Behind the Headlines: by Supporting Terror, Young Assad May Not Know He’s Playing with Fire

It was an awkward situation: Mikhail Wehbe, the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations who currently serves as president of the U.N. Security Council, invited Israeli Ambassador Yehuda Lancry to address the council — and was forced to listen to a sharply worded attack on Syria.

Lancry depicted Syria as one of the main fomenters of violence and instability in the Middle East.

“Syria, whose representative currently occupies the presidency of this council, continues to support and encourage acts of violence against Israeli citizens,” Lancry said.

Wehbe was forced to distribute to council members a letter spelling out Israel’s complaints against his country.

Lancry noted that Islamic Jihad has its headquarters in Damascus, and claimed responsibility for the terror attack on an Israeli bus at the Megiddo Junction on June 5.

Likewise, the Israeli representative noted, the Syrian government helps Hezbollah attack Israel from southern Lebanon.

It was a rare opportunity for Israel to highlight the anomaly of Syria chairing the world’s most prestigious peacekeeping body, while it continues to provide shelter for terrorist organizations in the region.

Contrary to his late father, Hafez Assad, President Bashar Assad has imposed few restraints on his terrorist proteges. So far he has ignored warnings from both Israel and the United States to stop aiding terrorists — though President Bush left Syria off his “Axis of Evil” list after Sept. 11.

The U.S. State Department lists Syria as an active state sponsor of terrorism. Yet some analysts speculate that the United States has been treating Syria with kid gloves in its war on terror because it will need Damascus’ support for any future operation against Iran or Iraq.

According to recent intelligence reports published in Israel, Assad is preparing himself for a possible escalation along the border with Israel, rather than preventing it.

According to those reports, Syria continues to host Palestinian terror organizations, supplies Hezbollah with money and rockets, and is engaged in rebuilding a pipeline to transport Iraqi oil, defying international sanctions.

Some 10 Palestinian militant organizations are headquartered in Damascus, including Islamic Jihad and the military wing of Hamas. The Syrians also permit arms transfers from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

At a recent conference at Rice University’s James Baker Institute for Public Policy, Walid Mu’alem, Syria’s former ambassador to the United States, and the institute’s director, Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel, exchanged views on the situation.

The bottom line of the conference: Syria is not aware of Israel’s determination to react forcefully in case of further escalation along the Lebanese border.

If Hezbollah continues to hoard long-range rockets along the border or renews attacks against Israel, Israel reportedly is determined to hit back hard – - despite its efforts until now not to open another front as it fights Palestinian terrorism.

Israel reportedly will not restrict itself to striking Hezbollah only, but also will aim at Syrian targets.

In contrast to the view widely held at the conference, Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, head of the planning division at Israel Defense Force headquarters, said last week that both Syria and Hezbollah are aware that they will pay a heavy price for escalation, and that they therefore would be careful not to initiate too grave an escalation.

Senior Israeli officers have said recently that Israel was on the verge of attacking Hezbollah and Syria during an escalation several months ago, and refrained from doing so only at the last minute.

Israel is unlikely to take such measures without American support, but such support seems likely due to Syria’s continued refusal to accept American demands to clamp down on terror.

During a recent visit to Damascus by William Burns, assistant U.S. secretary of state for the Near East, Syria refused to assure him that it would take anti- terrorist measures, saying only that it was interested in preserving regional stability.

Two years ago, when the 30-something Bashar Assad took office after the death of his father, the sky seemed to be the limit. Assad, who had studied opthamology in Britain, was described as a reformist, Western-oriented statesman who would change Syria radically.

“None of this has happened,” Eyal Sisser of Tel Aviv University told JTA. “Assad has forgotten about the reforms and about his Western orientation.”

Assad’s behavior is an enigma. He has all the reasons in the world to please the West and improve Syria’s image. Syria is now making special efforts to recruit foreign investment or bring Syrian investment abroad — estimated to be at least $50 billion — back home.

Syria has a special interest in convincing the International Monetary Fund to prepare a positive affidavit on investment in Syria. Yet Syria shows no signs of meeting American demands.

Some Israeli analysts say Assad simply is too green to realize he is playing with fire.

But Sisser believes Assad may have genuinely wanted to introduce changes, but soon found that it was impossible.

According to this reasoning, he may now be “hostage” to the conservative camp in Damascus. That camp comprises old-timers like his vice president, senior army officers, party functionaries, and even younger members of the establishment. Many forces in Syria fear that drastic changes may work against their economic and political interests.

That also could explain why Assad does not heed American warnings and continues to encourage the terrorist organizations.

“He does not want an all-out confrontation with Israel, but a controlled escalation may help push aside criticism for having failed to carry out the reforms,” Sisser said.

Maj. Gen. Shlomo Yanai, who was involved in past negotiations with Syria, agrees that the Syrians have proven to be difficult negotiations partners.

However, in an interview with the Ma’ariv newspaper last week, he said Israel should not lose hope.

“Eventually, Assad may say that” not making concessions “was an obsession of his father, and that it is now time for a new generation, the generation of openness and the Internet, to take a step backwards. From my experience, nothing is certain.”

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