National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 24, 2003

Israel's attack on Syria is an ill omen for the Middle East


Israel’s Oct. 5 bombing of a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria in retaliation for yet another horrific suicide bombing may be an example of “If you cannot solve a problem, then enlarge it.” The United States seems to agree.

In one sense, Israel’s attack was not of great consequence since no one was killed or injured. By contrast, Israeli attacks against Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon during the 1970s and ’80s killed thousands of civilians.

Though Israeli and Syrian forces clashed in Lebanese territory during the 1980s, they have avoided attacking the other’s country directly for nearly 30 years. This is the first major violation by either side of the armistice agreed to following the October 1973 war. It thereby threatens a larger regional confrontation.

The rationale for Israel’s attack, according to its right-wing government and its supporters in Washing-ton, was to strike at a terrorist training camp of the radical Palestinian Islamist group Islamic Jihad, responsible for the bombing of a restaurant in Haifa that killed 19 civilians the previous week. President George W. Bush justified the bombing as a legitimate effort by Israel to defend itself, and the United States blocked the United Nations Security Council from criticizing what most international legal experts describe as a clear violation of the U.N. Charter and other international norms. This has been widely interpreted as a green light for Israel to escalate its attacks on neighboring countries.

However, Israel has not shown any credible evidence that their target actually had anything to do with Islamic Jihad.

Like a number of Middle Eastern countries, Syria has allowed the militant Palestinian Islamist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad to open political offices in their country. However, there is little evidence that the Syrian government has provided active military, logistical or financial support. Indeed, the Damascus regime has brutally suppressed radical Islamic groups within its borders.

The unofficial policy of the Syrian government in recent years has been to allow such militants to hang out in cafés and maintain a low-key presence but not to allow them to organize military operations that could threaten the regime, either directly or through provoking an Israeli military response. Unlike the Lebanese government, the Syrians have always maintained a high degree of control over Palestinian refugee camps inside their country. Given that Syria’s military prowess vis-à-vis Israel has been weakened considerably over the past 15 years, allowing these groups some political space is virtually the only bargaining chip the Syrians have left in their efforts to negotiate a peace deal that would return the southwestern part of their country occupied by Israel since 1967.

The alleged Islamic Jihad training camp bombed by the Israelis Oct. 5 appears to have actually been a long-abandoned staging area for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist faction that peaked in the 1970s and whose remnants have largely relocated to the occupied West Bank. According to journalists and relief agencies familiar with the refugee camp targeted by Israel, the bombing target was frequently used as a picnic area for Palestinian refugee families since it is one of the few pleasant unused open spaces available.

There seems little logic that Islamic Jihad -- whose militants have come exclusively from within the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip -- would set up a “training camp” in a foreign country. Furthermore, Islamic Jihad’s mode of operations -- strapping explosives to suicide bombers -- does not require a training camp, unlike more traditional armed guerrilla groups.

In reality, the Israeli attacks appear to be at least in part a way of supporting American efforts to further isolate and punish one of the last remaining secular nationalist governments in the Arab world.

Part of this anti-Syrian campaign is the so-called “Syrian Accountability Act,” sponsored by California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and cosponsored by 75 of her Senate colleagues, which would impose strict sanctions on that country.

Among the rationales for the sanctions, as described in the language of the bill, is Syria’s ongoing violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 520, which calls for nations to “respect of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and political independence of Lebanon under the sole and exclusive authority of the government of Lebanon through the Lebanese army throughout Lebanon.”

This resolution, which was passed unanimously in September 1982, was in reference to Israel, which had invaded Lebanon three months earlier and at that point held nearly half of Lebanon under its military occupation. Indeed, Israel was the only outside power mentioned by name in the resolution. The Israelis remained in violation of this Security Council resolution and nine others calling for its withdrawal until May 2000.

At the time U.N. Security Council Resolution 520 was passed, there were also Syrian troops in the country. (Palestinian forces had been withdrawn shortly beforehand.) These Syrian forces entered Lebanon six years earlier as the primary component of a peacekeeping force designated by the Arab League to try to end Lebanon’s civil war. Having already abused their mandate by that time, one can certainly make the case that the resolution applied to Syria as well and -- given that Syrian troops remain in Lebanon to this day -- that Syria is still in violation of this resolution.

It is interesting to note, however, that neither Boxer nor any of the cosponsors of the Syrian Accountability Act -- the vast majority of whom were in office during at least some of the nearly 18 years that Israel was in violation of this U.N. resolution -- ever called on the Israeli government to abide by it, much less called for sanctions in order to enforce the resolution. Indeed, every one of the bill’s cosponsors then in office supported sending billions of dollars worth of military and economic aid to the Israeli government annually during this period when Israel was in violation of this very same resolution for which they are now ready to impose sanctions on Syria.

It is also worth noting that there are currently over 90 U.N. Security Council resolutions currently being violated by governments other than Syria. Congress has allocated extensive amounts of military and economic aid to the vast majority of these governments in recent years.

It is therefore naive for Lebanese, Lebanese-Americans and others who support this legislation to think that the sponsors of the bill actually care about Lebanese sovereignty. If they cared about Lebanese sovereignty, they would have demanded that Israel abide by this and similar resolutions and withdraw from Lebanon. They did not, however. They are only using the ongoing presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon as an excuse to isolate one of the few countries in the Middle East that dares challenge Washington’s policy prerogatives in the region.

To add to the absurdity of these recent anti-Syrian efforts, one of the star witnesses in the recent House International Relations Committee hearings on the Syrian Accountability Act -- overwhelmingly approved by the committee Oct. 8 -- was former Lebanese leader Michel Aoun. An anti-Syrian Maronite Christian general who headed a military government from 1988 to 1990, Aoun unsuccessfully tried to block the Taif Accords, which brought an end to that country’s bloody 15-year civil war, before being ousted by Syrian-backed forces. What none of the House committee members bothered to acknowledge during the hearings was the fact that Aoun’s chief foreign backer during his time in power was none other than Saddam Hussein.

As with Saddam Hussein’s government, both Democrats and Republicans have chosen to target an autocratic regime that no reasonable person could defend but whose crimes are no worse than those of some of Washington’s staunchest allies.

It is indicative of the bipartisan consensus in Washington for a hegemonic world order that gives the United States the right to punish particular nations for certain standards of behavior while providing military, economic and diplomatic support for allied countries that engage in similar behavior. Even if one sees this as a reasonable goal, however, history has shown that such efforts rarely make the United States more secure and more often end up creating an anti-American backlash.

Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003).

National Catholic Reporter, October 24, 2003

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