failure in Iraq is the real reason for the Bush administration's animosity to Syria. There are no terrorists inside our country and Syria is in full control of its borders," said a Syrian official. U.S. troops on the Iraqi side of the border could have interdicted terrorists crossing over from Syria and shown them to the world. The official said that Iraq was full of Islamic militants from Afghanistan and many other countries. "Will the U.S. bomb these countries too?" he asked. He clarified that organisations like the Hezbollah in Lebanon only fought against Israeli occupation forces. "They have no quarrel with any other country in the world, including the U.S." Syrian officials want the U.S. to understand that Syria is not Iraq. Pointing out that Iraq's Army never recovered after the disastrous invasion of Kuwait and that draconian sanctions had made the Iraqi state a military pushover in a conventional war, they say: "Syria is different. They cannot take any action against us".

The "neo-con" cabal surrounding U.S. President George Bush is known to be in favour of "regime-change" in Syria. At a meeting of conservative politicians in Israel in October, Richard Perle, an influential member of this group, said recently that more military action against Syria was justified. Syria is also ruled by a wing of the secular Baath Party with an ideology that espouses "pan-Arab" nationalism and anti-imperialism. Syrian-American relations are now at an all time low, with Washington threatening to veto any U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel's aggression against Syria and the Bush administration proposing to impose economic sanctions on Damascus.

The Syrian government has legitimate reasons to be upset with what it perceives as American ingratitude. Syria, despite serious misgivings, had joined the U.S.-led coalition in the first Gulf War. The late Syrian President, Hafez-al-Assad, was convinced by the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah to join the coalition. Syria had also severely circumscribed the activities of secular radical Palestinian group like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The movements of its leader, George Habash, were restricted. Under pressure from the West and Turkey, it had packed off the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, from his refuge in Syria and put an end to the activities of the armed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) on its soil.

Damascus had scaled down the level of its strategic links with its long-time ally, Iran. On Washington's prodding, Damascus had almost signed a separate peace deal with Israel. It was only Israel's reluctance to cede all the Syrian territory it had occupied that prevented the signing of a peace accord. "We are still for a dialogue but Washington should distance itself from Israel. We are not against America," said a Syrian official. He said that Syria's policy towards Israel is still the same - "give our land back - take peace in return".

The Syrian government is, however, happy with the international support it has elicited. Syrian officials point out that even the United Kingdom and Spain, U.S.' closest allies, have condemned the Israeli attack on Syria. They are happy that Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was among the first international leaders to condemn the attack. If the U.S. finally cast its veto in the Security Council when the resolution comes up for voting, the Bush administration may have to pay a larger diplomatic price. It could find its efforts to get a resolution on Iraq passed in the Security Council stymied even further. Failure to do so would mean further delay in the Bush administration's plans to get more foreign troops into Iraq under the U.N. banner. The beleaguered U.S. military in Iraq is desperately in need of a helping hand. Syrian officials say that as the problems for the Americans in Iraq get worse, "they will demand more accountability from Syria".

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