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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Why Syria is Becoming the Coalition’s Spoiler

Filed under: Hizbullah, Israel, Israeli Security, Palestinians, Peace Process, Syria, Terrorism, The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 1, No. 9    November 8, 2001

Ironically, the post-September 11 international environment has not reduced Syria’s traditional support of international terrorism, but rather led Damascus to follow a dangerously escalatory policy.

Expectations of New Syrian Behavior

Two major developments in recent months were expected to fundamentally alter Syria’s traditional support for international terrorism. First, it was hoped in Western diplomatic circles that Syria’s candidacy for a two-year term as one of ten rotating non-permanent members of the UN Security Council (there are five permanent members for a total of fifteen) would have a moderating effect on Syrian behavior in Lebanon. After all, non-permanent Security Council members require a two-thirds majority of the UN General Assembly in order to be elected.

Also, the UN Charter specifically stipulates that in that election, “due regard” be given “in the first instance to the contribution of Members of the United Nations to the maintenance of international peace and security.” How could Syria continue to shelter at least seven international terrorist organizations if it wanted to be perceived as a state that contributed to “the maintenance of international peace and security”?

Indeed, by actively supporting Hizbullah’s drive to push Israel out of the Shebaa Farms south of the UN-recognized Israeli-Lebanon border, to which former Prime Minister Ehud Barak had withdrawn in May 2000, Syria was defying UN Security Council Resolutions 1310 and 1337 that accepted Israel’s withdrawal line as the fulfillment of UN resolutions and called on all parties to respect it. Could Syria sit on the UN Security Council and still continue to systematically violate its resolutions?

Nevertheless, on October 8, 2001, Syria was elected to the UN Security Council by a huge majority of 160 votes, when it really needed the support of only 118 states. The U.S. and its European allies did not contest the election, presumably hoping that Syrian behavior would eventually change.

The second major development that Western diplomatic circles hoped would modify Syrian behavior was the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In its wake, President Bush had put a blunt choice before every state, like Syria, that had given sanctuary to terrorism in the past, in his address before a joint session of the U.S. Congress on September 20:

“Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded as a hostile regime.”

Putting teeth into this declaration, the U.S. pushed through a new UN Security Council resolution on September 28, Resolution 1373, establishing that all states “refrain from providing any form of support, active or passive, to entities or persons involved in terrorist acts…(and) deny (them) safe haven.”

The new resolution invoked Chapter VII of the UN Charter which provided the legal basis of all past UN Security Council resolutions authorizing the use of force against Iraq in 1990-91. U.S. Ambassador to the UN John D. Negroponte wrote a letter to the UN Security Council on October 8, after the beginning of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, warning: “We may find that our self-defense requires further actions with respect to other organizations and other states” (emphasis added). Syria, which was not specifically singled out, nonetheless should have gotten the hint.


Syrian-Backed Terrorism Escalates

For decades, Syria has hosted international terrorist organizations on its territory and, since its 1975 occupation of Lebanon, within areas under its military control in that country as well. Syria has appeared on the State Department’s “terrorism list” since it was first prepared in 1979. Syrian-backed international terrorism has served Syria’s regional interest to be the dominant power in the Levant — what Syrians refer to as Bilad ash-Sham — an area covering the zone of Syrian territorial aspirations stretching from southern Turkey through Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. Moreover, terrorism was used as leverage in Syria’s past water disputes with Turkey and Jordan.

Thus, Syrian-backed organizations have, in the past, conducted operations in the Hatay district of Turkey to which Syria has territorial claims, in Jordan, and against northern Israel, through Lebanon. Similarly, Syrian-backed organizations like Hizbullah, the pro-Iranian Shi’ite “Party of God,” have sought to assault any significant Western presence in Lebanon. They were responsible for the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine headquarters in Beirut that led to the deaths of 241 servicemen, as well as attacks against the U.S. and French Embassies. Hizbullah offshoots have operated against U.S. interests in the Arabian Peninsula as recently as 1996.

