Israel's strike on Syria threatens to widen

Israel's strike on Syria threatens to widen
Sun Oct 5 17:49:31 2003

AP Analysis: Israel's strike on Syria threatens to widen Israel-Palestinian conflict

RAVI NESSMAN, Associated Press Writer Sunday, October 5, 2003

(10-05) 12:07 PDT (AP) --

JERUSALEM (AP ) -- Israel's surprising strike at an alleged Islamic Jihad base in Syria -- in response to a suicide bombing by the group -- threatens to widen the conflict with the Palestinians and draw in an old enemy, whose frontier with Israel has been quiet for 30 years.

The strike early Sunday underscores Israel's frustration with its inability to end three years of unrelenting Palestinian militant attacks despite a massive and continuing military effort in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

If Syria does not respond militarily to the strike -- as it appears it won't -- Israel will have succeeded in serving notice that it is prepared to strike at nations supporting militant groups as part of its campaign to halt violence against the Jewish state.

"The attack today is to show the Islamic Jihad they will receive no sanctuary, regardless of where they are," said Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "This is also a very clear message to Syria. Despite U.S. demands to close all the (militant) bases, nothing has been done. They have to comply with what they promised."

Syria has been accused by the United States of harboring terror groups, allowing militants to cross its border into Iraq to kill U.S. soldiers and seeking to acquire non-conventional weapons.

In its announcement of the air strike, which reportedly injured one guard, Israel also lashed out at Iran, accusing it of financing and directing Islamic Jihad.

Israel has been trying to shift world attention to what it says is Tehran's support for Palestinian militant groups, both with weapons and money. Iran is suspected of trying to develop nuclear weapons, but its involvement with militants has been less of an issue.

After Saturday's suicide bombing by Islamic Jihad, in which 19 bystanders including several children were killed in a crowded beachfront restaurant in Haifa, the Israeli government was under strong pressure at home to deliver a dramatic response.

In past retaliation for suicide attacks -- there have been more than 100 since the fall of 2000 -- Israel has imposed strict travel bans on Palestinians, raided towns to arrest fugitives, demolished homes and killed militants in targeted attacks, and restricted the movement of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The result, at best, has been to slow the pace of bombings.

After Saturday's bombing, there was talk again about expelling Arafat. Israel's Cabinet approved such a step in principle last month, after twin bombings that killed 15 people. However, the United States opposes expulsion and even some of Israel's own security chiefs warn it would be counterproductive.

So Israel opted instead for the air strike, the first Israeli attack deep into Syrian territory in three decades. The response appeared dramatic enough to satisfy the Israeli public without putting Israel's ties with Washington, a major asset, at risk.

Israel apparently calculated that Syria would not retaliate and that the United States, upset with Syria for a failure to confront militants, would not be overly angry at the bombing. The Bush administration called for restraint by both sides.

But the move was not without risk and could destabilize what has been a relatively peaceful frontier. There has been relatively little fighting since the 1973 Yom Kippur War -- which broke out 30 years ago Monday -- when Syria tried to reclaim the Golan Heights that it lost in the 1967 Mideast War.

The two nations did fight in Lebanon in the 1980s. And Iranian-funded Hezbollah militants, at times acting as a Syrian proxy, have often launched missiles into northern Israel from Lebanon.

The United States, France and other countries have often served as intermediaries to try to defuse tensions between Israel and Syria.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, who took office in July 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez, has not been tested in battle against Israel and is widely seen as unlikely to risk a major confrontation now.

Though Syria has 380,000 active duty soldiers and 520 combat aircraft to Israel's 185,000 active troops and 628 combat aircraft, according to 2002 statistics, military analysts say Israel's military is far stronger than Syria's.

"Syria is not in a military position to do serious damage to Israel without massive Israeli response," said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.

Other than the Palestinians, Syria remains almost the last of Israel's traditional enemies. Israel has signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and another major threat to Israel, the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, was eliminated by U.S. forces this year.

Now Syria is caught between U.S. troops in Iraq on their eastern border and Israeli forces to the southwest.

The United States itself has deeply strained ties with Syria, accusing it of supporting Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- groups the United States considers terrorists.

The United States also accuses Syria of letting foreign fighters into Iraq to attack American troops, and the recent arrest of two U.S. servicemen with links to Syria have led to U.S. suspicions that Damascus is spying on Washington.

In the past, Israel has held Syria accountable for Hezbollah's attacks from Lebanon. Now it appears to be holding it accountable for the actions of Palestinian militant groups who have operations in Syria.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Ravi Nessman is an Associated Press correspondent based in Jerusalem.

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Security Council to meet over attack on Syria

Middle East correspondent Mark Willacy reports from Jerusalem.

The United Nations Security Council will hold a closed door meeting in New York after an Israeli air strike on an alleged terrorist camp near the Syrian capital Damascus

The meeting comes at Syria's request, after the deepest Israeli raid into Syria since the 1973 Middle East war.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has "strongly deplored" the Israeli strike.

The United States has called on Israel and Syria to avoid actions that could heighten tensions.

