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'They will be held accountable'

International | FEATURE: U.S. officials were already souring on Syria before Israel's Oct. 5 attack on the country. Now Syrian ties to terrorism and espionage against the United States are prompting Congress and the White House to take action

Issue: "Terror on trial," Oct. 18, 2003

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.

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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."

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