Arabs' Fear: A New Crisis to Add to a Troubled List


By Neil MacFarquhar

New York Times
October 7, 2003

Behind a seemingly calm facade, with Damascus toothless to respond militarily to the deepest Israeli air raid in Syria in three decades, the Arab world was reeling Monday from the idea that yet a third major conflict could erupt in the Middle East. Already, the region is traumatized by the open wound that Israeli-Palestinian clashes have become and by an American-occupied Iraq teetering on the brink of bedlam. "We have one major crisis with Iraq, we have a major crisis with the peace process, we don't need a third one," said Marwan Muasher, the Jordanian foreign minister, in a telephone interview. "It just throws in another complication, widening the conflict."

On a day when Israel was quietly observing Yom Kippur, senior Arab officials and analysts listed what they saw as three basic reasons behind Israel's decision to strike at what it described as a training center for Islamic Jihad northwest of Damascus, and which Syria said was a long-abandoned camp, hidden in the depth of a dramatic ravine. First, after three years of tit-for-tat attacks, the Arab analysts said the Sharon government was running out of targets within the occupied territories to hit after each new suicide bombing, the latest killing 19 people in addition to the bomber in Haifa on Saturday. Second, the United States declared war on terror, and its invasion of Iraq has abruptly made more feasible the idea of reaching across borders to smite any enemy. Third, with the Palestinians clearly unable to stop the suicide attacks carried out by militant groups like Islamic Jihad and Hamas, bombing Syria was seen by these Arab analysts as an effort to exert pressure on the larger Arab world to play that role.

Ultimately, though, there remains a widespread sense that Israel and, by extension, the United States, through all their antiterrorism slogans and other accusations pointed at various Arab capitals, are ignoring the larger, older issue — ending the 36-plus years of Israeli occupation of Arab lands. "We have to address the core of the problem," said Buthaina Shaaban, a Syrian cabinet minister, speaking by telephone from Damascus. "Rather than making the world busy by talking about Hamas and Islamic Jihad, we have to start talking about the Israeli occupation of Arab territories."

Although the air raid raised tension along the Lebanese-Israeli border on Monday, the emphasis in various Arab capitals, conscious of the military might mustered by Israel and the United States in this region, was on the diplomacy. In Damascus, the deputy foreign minister, Walid al-Moalem, summoned the ambassadors of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to urge their support for a Syrian resolution condemning the attack. A ministry statement said he asked the ambassadors to help "prevent Israel from launching these acts, which constitute a grave escalation in the region that may threaten regional and international peace and security."

Any possible Syrian military reaction was ruled out. In its last major war with Israel, when Ariel Sharon, now the Israeli prime minister, led the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Syria lost some 79 MIG fighters, plus tanks and missile batteries. In the ensuing decades, its main military supplier, the Soviet Union, disintegrated. Analysts believe that if Syria does respond it will be indirectly — the young president, Bashar al-Assad, following the pattern of his late father — either through one of its proxy forces like Hezbollah in Lebanon, or perhaps by making life more difficult for American forces in Iraq.

Syria maintains that it responded earlier this year to American pressure to close what Damascus describes as information offices run by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Still, Israel's supporters in the United States have been trying to push through Congress the Syrian Accountability Act, which would impose further penalties on the country, and an officer at the American military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, stands accused of spying for Syria.

Syrian officials note the many public statements United States officials have made lauding its help in the fight against Al Qaeda and Mrs. Shaaban, the Syrian minister, laughed off the idea that Syria would need to abet Iraqi resistance. "This is amusing that the 22 million Iraqi people are not creating a problem, but a few people that the U.S. says are crossing the border from here are creating the problem," she said. "The Iraqi people are capable of handling their own situation, and I don't think they need anybody from outside to tell them what to do to defend their sovereignty or independence." Syria also tries to deflect American accusations that it is stockpiling chemical weapons by saying that the entire Middle East, namely Israel, should be free of all unconventional weapons.

Many in the Arab world believe that the Israeli attack on Syria was quenching a domestic demand for revenge with a fatter mark because years of bombing Palestinian targets within the occupied territories have failed to halt suicide attacks. "It is clear the camp has been deserted," Mr. Muasher said of the bombed camp, Ain Saheb. "I think they are running out of targets."

The Jordanian minister said using suicide bombings as a reason to heighten the conflict would only help foster greater extremism in the region. But, he added, "That does not give Israel the right to attack another sovereign state; this is a clear violation of international law." He noted, "We in Jordan have taken a very public stand against suicide bombings, we are against them on moral and political grounds."

The problem, many Arab officials and analysts believe, is that Israel wraps its attacks in the colors of the campaign against terrorism. "Since Sept. 11, the Israelis have been able to introduce all this as part of the antiterror campaign and it's not," said Mustapha Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. "They are two separate things. Al Qaeda is one thing, and the West Bank and Gaza are something else."

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