White House spokesman Ken Lisaius says President George W Bush telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to offer condolences over a weekend terrorist attack in Haifa, and to discuss the raid.

Israel says the camp was used by Islamic Jihad, the group which claimed the Haifa bombing, and Israel says it will continue to exercise its right of self-defence.

Syrian sources have warn that Israel is playing with fire, saying the situation could rapidly deteriorate into a regional conflict.

An Islamic Jihad spokesman denies the training camp hit by Israel is used by its faction.

Another group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, says the camp was one of its deserted bases.


US Seeks to Distance Itself From Israeli Strike in Syria


Published: October 5, 2003

WASHINGTON, Oct. 5 — The Bush administration sought today to distance itself from Israel's overnight airstrike on a target deep inside Syria, with senior officials saying the United States had no advance warning of the attack and did not have solid evidence that the site was in fact a terrorist training camp.

The White House said President Bush called Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel today after the raid and urged him to avoid further increasing the tensions in the region. A senior administration official said the United States was seeking "full details" about the attack.

A White House spokesman, Ken Lisaius, said Mr. Bush and Mr. Sharon had agreed "on the need to continue fighting terrorism in the region."

But the Bush administration seemed to be avoiding any criticism of the raid, which was the first deep strike by Israel into Syria since the 1973 Middle East war and was described by Israel as a retaliation for the suicide bombing on Saturday in northern Israel that killed 19 people.

The group that claimed responsibility for that attack, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, maintains offices and other bases of operations inside Syria, and Israel said its airstrike targeted a site used by that group for training. But the senior administration official said the evidence of such a link was "very amorphous."

In its reluctance to criticize the Israeli raid, the American stance was at odds with that most of Europe and the Arab world, whose leaders roundly condemned what they called a dangerous escalation by Israel of tensions in the Middle East. At Syria's request, members of the United Nations Security Council were planning to discuss the attack in an emergency session in New York later today.

Speaking in advance of that meeting, White House officials reiterated the administration's long-standing criticism of what the United States has long called Syria's role as a state sponsor of terrorism. "We've consistently told Syria that it must cease harboring terrorists and make a clean break from those responsible for planning and directing terrorist attacks from Syrian soil," a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

With its potential to inflame even further tensions in the Middle East, the Israeli raid comes at a sensitive time for the Bush administration, which is already coping with the unexpectedly violent aftermath to the American-led invasion of Iraq, as well as the flare-up in hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians.

Just as the United States has done Afghanistan and Iraq, and in launching a smaller strike against what were described as terrorist targets in Yemen, Israel has cast its strike into Syria as justifiable in a war against terrorism. Some Bush administration officials critical of Syria's ties to terrorism have referred to training camps in Syria as well as in neighboring Lebanon, where Syria remains the dominant power. But the State Department's most recent report on international terrorism, released last April, makes no mention of any such camps.

Having laid out an American doctrine claiming the right to launch pre-emptive attacks against terrorist targets, and having hinted that targets in Syria and Lebanon could fall under this definition, the Bush administration has consistently said that it also recognizes Israel's right to retaliate in response to terrorist attacks.

But in response to previous Israeli attacks, in Lebanon as well as the West Bank and Gaza, the administration has also consistently urged that any Israeli retaliation remain measured. It appeared today that the White House would follow a similar pattern in response the strike inside Syria.

"You can't say, `don't do anything,' " a senior Bush administration official said today, outlining the standard American message to Israel about its responses to acts of terrorism. "But you can say, `don't make matters worse.' "

As recently as Saturday, the Bush administration had appeared to be on the verge of taking a tough new line against Israel for its construction of fences around settlements in the West Bank. In an interview with The Washington Post that was published on Saturday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell described the step as counterproductive, and he said the administration was debating how best to respond.


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But those concerns have now been overshadowed by Saturday's attack in Haifa and by Israel's attack into Syria on a target about 10 miles from the Syrian capital that Israel said was used as a training camp by the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

An administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Israel had not informed the United States about the raid into Syria until "several hours" after the attack. But the United States military and intelligence agencies have always kept a close watch on the air space in the region, particularly because of the American military occupation in Iraq, and military officials said the United States knew about the raid before receiving the official notification from Israel.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the Bush administration has repeatedly called on Syria to break its ties with terrorist groups, particularly those like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which it has long provided a safe haven. Syria has denied supporting terrorism, but says it supports resistance efforts by those groups and others against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza

The administration has amplified its criticism of Syria since the war in Iraq. After Mr. Powell visited Syria in April, the Damascus government forced some of those groups to close their offices in Damascus. But administration officials have described those efforts as nothing more than first steps, and they say the groups have continued to use Syria and Lebanon as bases of operation.

The State Department's most recent annual report on terrorism says that Syria "has continued to provide political and limited material support to a number of Palestinian groups," including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as the two main factions of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It notes that Syria also permits Iran to resupply the Lebanese group Hezbollah, through shipments that pass through Damascus.

But the report also notes that "the Syrian Government has not been implicated directly in an act of terrorism since 1986."

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