- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

Was Syria behind the attacks in Israel? To most Middle East experts, the answer is not about Syria’s support for jihad against the Jewish state. That is cast in stone. Instead, inquiry is about Damascus’ practical role in the ongoing suicide attacks and related activities by Palestinian radicals at least since the al-Aqsa intifada of September 2000. The answer is yes and it is not a secret.

For years, if not decades, the Syrian Ba’ath Party has adopted an ideological attitude toward the peace process as a whole. Hafez Assad, shrewd and implacable dictator of Syria, has bypassed all opportunities to reach an agreement with the various Israeli governments. Beyond what international law can claim for him — i.e., Syria’s own territorial losses in an offensive war, the late Syrian President Assad blamed the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for the Camp David agreement in 1979. He then killed the May 17 agreement between Lebanon and Israel in 1983. He opposed the Oslo process until he died in 2000. The Assad doctrine survived through his son, Bashar. When the United States and Israel offered the ultimate agreement to the Palestinians, Damascus was the first to reject it and support the al-Aqsa Intifada that followed.

Last but not least, as soon as Mr. Bush and Prime Ministers Sharon and Abbas met in Sharm el-Sheikh with leaders from the Arab world to introduce a “road map for peace,” the Ba’athist government of Syria was the first regime to call for its downing. And, as usual, action would follow. Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and company would launch the “istishadi” operations (suicide) followed by Israeli punishments. So, Syria is strategically committed to a war against any peace with Israel.

Out of Lebanon, with more than 30,000 soldiers and security operatives, all radical Palestinian groups are operational. Under Hezbollah auspices, every single faction within the Palestinian jihadist world has a clone organization training, fund-raising and planning.

In Syria, Hamas, the PIJ and myriad other groups, all listed on the State Department table of terror, had their own headquarters. Despite calls from Secretary Powell to President Bashar Assad to shut them down.

The United States has offered Damascus decades of respite, hoping that the peace process would finally be attractive to the Assad regime. But when Damascus turned its arms to Iraq, by extending its support to Saddam loyalists as of last spring, American tolerance of Syria came to a rapid decline. Washington warned, Mr. Assad heard, but his regime didn’t listen. Syrian officials openly describe the coalition’s role in Iraq as that of an “enemy.” In a sum, the remaining Ba’athist regime in the region has its claws all over the Fertile Crescent. Even if some within the Beltway still believe that the Assad regime can play a role in the area, Damascus is not even giving a chance to its own lobby.

How would Syria respond to the Israeli attack? For those who understand the Ba’athist mind in Damascus, do not expect Syrian “martyrdom” behavior. The Syrian regime may encourage suicide by Palestinians against Israelis, but the regime won’t commit self-immolation against the Israeli military. Syria will not fight face-to-face. It will seize the Security Council, hoping for a U.N. resolution against Israel — logically to be blocked by Washington.

It will go to Cairo for an Arab League decision of solidarity. It would rush to French President Chirac and German Chancellor Schroder, but the European Union has just upgraded Hamas to terrorist status.

Over the decades, the Assad regime mastered the art of maneuvering between the great powers. But after September 11, its space is shrinking. The last Ba’athist regime has over-extended itself in occupying Lebanon and backing terror in Iraq. These tentacles can no longer bring life to the ailing socialist regime. Worse, they may bring about bad news.

Although Mr. Bush spared Damascus from membership in the axis of evil in his State of the Union address last year, Bashar Assad has done everything one can do to obtain that membership ticket. All jihad roads seem to lead to Damascus.

Walid Phares is a professor of Middle East Studies and an MSNBC terrorism analyst.

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