The precarious triangle

An Israeli air strike on an alleged Islamic Jihad site near Damascus was launched on October 5, 2003 in retaliation for the devastating suicide bombing in Haifa by a female member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This airstrike, the first inside Syria since the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, apart from aiming at satisfying the desire for revenge among Israelis, also carried a stern threat to Bashar of Damascus: stop hosting these militant Palestinian groups–or you will be held responsible and pay a high price!

If this is indeed Israel’s new strategy, it may prove to be futile and will possibly backfire if Hizballah or even Syria itself launches missiles into Israel. But even if Damascus shuts down the bases of these militant organizations–Hamas and Islamic Jihad–their violent anti-Israel activities in the occupied territories and in Israel would hardly be reduced; nor would the Israeli-Palestinian impasse be resolved. Indeed, Damascus is likely to continue to do its utmost to enhance this conflict as long as it serves its strategic interests.

Syria has a long record of using various Palestinian organizations in the conflict with Israel, while also endeavoring to block or undermine Palestinian attempts at rapprochement with Israel. Thus, before 1967, the Ba’th regime in Damascus backed the Fatah organization and permitted, even encouraged it to carry out subversive activities inside Israel, including an attempt to sabotage the Jordan-Negev water project. And after 1967, Syria periodically employed various Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) groups–partly from within its own borders, and mostly via Lebanon–to attack civilian and military targets in Israel and the occupied territories.

Ba’thist Syria and the PLO held similar ideological and strategic concepts regarding the struggle against Israel, and for years Damascus rendered military, logistic, and diplomatic support to the PLO. All this–provided the PLO followed or adjusted to Syrian dictates. But whenever the PLO’s decisions and actions clashed with Syrian interests or priorities, Damascus would take strong measures, including military actions against the PLO. This was particularly the case in 1976 during the Lebanese Civil War, when Syrian troops fought against disobedient Palestinian fighters and subsequently did not prevent the Tal Za’atar massacre of Palestinians by Maronites. And during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon the Syrian army refrained from defending the Palestinian infrastructure in southern Lebanon against the Israeli assault.

Significantly, following the Palestinian National Council recognition in 1988 of United Nations Resolutions 242 and 181 (the partition resolution of 1947), and in view of the PLO inclination to negotiate with Israel for the first time, President Hafez al Asad vehemently attacked Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. Asad told Arafat that Palestinian independent decision-making should terminate whenever it was incompatible with Syrian national interests. Asad continued to harshly criticize Arafat for not coordinating his moves with Damascus during the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991 and particularly before signing the Oslo peace accords in 1993 with Israel. Hinting that Arafat may pay with his own life for his misbehavior, Asad continued to oppose the Oslo peace process while hosting the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist organizations, even during the Syrian-Israeli Madrid peace process.

Following the collapse of that process in March 2000 and Asad’s death three months later in June, President Bashar al Asad has continued to back the militant Palestinian organizations and has also supported the al-Aqsa intifada that began in September of that same year. He alleged that the solution of the Palestinian problem is more important than settling the issue of the Golan Heights, and insisted that the Palestinian "right-of-return" must be implemented, namely the return of Palestinian refugees into Israel proper. On several occasions, including a meeting with the Pope in Syria in May 2001, Bashar fiercely attacked Israel and equated it to Nazi Germany.

To be sure, with such anti-Israel rhetoric and extreme positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bashar has contributed to inflaming this as well as Syria’s own conflict with Israel. Even though Bashar has repeatedly said that peace with Israel continues to be Syria’s “strategic choice,” his actual positions have alienated more and more Israelis, as well as many Americans. Thus, not only are most Israelis opposed to returning the Golan Heights to Syria, even for a peace agreement, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government may interpret the Syria Accountability Act (SAA), approved by the US Congress on October 15, 2003, as a yellow if not a green light to continue attacking Palestinian terrorist sites inside Syria (the SAA threatens to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions against Syria if Damascus continues to harbor terrorist organizations, to develop weapons of mass destruction, and to occupy Lebanon). Such attacks are likely to further imperil relations between Israel and Syria and between Israel and the Palestinians.