Syria: Taking the Hard Road
Vol: 41 Issue: 28 Monday, February 28, 2005
The government of Israel isn’t accepting Islamic Jihad’s belated claim of responsibility for last week’s bombing of a Tel Aviv night club, but it isn’t absolving the PA of responsibility, either.
Ariel Sharon threatened to cut off its recently-renewed contact with the PA and resume military operations against Palestinian terror groups if the PA doesn’t live up to its promises to crack down on terror groups.
“Israel has been showing restraint in order to facilitate progress,” Sharon said. “But it is clear that if the Palestinians do not begin to take vigorous action against terrorism, Israel will be compelled to step up military activity.”
In addition, Sharon suspended the planned release of 400 Palestinian prisoners and delayed the handover of several West Bank towns to Palestinian control. The prisoners were reportedly ‘furious’ when they heard the news of the attack, rightly assuming the door to freedom would slam closed in reaction.
Abbas has been promising the Israelis he will dismantle the terror infrastructure, promising the US that he already has, and promising the terrorists themselves that he will protect them from both Israel and the US.
The Israelis demand Abbas dismantle and disarm the groups and arrest its leaders, much as the Palestinian Authority did in 1996. Abbas and his security chiefs claim that to do so would start a Palestinian civil war.
But Sharon isn’t playing into the hands of the plotters who Abbas rightly claimed were ‘outside agitators’. Abbas was telling the truth when he said the Palestinian Authority had no part in the attack. And Islamic Jihad was probably telling the truth when it first denied any responsibility in the attack.
Sharon is using the attack to force Abbas into fulfilling his promise to crush organized terror within the Palestinian territory, but he is also using Israeli intelligence information to prove that the orders were issued through Syria via Hezbollah to Islamic Jihad, as we noted in Saturday’s Omega Letter.
Israel said Sunday that it would use intelligence information to prove Syria was behind suicide bombing Friday night’s suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. As promised, delegations from the Israeli defense establishment began fanning out Monday to the US, France and Great Britain, armed with intelligence information that Israel has collected against Syria revealing its role in the attack.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz promised to offer ‘irrefutable’ evidence against Damascus, and intend to ask the Security Council to condemn the attack and censure Syria.
“We have intelligence information that the orders came from the Islamic Jihad in Syria,” a senior source close to Sharon said. “We know where the orders for the attack were issued, we know where they were sent, and we know Syrian intelligence was involved and provided logistical support.”
The U.N. foray is a departure for Israel, which is more accustomed to being isolated on Middle East security issues. It hopes to get a declaration condemning the attack in an “unequivocal” manner, while pressing Abbas to take more ‘tangible’ steps towards peace.
Sharon vowed there would be “no diplomatic progress, until the Palestinians take vigorous action to wipe out the terror groups and their infrastructure in the Palestinian Authority’s territory.”
Global pressure on Syria has begun to bear some limited fruit, as the Syrians handed over Saddam’s half-brother and about fifty of his operatives to Iraqi authorities over the weekend.
But the Syrian handover is also an admission that it has been harboring Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan al Tikriti, the Six of Diamonds in the coalition’s 55 most-wanted fugitives of the Saddam regime for more than a year.
al-Tikriti is believed to have been one of the major financiers of the Iraqi insurrection, and his arrest and handover by Syria does more damage to Damascus’ previous protestations of innocence than it does to improve its standing now.
Damascus’ alleged involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has also damaged Syria’s credibility at the UN and its standing with its traditionally-friendly relationship with France. Hariri, a multi-billionaire, was also a close personal friend of Jacques Chirac and he takes a dim view of anybody killing his friends, ESPECIALLY the multi-billionaire ones.
Chirac strongly supported Bashar Assad when he came to power in 2000 – favoring him with a state visit to Paris and pleading Syria’s cause with other European capitals. So Chirac is taking it personally — not good for Assad.
Hariri’s assassination is the kind of provocation that precedes major military undertakings or major political reshuffling. The latter is the most likely prospect for now, and the US move to recall its Ambassador from Syria “for urgent consultations”, suggests that writing is on the wall for Damascus, one way or another.
Israel is also hoping it can build on a UN Security Council resolution issued late last year calling on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. One Israel diplomat called Israel’s effort to seek UN support a ‘very significant step’ in its relationship with the world body.
Syria is therefore caught in a pincer movement between the U.S. on one side and Israel on the other, a regional context which the Hariri assassination has now made even more threatening.
Syria’s fortunes are changing quickly, although I doubt they are changing so quickly that the UN will act on any resolution against Syria sponsored by the Israelis. But should the US and France sign on, which is likely to the point of probability, it is possible that the UN will demand that Damascus comply with UN Resolution 1599 that demands a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.
And, as we noted Saturday, that would include Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, stripping Hezbollah of its state -sponsorship, and stripping both Syria and Iran of their ability to strike at Israel through the jointly equipped Hezbollah fighters stationed there in the event of war.
The risk is substantial, but the Bekaa Valley is strategically worth almost any risk, especially to the Syrians.
Syria has promised an ‘immediate withdrawal’ from Lebanon some fourteen times since it first sent troops to ostensibly ‘provide security’ when Yasser Arafat and his PLO army were routed by the Israeli Army and force to evacuate to Tunis. The promise remains unfulfilled.
Connecting the dots, it would appear that Isaiah’s prophesied ‘burden of Damascus’ is not that unlikely a scenario for the near future.
“The burden of Damascus. Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap,” the prophet writes in Isaiah 17:1.
As we’ve noted before, Damascus is the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world. There has never been a time when Damascus was not a city, and never at time when it was made into ‘a ruinous heap’.
The UN is unlikely to support a war to remove Assad’s Ba’athist regime, even with the support of Jacques Chirac, but it is entirely possible that Washington and Paris may decide to let Israel do it for them.
Washington can’t allow Syria to continue to fund and train the Iraqi insurgency, and Chirac has evidently decided that Assad is too dangerous to leave in place.
The year 2005 continues to shape up as a year of earth-shaking transitions. We’ll be watching developments in Syria very closely over the coming weeks and months.
Damascus has an appointment with Isaiah and this might well be the year that appointment is kept.