THE UNITED STATES WAS looking at ways to punish Syria before Israel pulled the trigger. New evidence of the country's lack of cooperation in the war on terror has had Bush officials talking about toughening policy toward Syria for weeks. But Israel struck first. Syria's ongoing support for terrorism drew a direct hit on Oct. 5 when Israeli warplanes bombed an alleged Palestinian training camp just 14 miles from the Syrian capital, Damascus. It was Israel's deepest attack into Arab territory outside its borders in 30 years, and took place over the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War.
Israel Defense Forces launched the attack in retaliation for an attack on a popular restaurant in Haifa the day before. The Oct. 4 suicide bombing, carried out by a 29-year-old woman from Islamic Jihad, killed 19 and wounded more than 60, including longtime restaurant owner George Matar. Mr. Matar and his wife, both Christian Arabs, have jointly owned Maxim Restaurant for more than 40 years with a Jewish couple, Shabtai and Miri Tayar.
The midday attack added to Israel's mounting anger over Syria's support for Hezbollah fighters at the Israel-Lebanon border and Syria's sanctuary to Islamic Jihad fighters.
Israel hit back by destroying a Palestinian weapons storehouse in Gaza and the home of a top Islamic Jihad terrorist, along with the home of the perpetrator, a lawyer from Jenin. Then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sent bombers north to Syria, where warplanes took out a training camp Israel said was used by Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. Mr. Sharon charged that terrorists receive training at such facilities before they are sent back to Israel to carry out suicide bombings.
After the Israelis fired on Syria, President Bush said he told Mr. Sharon that "Israel's got a right to defend herself, that Israel must not feel constrained in terms of defending the homeland." But he also said Mr. Sharon should "avoid escalation and creating higher tensions."
The Bush administration itself has paid closer attention to the Syrian threat, particularly after U.S. forces in Iraq captured 248 foreign militant fighters, 123 of them carrying Syrian passports. At the same time, the United States has arrested three servicemen in recent weeks on suspicion of spying at the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay-all with reported ties to Syria.
As investigation into their activities widened, their arrests raised the possibility that the Syrian government isn't just supporting Middle East terrorist groups; it may also be linked to espionage against the United States.
Less than two weeks before those arrests, John Bolton, undersecretary of state, testified before a House International Relations subcommittee on Syria's threat to national security. "Syria allowed military equipment to flow into Iraq on the eve of and during the war," he said. "Syria permitted volunteers to pass into Iraq to attack and kill our service members during the war, and is still doing so. Syria continues to provide safe haven and political cover to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has killed hundreds of Americans in the past."
Mr. Bolton said the United States considered Syria fourth after Iran, North Korea, and Libya on the list of countries pursuing weapons of mass destruction. The potential link is chilling: Syria could supply those weapons to the terrorist groups it harbors, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. Much of Mr. Bolton's testimony during the open hearing echoed the CIA's twice-yearly report to Congress on weapons of mass destruction.
Growing concern over Syria's support for terrorism led Congress to reintroduce the Syria Accountability Act in April, a battery of tough economic sanctions aimed at punishing the country's double-dealings. Syria is already under U.S. sanctions, but the act further requires the president to impose two out of six measures. Among them: Halt export of all American items except food and medicine, prevent American businesses from operating in Syria, and restrict Syrian diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Washington and UN Headquarters in New York to a 25-mile radius of either site. Members first presented the act in March last year, dropped it, but then it passed a House committee Oct. 9.
Now official warnings to Bashar al-Assad's regime are growing sterner. While declining to comment on the possibility of economic sanctions, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in mid-September: "I'm making it very clear that their behavior is unacceptable and they will be held accountable for that behavior."
On his way home from Iraq last month, Secretary of State Colin Powell emphasized that Syria's lack of cooperation led to Congress again debating sanctions: "I made it clear to the Syrians that to have good relations with the United States and with a liberated Iraq, they should do everything they could to make sure that the wrong sorts of people are not crossing the border to cause trouble in Iraq."
The standard Syrian response to American protests about its porous border with Iraq has been that it can't control the 310-mile stretch any more than the United States can patrol its frontier with Mexico.