Israel’s May 2000 full withdrawal from Lebanon should have removed the primary grievance of Hizbullah against the State of Israel. But Hizbullah then articulated new claims to the Shebaa Farms, an area of Lebanon that was transferred by Beirut to Syria in the 1950s and taken by Israel in 1967, as part of its entry into the Golan Heights. The UN defines the Shebaa Farms as part of the Golan area and hence an issue for future Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Nevertheless, since Israel’s Lebanon pullout, Hizbullah has conducted ten separate attacks against Israeli forces in the Shebaa Farms area. Israel responded to the June 29, 2001, attack on July 1 by destroying a Syrian radar station in eastern Lebanon. For three months afterward the Shebaa Farms area remained quiet; Syria’s control over Hizbullah was patently demonstrated.

Surprisingly, just five days before its election to the UN Security Council in New York, on October 3, 2001, Hizbullah opened up the Shebaa Farms front again with mortar and anti-tank missile attacks against Israel. Days earlier, Damascus hosted a high-profile conference of leaders of Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP, and others (MEMRI). Within a week, a second Hizbullah attack followed. Clearly, Syria does not feel that Hizbullah military activity against Israel defines the Syrian regime, in Western eyes, as a state providing shelter to international terrorism. Moreover, the effects of Israeli deterrence have apparently eroded in the new international constellation that has emerged. If Syria senses that it has a free hand for backing Hizbullah operations against Israel, while Israel’s hands are tied, the resulting escalatory potential in the new post-September 11 situation becomes considerable.


What Went Wrong? Why Did Syria Not Feel Constrained?

Obviously, Syria did not get President Bush’s message and halt its support for international terrorism. Several factors are likely to have affected Syria’s calculus:

  • Mixed Messages from Washington: President Bush has remained absolutely consistent in his unqualified criticism of any state that harbors or supports terrorism. However, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher on September 27 began drawing distinctions between bin Laden-type terrorism that seeks “to destroy societies” and other Middle Eastern violence surrounding essentially “political issues that need to be resolved.” He characterized these forms of violence “as two different things.” Moreover, the U.S. then issued different lists of terrorist organizations whose assets were to be frozen: Hamas and Hizbullah were initially not mentioned. Bashar Assad was encouraged by this confusion: “The U.S. has not demanded anything [regarding Hizbullah]; on the contrary, the lists of organizations designated as ‘terrorists’ was changed — the forces resisting Israeli occupation were omitted” (MEMRI).

  • Anglo-American Differences: The very day that Ambassador Negroponte notified the UN Security Council that “other states” might come under U.S. attack, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw suggested that the U.S. and Great Britain had agreed that military operations would be confined to Afghanistan alone. President Bush had stated on September 20: “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there.” Yet the British message was different. During the visit of Prime Minister Tony Blair to Damascus, Assad felt that he could unabashedly argue that Hizbullah’s struggle (presumably for the Shebaa Farms) was similar to the French resistance against the Nazis in World War II.

  • Syria’s Interest to be a Spoiler: Syria is one of the few countries that has opposed the American right to respond to the September terrorist attacks (MEMRI, October 7, 2001). Moreover, President Assad has expressed his understanding that after the first phase of the present war, a second phase could be initiated that might be mostly economic and directed against Syria itself (MEMRI). Syria’s interests would be served if the U.S. war on terrorism did not go forward. Syrian efforts to escalate the conflict against Israel, after months of relative quiet, must be understood in the context of its hope that renewed conflict in Lebanon will disrupt U.S. coalition efforts, making it difficult for the U.S. war on terrorism to advance beyond the present Afghan phase.

Syria’s sense that it somehow benefits from immunity in President Bush’s war on terrorism could be highly destabilizing and, if not reversed, threatens to disrupt America’s present military efforts. A strong, unified, Western diplomatic message needs to be communicated to Damascus, so that there be no misunderstanding about the unacceptability of present Syrian behavior in harboring major terrorist groups.