Chill in U.S.-Syria Ties Helps Clear Way for Israeli Raid on Terror Camp

Syrian Reverse On Intelligence Hardens U.S.

By Ori Nir, With Reporting by Marc Perelman.

Published October 10, 2003, issue of October 10, 2003.
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WASHINGTON — Syria has in recent weeks stopped supplying Washington with valuable intelligence, which in the past was helping the United States in fighting Al Qaeda and terrorism in Iraq, congressional, diplomatic and intelligence sources told the Forward.

The Syrian reversal appears to have played a major role in the Bush administration’s sympathetic response to the Israeli bombing last Sunday of a deserted terrorist training camp in Syria, following the suicide bombing at a Haifa restaurant the day before in which 19 Israelis were killed.

The deterioration of American-Syrian relations also seems to have played an important role in Israel’s decision to retaliate to the suicide bombing by launching an air raid against the site, about 10 miles northwest of Damascus. It was the first time in three decades that Israel attacked targets in Syria.

“Several administration officials have made it clear” that while the administration may have been soft on Syria until now because of its intelligence cooperation, “that is not the situation now — the Syrians stopped cooperating,” said Matthew Levitt, a former FBI terrorism analyst who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank.

According to Israeli diplomats, Sharon’s government has convinced the Bush administration that the Palestinian terrorist organizations’ offices in Damascus are not only involved in public affairs — as Syria claims — but also fund and train terrorists and mastermind terrorist attacks. “The Israelis were frustrated that [President] Bush didn’t use what Israel saw as a window of opportunity to get Syria to kick out the ter- rorist groups following the Iraq war,” said a pro-Israel lobbyist in Washington. “The Israelis would like to see the administration re-apply pressure on Syria, and in that sense the Israeli strike can be seen as a message sent to Washington, as much as a message to Syria.”

Israeli officials say their country reserves the right to strike more terrorist targets in Syria, but most analysts, including former Israeli ambassador to Washington Itamar Rabinovitch, agree that Sunday’s strike will probably not be followed up by more such attacks in the foreseeable future. But while Syria may be safe from further Israeli strikes, the freeze between Damascus and Washington remains.

The halt in Syrian cooperation with the United States has prompted a significant hardening of the Bush administration’s policy toward Damascus in recent weeks. As a result, the administration gave Congress the go-ahead to enact legislation that imposes tough punitive sanctions on Syria for its support of terrorism.

For more than two years, the Bush administration has avoided pursuing an all-out campaign to compel President Bashar Assad to stop supporting anti-Israeli terrorist groups and to close their offices in Syria. The main reason for Washington’s reticence was that Syria, while supporting Hezbollah, Hamas and other anti-Israeli organizations, had supplied American intelligence agencies with information on Al Qaeda and some intelligence that assisted American operations in Iraq.

Recently, however, administration officials complained that most foreign guerrilla fighters caught in Iraq came through Syria. Levitt said it is now openly acknowledged that while supplying Washington with some intelligence on Al Qaeda, the Syrian authorities seem to have allowed Al Qaeda agents to operate in Syria, commanding an underground recruitment of volunteers in Europe.

The Syrians “are letting jihadists cross the border to Iraq to kill our soldiers, they are undermining the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, they are sponsoring Palestinian terrorists and Hezbollah and they are not helping us fight Al Qaeda,” said a congressional aide. “Why should we go on taking this crap from them?”

According to congressional aides, the administration told congressional leaders October 3 that it will not oppose the bill known as the Syria Accountability Act, which empowers the president to impose strict sanctions on Damascus if it does not halt support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon and stop its development of weapons of mass destruction. The bill is now co-sponsored by almost three-fourths of the members of both the House and the Senate, and is expected to be fast-tracked through Congress, according to congressional aides.

The House international relations subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia Wednesday approved the bill, paving the way for a vote on the House floor. “The administration has said it will not stand in the way of this bill, which means that in some way it supports it, although they have not put out a support letter,” said Democratic Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who chairs the subcommittee.

After Israel’s strike, senior committee members thought they might have to shelve the bill, concerned that the administration might criticize Israel for its actions, Ros-Lehtinen said. “We were worried that the administration will get cold feet,” she said. “Now I think that the [Israeli strike] has actually strengthened our hand, because I think many are finally waking up to the fact that the problems Israel faces don’t come only from the Palestinians in Israel itself but from the countries that harbor terrorists, train them, fund them and arm them.”

The day after the raid, President Bush said Israel has a right to defend itself, though he cautioned that “it’s very important that any action Israel [takes] should avoid escalation and creating higher tensions.”

Tuesday Bush sounded more supportive of Israel’s reaction and said the strike was an “essential” part of its efforts to defend itself. He described the strikes as “valid decisions.” Bush added: “We would be doing the same thing. This country will defend our people. But we’re also mindful when we make decisions, as the prime minister should be, that he fully understand the consequences of any decision.”

Israeli diplomats in Washington, who on Tuesday morning were fretting over critical editorials in The New York Times and The Washington Post about the strikes, sounded more than gratified by noon Tuesday after Bush’s remarks. “The Americans actually complimented us for reacting this way and not launching a harsh reaction in the West Bank or Gaza,” said an Israeli diplomat. “We are actually getting some credit here for this.”

The Israeli air force attacked an empty building far from a residential area, Israeli spokesmen emphasized. “The target was a carefully calibrated response: The camp was isolated and there were no Syrian military troops around,” said Dore Gold, a special adviser to Sharon. “This is a warning to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and to Syria,” he said. An Israeli diplomat in Washington added: “Sharon both shifted attention to the role that Syria is playing in supporting terrorism, and satisfied domestic pressure for a strong reaction to the Haifa attack.”

Rabinovitch, a Syria expert who at one time led Israel’s negotiations with Damascus, said an immediate repeat of the strikes was unlikely. “It was meant as a one-time operation, a signal to Syria that the rules of the game have changed and that Israel won’t accept Syria’s support for Islamic Jihad,” Rabinovitch said.

The strike, however, could end up hardening positions in the Arab world, said Murhaf Jouejati, a George Washington University expert on Syrian politics. “This radicalizes many people in the Middle East,” Jouejati said. “It’s not an easy thing for Assad to kneel and say I am sorry or to promise that his country will turn into Switzerland.”

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