The Israeli attack on an alleged terrorist camp inside Syria yesterday helped punctuate a message the Bush administration has been sending to Syria for months — stop supporting terrorist organizations. But analysts said it could also lead to a widening of the Arab-Israeli conflict, thus threatening the administration's efforts to stabilize Iraq and foster peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Administration officials have openly criticized Syrian actions during and after the war with Iraq, with some officials suggesting Syria would soon qualify for the spot vacated by Iraq in the administration's "axis of evil" that also included Iran and North Korea. Administration officials have fumed that Syria lets foreign fighters slip across the border with Iraq to torment U.S. troops, while doing little to rein in anti-Israeli militant groups operating within its borders. Syria denies the charges.
The frustration with Syria led the administration to offer a muted response to Israel's attack, even though it was deep inside Syria and was instantly condemned by the Arab world.
"We have repeatedly told the government of Syria that it is on the wrong side in the war on terror and that it must stop harboring terrorists," a senior administration official said. "That is still our view."
The official added, "We urge both Israel and Syria to avoid actions that could heighten tensions or could lead to hostilities." Israel launched the attack on the alleged Islamic Jihad training camp in response to a suicide bombing Saturday in Haifa that killed 19 Israelis. Islamic Jihad had claimed responsibility for the attack.
U.S. and Israeli officials said Israel did not warn the Bush administration it was planning the attack. "You don't ask for a green light and you don't get a green light," an Israeli official said.
President Bush called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday after the attack on Syria, mainly to express his condolences for the Haifa attack.
"They agreed on the need to continue fighting terrorism," the administration official said. "They did discuss the attack on the terrorist camp in Syria and agreed on the need to avoid heightening tensions in the region at this time."
Sources said Bush did not tell Sharon the attack was a mistake, and publicly the administration offered no criticism of the attack.
Murhaf Jouejati, a native Syrian and a scholar at the Middle East Institute, said: "It does not sound like the administration is terribly displeased. The perception in Israel is that Israel has a green light from the administration, even if it is unwritten or unspoken, to employ violence against Syria."
He said that with the U.S.-backed peace plan, or road map, "in a coma," the attack could easily widen conflict through the region.
"This is an escalation on Israel's part, and it is a function of the statements the administration is putting out," he said. "If Israel is going to bomb inside Syria and there are no consequences from the administration, Lebanon could be vulnerable to Israeli attack."
Edward P. Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who has led back-channel talks with the Syrians on behalf of the U.S. government, agreed. "This raises the disturbing possibility of enlargement of the conflict," he said.
He said that militants in Hezbollah, or the Party of God, could respond by launching attacks into northern Israel; Hezbollah is based largely in Lebanon but is backed by Syria and Iran. Conflict on Israel's northern border has been minimal in recent months.
Djerejian, director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, said the administration faces "a challenge not to let the situation escalate further."
Richard Perle, a member of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory committee, who is close to leading conservatives in the administration, applauded Israel's attack.
"It will help the peace process," he said, because terrorism has been hindering peace efforts and Syria is a leading sponsor of terrorism. He said he hadn't understood why the Israelis were reluctant to attack the Syrian camps, because "to go after terrorists and not after their bases makes no sense."
The State Department has listed Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism since the list's inception three decades ago.
State Department officials, in particular Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, have repeatedly pressed the Syrians to rein in the militant groups. Powell, when he visited Damascus in May, appeared to have won a commitment from Syrian President Bashar Assad to close Damascus-based offices of several militant groups. But Syria backtracked, leading Powell to declare in June that the Syrians "took some limited steps, [but] those limited steps are totally inadequate."
Last month, Powell reiterated the administration's demands on the Syrians: ending support of terrorist activities, ejecting from Damascus people connected to terrorist organizations, halting the use of Syrian land and airspace to transfer weapons to Hezbollah, access to Iraqi bank records in Syria and sealing off the border with Iraq. "The Syrian leadership has not responded as forcefully, as thoroughly, as I would've liked," Powell said.
Perle said this is the wrong approach. "The Syrians do not respond to jawboning," he said. "They have been wildly irresponsible, encouraging troublemaking in the region."
Djerejian said that in the last month Syria has taken steps in response to the pressure, such as relocating the militant group offices out of Damascus. He said the Syrians have asserted that these offices represent the interests of the 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria and are not operational centers for terrorism.
Daniel Benjamin, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called the attack "a pretty shrewd move from the Israeli perspective, vis-à-vis the United States." The Bush administration has criticized the building of the fence separating Israelis and Palestinians because the planned route cuts deep into Palestinian territory.
"They're reminding everyone that they are victims of international terrorism. It's not just about the fence," he said.
He added that the attack "could redound to the administration's benefit because the Syrians will know that the only one who can restrain the Israelis at all is the Americans, and therefore the Syrians may actually do something to restrain Palestinians. But even that is being very hopeful."www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A48447-2003Oct5.htmlE-mail this article