WASHINGTON (Oct. 7)
If Israel’s air raid on a terrorist camp in Syria came as a shock to Damascus, the awe followed closely when President Bush said, “We would be doing the same thing.”
Bush’s sympathy Tuesday with an Israeli strike on terrorists outside its borders was unprecedented, analysts said. But, they added, Syria should have anticipated it, given the United States’ own post-Sept. 11 operations to combat terrorism.
“Syria had some opportunities to get on the right side of the United States after Sept. 11,” said David Mack, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. “Instead, they’ve shown poor statesmanship.”
Israel’s awareness of U.S. anger toward Syria was a factor in the decision to bomb the terrorist training camp some 10 miles from Damascus, Israeli officials said.
“As much as Israel has had problems with Syria, the Americans have had problems,” an Israeli official said. “And when our intelligence agencies say these people are using these camps to train, Americans through their own resources know it’s 100 percent true.”
The attack Sunday on what Israel said was an Islamic Jihad training camp came a day after the terrorist group, which is headquartered in Syria, claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Haifa that killed 19 people.
Bush, who has made state sponsorship of terrorism a red line since the Sept. 11 attacks, considered the camp a legitimate target, analysts said.
“Given the similarity of what Israel did to the Bush doctrine of hitting state sponsors of terrorism, he would be hard pressed not to endorse it,” said David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East policy.
Bush more than endorsed it.
“The prime minister must defend his country,” he said Tuesday, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “It’s essential.”
Shortly after Sept. 11, Syria scored points with the United States by sharing intelligence that helped thwart an attack on Americans in Bahrain, Mack said.
But the goodwill dissipated during this year’s Iraq war, when Syria allegedly gave refuge to senior officials of Saddam Hussein’s regime. A low point was a firefight between U.S. troops and Syrian border guards, apparently triggered by the Americans’ hot pursuit of Iraqis fleeing into Syria.
It didn’t help when Syria humiliated U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on a visit in May by breaking promises to close the offices of anti-Israel terrorist groups.
The Syrians could not have missed the administration’s recent signals. Most significantly, the administration last month dropped its efforts to block the Syria Accountability Act, which would ban military and dual-use exports to Syria and financial assistance to U.S. businesses that invest in Syria.
The bill is likely to be approved this week by the House of Representatives’ International Affairs Committee, and it could come to a full House vote by next week. It has assured majority support in the House.
Still, Bush’s endorsement of the Israeli attack marks a change. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan suggested that the United States accepted without question Israel’s claim that the camp was a terrorist training center, and not a civilian site, as the Syrians said.
John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, hardly mentioned the Israeli retaliation when he suggested that he would veto a Syrian-sponsored resolution condemning the air raid. Instead, he emphasized the Haifa suicide bombing.
“Any resolution on the Middle East, to enjoy our support, is going to have to include a condemnation — a robust condemnation — of terrorism,” Negroponte said. “And I think, in this particular case, the situation is particularly poignant, because on Saturday night a suicide-bombing incident in Haifa killed 19 people and wounded 50 persons.”
The lack of equivocation had bipartisan support. Howard Dean and Joseph Lieberman, both running for the Democratic nomination for president, said they would have reacted as Bush did.
One factor in U.S. support for Israel might be a reluctance to appear weak, said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland. By condoning Israel’s actions, the Bush administration allows itself to appear in control, when in reality it is overwhelmed by other diversions, including Iraq, the economy and next year’s elections, he said.
“Once you reach the conclusion that you can’t make Arab-Israeli peace a top priority, you can’t criticize Ariel Sharon because it would make you look ineffective,” Telhami said. “So you rationalize his view as consistent with your own worldview.”
That presents dangers, Telhami said.
“Syria won’t look for a fight because they are weaker, but they’re under political pressure to show they’re not weak and vulnerable,” he said. “So they walk a fine line, and sometimes you can miscalculate.”
Syria already appeared to be walking that line.
Ammar Alarsan, press secretary at the Syrian Embassy in Washington, told The Associated Press that Syria’s decision to go to the U.N. Security Council was not a sign of weakness.
Syria “is not incapable of creating the kind of balance that would deter Israel, and not the kind that would lead the region to war,” he said.
Another concern is that Israel might have bombed itself into a corner.
“What happens if you have another tragic attack tomorrow, also claimed by Islamic Jihad, and you’ve already pointed the finger at Syria, how do you raise the bar?” Telhami said.
Another analyst, Gal Luft, was more sanguine, saying that Israel’s image of unpredictability was in fact carefully calculated.
“Israel has demonstrated that it is a mad dog,” said Luft, a colonel in the Israeli reserves, and “that its response varies — it can use either military or diplomatic tools, without inherent logic. That makes the Syrians wary: They will never be able to predict the response.”