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Bombing of Syria Raises Risk of Regional Conflict

From the radio newsmagazine
Between The Lines
Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Oct. 20, 2003

Israel's Bombing of Syria Increases Fear of Regional Conflict

Interview with Robert Blecher, assistant professor of history, conducted by Scott Harris

Listen in RealAudio:

Not since the 1973 Middle East War have Israelis and Syrians attacked each other's territory. That 30-year cease-fire ended on Oct. 5, when Israel launched a pre-dawn bombing raid against what they described as a terrorist training camp just 15 miles northwest of the Syrian capitol Damascus. The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the attack was launched in retaliation for a Palestinian suicide bombing the day before in Haifa, which killed 20 people.

The Syrians stated that the camp which was bombed had long ago been abandoned, and denied the accusation from Washington and Israel that their government harbored members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad who regularly carry out attacks inside Israel. Syria immediately introduced a resolution at the U.N. Security Council condemning the Israeli attack. But the Bush administration, which had withheld public criticism of Israel's air strike, threatened to veto the Syrian resolution.

While Syria's military is widely believed to be unable to stop any future Israeli attack, spokespersons for the government of Bashar al-Assad said their nation will respond with all means possible in case that aggression is repeated. Growing anger in the Arab streets fueled concern around the world that any similar Israeli offensive against its neighbors could trigger a new regional Middle East conflict. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Robert Blecher, assistant professor of history at the University of Richmond, who assesses reaction in the Middle East to Israel's recent bombing raid against Syria.

Robert Blecher: For a long time now, Israel has been trying to distract attention from the occupation of the West Band and Gaza by claiming that Palestinian resistance to the occupation is the result of outside instigation. Yassir Arafat is the clearest example of somebody who has been blamed. The Israeli government has regularly made the claim that all of the Palestinian resistance over the last three years can be attributed to Yassir Arafat's decision to choose a violent path after the failed Camp David negotiations.

At this point, Yassir Arafat as a tool, or as somebody who can be blamed is wearing a little bit thin. Because the Israeli government has been talking about this for a while, the Israeli government has not acted against Yassir Arafat, so it's looking like well, why aren't they doing something if this person is really, really to blame for the deaths of all these Israelis. And so at this point, the Israeli government needs a different outside instigator, as it were, to blame for the resistance and it finds that outside instigator in Syria.

So it has this training camp where the woman who perpetrated the bombing in Haifa last week -- she had never been to Syria, she has never been to that training camp. It's entirely unclear what kind of assistance, the Israeli government or the American government or anybody is thinking that she might have received from this little patch of territory outside of Damascus. But despite the fact that there's no real substantive connection between her and Syria, again this serves as a way to deflect attention from the fact that the Israeli government, led by Ariel Sharon, has no military or political response to Palestinian resistance and is only perpetuating it by the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Between The Lines: How do you respond to the Sharon government's accusation that Syria harbors and assists terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad that regularly carry out suicide bombings in Israel.

Robert Blecher: Well, once again it's a little bit hard to understand exactly what kind of assistance is being provided. The American intelligence sources said the day after the attack that they had absolutely no information. They could not confirm that there was any kind of terrorist training bases in Syria. Certain American officials said that they had certain reports -- presumably these reports came from Israeli intelligence -- that that particular base was being upgraded, meaning that in the past it had been used by the PFLPGC (The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command) but that organization has long been dormant so the territory was just lying kind of empty. Supposedly, according to these U.S. sources, it was being upgraded for some other purpose, but according to the U.S. sources there's no indication that that base is actually being used for anything -- it was just in preparation for something that is extremely unclear.

Are there members of Islamic Jihad and members of Hamas, these militant organizations that are being targeted by the Israeli government and now the U.S. government? Are there members of those organizations in Syria and Lebanon? Yes, there are. Syria does not consider those organizations to be terrorist organizations, it considers those organizations to be resistance organizations. So there are members of those organizations in those countries. Whether or not they are providing any kind of substantive material assistance to the resistance in the West Bank and Gaza strip, I think that needs to be seriously doubted.

Between The Lines: Do you feel that this Israeli action, this bombing on the territory of Syria could lead to a regional war that would go beyond just the long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians since the last Middle East war ?

Robert Blecher: One needs to be careful in predicting major escalations based on single incidences. A lot of people made predictions about what would happen in Iraq during the first Gulf War. People made predictions about what was going to happen in Iraq during the second Gulf War, the most recent Gulf War. People were wrong because they didn't have real substantive information to proceed with. So I don't want to look into my crystal ball and make some kind of fortune-teller prediction about what's going to happen. But I will say the following: First of all Ariel Sharon has demonstrated in the past that he has been willing to enter into major wars with countries on Israel's border for the sake of quelling Palestinian resistance within the occupied territories. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon; Ariel Sharon at the time was the defense minister and in fact as defense minister, he greatly superceded the orders which he had been given. He took the war a lot further in Lebanon, all the way up to Beirut. He went beyond the mandate that had been provided by the Israeli government, at a tremendous loss of life to Lebanese -- and also ultimately to Israeli soldiers who were occupying the south of that country until recently.

So, Ariel Sharon has a history of launching attacks on neighboring countries and if that were to happen with Syria, people would just say, well, this is the same thing again from Ariel Sharon 20 years later, a very consistent past.

Between The Lines: The Sharon government justified its attack on Syrian territory by pointing out the Bush administration's pre-emptive war policy, which says that it's fair game to go after nations that they say harbor terrorists. And of course, the Bush administration wasn't too hard at all on Israel -- many people may have interpreted that in Jerusalem as a green light. What are the risks that the Bush administration is taking by not severely reprimanding Israel in its actions against Syria? Are they opening up the door to renewed regional conflicts, more attacks from Israel on Syria and other nations in the region?

Robert Blecher: I would answer your question yes. In fact, I would add another green light that might have been provided by the U.S. government to Israel to carry out the attack -- the attack (that) came after the Syrian Accountability Act, which has been in play in Congress recently, which would impose new restriction son trade with Syria, that also came back to the fore before the attack. And unlike in previous instances when this bill was debated, the administration said that it would probably not veto the bill this time as previous administrations have said. So that could be interpreted as yet another signal the U.S. government is happy to have Israel go after Syria.

Do I think that the U.S. failure to criticize Israel more severely could give Israel the indication that its actions are acceptable? Yes, absolutely.

Robert Blecher is a regular contributor to Middle East Report. Contact Middle East Report by calling (202) 233-3677 or visit their website at

Related links on our website at for the week ending 10/24/03:

-"Israel/Occupied Territories: Wanton Destruction Constitutes a War Crime"

-"The origin of the Palestine-Israeli conflict"

-"Background to the Israel-Palestine Crisis"

- "Middle East Time Line"

-"Ten Years After Oslo"


Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on over 35 radio stations. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines (, for the week ending Oct. 24, 2003. Between The Lines Q&A is compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.

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