WASHINGTON (Aug. 28)
A well-placed Bush administration official has given credence to reports that Syria has invited Palestinian Liberation Organization commandos to attack Israel from Syrian soil.
The official said, however, that it was “unlikely” that PLO leader Yasir Arafat would accept the offer.
According to a wide-ranging interview published two weeks ago in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Anba, Syria’s defense minister pledged to give Arafat “every help possible” in conducting commando attacks from Syrian bases.
“We have told our brother commandos to come to the Syrian front and coordinate with us,” Gen. Mustafa Tlass said in the interview, which was reported by the State Department’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service.
Tlass, who is also a deputy prime minister, said Syria would have to oversee any raids because it would “provide blood and cover and be the target of Israeli retaliation.”
In addition, Tlass said two- or three-person commando operations would be ineffective, and that Syria would not hijack Israeli planes or lay mines in the Jewish state because those would just be “trivial actions.”
A Syrian-PLO agreement to coordinate attacks against Israel would not only pose a potent new threat to Israel, but represent a dramatic change in the positions and allegiances of the two Arab powers.
Arafat and Syrian President Hafez Assad have been arch-enemies for the last six years. And in recent months, the two have been moving away from supporting international terrorism.
WAR IN ‘THE COMING YEARS’
Arafat officially renounced terrorism last fall, prompting the United States to launch a dialogue with the PLO. But earlier this month, his Al Fatah faction of the PLO called for renewed “armed struggle” against Israel.
Syria is no longer actively promoting terrorist attacks and is “moving in the right direction” in that area, the U.S. official said. He praised Syria for cooperating in the investigation of the bombing last December of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland.
The United States returned its ambassador to Syria in September 1987, after a yearlong hiatus, spurred in part by Syria’s decision that summer to expel the Abu Nidal terrorist group from its soil.
Assad reportedly would like to involve Arafat in more attacks against Israel, in part because that might cause the United States to end its dialogue with the PLO, which the Syrian president opposes.
Tlass’ interview with the Kuwaiti newspaper also provided insight into Syria’s conception of conventional warfare with Israel.
When asked if direct war with Israel would exceed the capabilities of Syria’s army, Tlass would only say, “Expanding the front here with us would mean that (Israel’s) front would be expanded.” He predicted war with Israel not in “the coming days, but the coming years.”
Asked how strong the Syrian army is, he said, “The Syrian army is the strongest Arab army nowadays. The Israelis said this, and not me.”