It’s not every decade that Syrian territory is attacked, and the fact that it happened early Sunday morning (coincidentally on the 30th anniversary of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War), when Israel bombed alleged Islamic Jihad and Hamas bases northwest of Damascus, made it an obvious headline in all the leading Middle East newspapers.
The Israeli air raid targeted positions in Ain el-Saheb near the Lebanese-Syrian border. Beirut’s Daily Star quoted an Israeli spokesman, saying, “We did not attack Syrian targets, but very specific camps used to train terrorists.” The Israelis claimed they were retaliating for a suicide bombing in a Haifa cafe Saturday in which 19 people were killed. The Jerusalem Post said the attack “was approved by the highest levels following consultations through the night by the defense establishment.” Whether the Syrian bases were indeed used for training Islamists is unclear. A spokesman for the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a secular group, was quoted in the Daily Star remarking, “The Israeli Air Force hit one of our former training camps which was evacuated more than a year ago and where we had since housed families of Palestinian refugees living in Syria.”
What was taking place at the bases was, in fact, irrelevant, since the message Israel sent Syria was largely political. The Israelis effectively warned the Syrians against continuing to support militant Palestinian groups and informed them that the “rules of the game” governing relations between the two countries had changed. These had more or less held that Syria and Israel could carry on their conflict by proxy, usually through Lebanon, but would desist from attacking each other directly. The change in the Israeli attitude had many newspapers wondering what role the United States had played in the attack. The London-based Al-Sharq al-Awsat, citing an unidentified U.S. official, headlined a story, “Washington Knew About the Israeli Raid Against Syria Before It Occurred.” Apparently, the Americans were tipped off hours before the attack, and the official (who, from other sources, appeared to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte) reminded Syria that it had been repeatedly warned against backing terrorist groups. The Beirut daily Al-Nahar neatly described the Bush administration’s position in a headline of its own: “The American Position—Between Calming the Situation and Holding Damascus Responsible.”
With Syria thus humiliated, it was unclear how it would retaliate. Observers in Beirut were worried Lebanon would again be used as an Israeli-Syrian playing field, but they also noted that if Damascus didn’t respond, Syrian President Bashar Assad might pay a domestic political price. Publicly, at least, Damascus sounded reasonable and took the matter to the U.N. Security Council. Syria’s daily Teshreen covered the attack in the underplayed, wooden fashion of an official newspaper, focusing on the Syrian response at the United Nations and publishing statements of Arab and other officials who condemned the attack. As the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported, however, the security council agreed to delay until Monday afternoon at the earliest a vote on a Syrian draft resolution of condemnation. The paper noted: “U.S. diplomats said the resolution text, which made no reference to [suicide] attacks on Israel, would not be adopted in its current form.” That clearly implied Washington would veto the Syrian text. Both France and Great Britain took a much stronger line against the attack, with British Ambassador to the United Nations Emyr Jones Parry saying, “Israel’s action today is unacceptable and represents an escalation. … Israel should not allow its justified anger at continuing terrorism to lead to actions that undermine both the peace process and … Israel’s own interests.”
The Israeli attack served one purpose, intentional or not: It deflected attention away from Israeli threats after the Haifa attack to expel Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from the Occupied Territories. Not taking any chances, Arafat formed an eight-minister emergency government on Sunday headed by his prime minister designate, Ahmed Qurei. France’s Le Monde noted that because of its emergency status, the Cabinet would not require parliamentary approval. A Palestinian official told the paper, “The declaration of an emergency is designed to reaffirm the principle of a single Palestinian Authority and respect for the law, as our situation is very critical.” Decoded, that seemed to mean two things: Arafat is bracing for a possible Israeli expulsion order and wants to ensure he tightly controls the Palestinian government and security services if that occurs, and he is giving himself a potential means to act against Islamist militants if their actions give Israel a pretext to banish him.