- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

Last Saturday, Secretary of State Colin Powell held talks in Damascus with President Bashar Assad in an effort to press the Syrian strongman to shut down the operations of Palestinian terrorist groups, among them Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) — organizations which have played leading roles in carrying out suicide bombings and other attacks against Israel during the past two-and-a-half years of war.

Right now, the jury is out as to whether Mr. Powell’s visit will produce substantive improvement in Syrian behavior. The Syrians claim to have taken steps to shut down a few terrorist offices. But some of the groups in question, among them the PIJ, say they’re not budging. And other analysts, among them Clinton administration senior diplomat Martin Indyk, say the Syrians may simply allow the terrorists to move their operations to neighboring Lebanon.

Were Damascus to end its participation in anti-Israel violence and rejectionism, it would be a truly revolutionary development. Ever since Syria joined four other Arab countries in attacking Israel on the day it became independent in 1948, it has been Israel’s most consistently hostile neighbor. From 1949-67, Syrian soldiers based on the Golan Heights routinely shot at Israeli farmers in the Galilee below, and Palestinian terrorists periodically crossed the border to attack Israeli villages. During the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel captured the strategic plateau from Syria.

Hafez Assad, Syria’s defense minister at the time, seized power in a 1970 coup. He would serve as absolute ruler of the country until his death in June 2000, when he was succeeded as president by his son Bashar. Since the Assad family took over Syria in 1970, the country has participated in two shooting wars against Israel: the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1982 war in Lebanon (a country Syria has dominated since the mid-1970s.) Each time, Israel prevailed decisively on the battlefield.

For the past 20 years, Syria has done most of its fighting against Israel through terrorist proxies. After Iran, Syria is the largest state sponsor of terrorism, a congressionally appointed commission headed by former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore reported recently. It is one of just six governments now listed as state sponsors of terrorism by the State Department. In addition to Hamas and the PIJ, Syria also provides political and material support — weapons flown from Iran to Damascus Airport — to the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which uses them to stage attacks to liberate Lebanon from “Israeli occupation” — even though Israel unilaterally withdrew its all its forces from there three years ago.

Regarding Israel, Syria’s chief grievance is Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights in a defensive war. But, since the start of the Oslo process in 1993, several Israeli Prime Ministers — in particular, Labor Party doves such as Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin — have sought to engage Damascus in serious negotiations in which Israel would relinquish all or most of the Golan as part of a peace settlement. All of these Israeli offers were summarily rejected by Damascus, which demanded that Israel agree in advance to an unconditional withdrawal — from all of it.

If there’s a silver lining in all of this, it’s that, for all its bluster, Syria is clearly susceptible to military and diplomatic pressure to change its ways. In 1998, for example, Turkey demanded that Assad the elder expel Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, (a group responsible for a civil war which claimed upwards of 30,000 lives in Turkey since the 1980s) from Syria. The aging dictator complied, and the PKK was defeated on the battlefield. More recently, in the wake of U.S. military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, Assad the younger has coughed up intelligence information on al Qaeda operatives and even floated the possibility of resuming negotiations with Israel.

The Syrian ruler is likely to face even more pressure from Washington in the coming months to change his behavior.

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