- The Washington Times - Monday, October 6, 2003

Israel’s attack on Syria will likely have little impact on long-term U.S. interests in the region, including the reconstruction of Iraq, provided the strike does not spark a larger Arab-Israeli confrontation.

After taking Syria sharply to task over the weekend for its failure to curb terrorist groups within its borders, the Bush administration tried to take a balanced view yesterday.

President Bush and senior administration officials repeatedly refused to condemn the Israeli strike, but warned both sides yesterday against any follow-up that could increase tension in the region.

“We have said that Israel has the right to defend itself and we see this action in that way,” said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

“But we’ve also said that they need to consider the consequences of their actions and avoid any actions that will escalate tensions.”

The strike, the first by Israel inside Syrian territory since the 1973 war, comes at a time when the Bush administration has an extraordinary number of irons in the fire in the Middle East, from the diplomacy over postwar Iraq and the faltering U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace “road map” to Iran’s nuclear programs and the forging of new relationships with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states.

But with the leading Arab powers unable to challenge Israel militarily and the Palestinians engaged in internal bickering, a limited strike against Syria is unlikely to rewrite the regional political map, said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Israel’s attack “doesn’t have to be a huge thing and it doesn’t really go against the grain of the Bush administration’s policy,” said Mr. Clawson.

“We’ve been telling Syria for quite some time that it was time to shut down the terrorist offices, so at some level, we can say now, ‘What did you expect?’”

Many in the region say the failure of the United States to press the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the peace process hurts Washington’s role as an honest broker, but Mr. Clawson said he found little of that sentiment during a recent extended trip through Iraq.

“The Iraqis have a lot more things on their mind right now than worrying about solidarity with their fellow Arabs on the Palestinian issue,” he said.

The Israeli attack, while stunning, appeared calibrated not to inflame the situation. The targeted camp, which Israelis insist was used to train terrorists striking at Israel, was in a relatively remote location where the possibility of major casualties was light.

Richard W. Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to both Syria and Saudi Arabia and now a senior fellow in Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Syria and other Arab states had few tools beyond rhetorical protests and U.N. diplomacy to counter the Israeli attack.

“The options on the Arab side are really not extensive,” he said. “They know they don’t have the military capability to take on Israel, and there can’t be an oil embargo the way there was in 1973.”

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