Mr. Assad has also been slow to heed a U.S. request to close the Syrian offices of terrorist groups. He told the Arab satellite station Al-Arabiya in June that such groups were "conducting informational activities" and that even if they closed the offices, "any Palestinian can buy or rent an apartment and hold meetings there or talk on the phone." Mr. Assad shut down the offices of about 10 terrorist groups soon after Mr. Powell's visit to Syria in May, but hasn't otherwise stanched their activity.
Relations between Syria and the United States have seesawed over the decades. They reached their lowest point in 1983, following the deployment of American peacekeepers to Beirut after Israel's invasion of Lebanon the previous year. The United States suspects Syria supported local militants fighting against the American presence. Hezbollah was behind suicide bombings on the U.S. marine barracks, which killed 241 U.S. military personnel, and the U.S. embassy, killing 63. Later that year, U.S. warplanes attacked Syrian anti-aircraft installations in Lebanon, and battleships shelled Syrian positions. The Syrians downed and captured an American fighter pilot. Negotiating his return, according to United States Institute for Peace director Daniel Pipes, led to a sudden, softer American approach to Syria.
"Jesse Jackson led a group that went to Syria to ask for the release of the pilot, won that release, and in the process one found a very different policy now for 20 years being applied, a policy that I've dubbed 'more in sorrow than in anger,'" said Mr. Pipes, speaking at a Sept. 29 forum on Syria at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
That policy, Mr. Pipes said, has been inconsistent, trying to persuade Syria to give up its ties to terrorist groups and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. "The Syrians have noticed we go hot and cold, and have exploited it," he said. Syria has been on the State Department's list of states that sponsor terrorism since 1979, in the same company as Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Libya, and North Korea. But it is the only country among them that enjoys full diplomatic relations with the United States.
The Syria Accountability Act, Mr. Pipes said, would bring American policy toward the country more into keeping with its approach to other rogue states. But it probably won't be enough, according to another speaker at the Johns Hopkins event, Farid Ghadry. "I think the U.S. should keep the pressure on Syria," he told WORLD. "But they should also, in conjunction with that, open a parallel road for democracy."
Mr. Ghadry is co-founder of the American-based Syria Reform Party, created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Members hope to win regime change in Syria, returning to help establish a democratic, secular government in the country. He said the party has called on Syrian opposition groups to unite in a democratic coalition, and six parties representing 2 million Syrians have joined. "What we're asking for and what we're calling for is a vision very similar to the U.S. vision in the Middle East," Mr. Ghadry said. But U.S. support, he said, is crucial to encouraging Syrians to resist their Baathist regime. "I really feel that Syrians are willing to put their necks on the line."
The Bush administration's reluctance to prod Syria stems from signs of cooperation following 9/11. Media reports in June last year credited Syria with supplying information gleaned from interrogations of Muhammad Hayder Zammar, a planner in the 9/11 attacks who was extradited from Morocco to Syria. The same month, President Assad told reporters that Syria had alerted the United States about a planned al-Qaeda attack against American soldiers. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns also testified before Congress that Syrian collaboration had "saved American lives."
But that cooperation is waning, according to former ambassador to Morocco Marc Ginsberg, who was the keynote speaker at the Johns Hopkins forum. He said Syria has refused to let the United States police the Iraq-Syria border. "I am frankly troubled with the conduct of Assad," Mr. Ginsberg said. "It appears he is almost interested in eagerly seeking confrontation with the United States, something his father never would have done."
As the House International Relations Committee scheduled a vote Oct. 8 on the Syria Accountability Act, the Bush administration said it would not object to the legislation a second time round. "I would say at this point we've told the Syrians that this could happen," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
With Washington on the verge of altering U.S.-Syria policy, events on the ground could actually overtake those deliberations. But part of the reason for war in Iraq was to upset the Islamic militant applecart across the Middle East. "The one thing I'm convinced of," Mr. Ginsberg said, "is it would be a mistake for the United States to go back and pretend that the Iraq War did not happen, and that the status quo between the United States and Syria can be maintained."