Syria Gets Little Sympathy From US After Israeli Air Strike

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

( - Syria is pressing for a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel for its weekend air strike against a Syrian target the Israeli military identified as a Palestinian terrorist base, but it looks unlikely to get much sympathy from the U.S.

While cautioning Israel to avoid escalating tensions, President Bush pointedly declined to criticize the strike, saying he told Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a phone call that "Israel must not feel constrained in terms of defending the homeland."

Israeli military sources said the Ayn Tzahab base, about a dozen miles northeast of Damascus, was a training camp for Islamic Jihad, the group that claimed responsibility for yet another deadly suicide bombing, this time in a Haifa restaurant on Saturday.

Islamic Jihad and Syria both disputed the charge.

It was the first Israeli military strike against a target on Syrian soil in decades and came on the eve of the 30th anniversary of a surprise Syrian and Egyptian attack on Israel, in what became known as the Yom Kippur or October war.

The Bush administration has since mid-2002 been upping the pressure on Damascus to stop supporting terrorist groups and to expel their leaders.

Islamic Jihad has long been in Washington's sights, along with others sheltered by Syria, including Hamas and Hizballah.

Last February, Attorney-General John Ashcroft described Islamic Jihad as "one of the most violent terrorist organizations in the world."

Among its many crimes was the killing of more than 100 Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks since the Oslo Accords were signed 10 years ago.

Its victims include at least two Americans: New Jersey college student Alisa Flatow, 20, killed in a 1995 Islamic Jihad suicide bombing in the Gaza Strip, and 16-year-old Shoshana Ben-Ishai, shot dead in a bus in Jerusalem in 2001.

Shortly after the war on Iraq began and with U.S. warnings becoming sterner, Syria said it had shut down the Islamic Jihad and Hamas offices, although the group's leader, Ramadan Shallah, remains in Damascus.

Secretary of State Colin Powell dismissed that step as "minor," saying the U.S. wanted Syria to expel members of the two groups.

As recently as two weeks ago, however, a senior administration official confirmed that the collaboration was continuing.

Undersecretary of State John Bolton told a Congress committee on Sept. 16 that Syria "offers physical sanctuary and political protection to groups such as Hizballah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, whose terrorist operations have killed hundreds of innocent people, including Americans."

If anything, Bolton's testimony suggested that Syria's role had become more problematic rather than less so.

"Syria permitted volunteers to pass into Iraq to attack and kill our service members during the war, and is still doing so," Bolton said, also raising concerns about Syria's non-conventional weapons ambitions.

'Stop harboring terrorists'

Against that background, and with considerable support in Congress for legislation that seeks to impose sanctions on Syria - for its alleged support for terrorism and its continued military domination of Lebanon - the U.S. response to the Israeli air strike was muted.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Negroponte urged both sides not to heighten regional tensions, but he also called on Syria "to stop harboring and supporting" terrorist groups.

By contrast, criticism for Israel's action has come from other Security Council members, including Britain, France, China, Russia, Pakistan and Germany.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the European Union and Arab leaders also condemned the air strike.

Syria itself is proposing a draft resolution that condemns "military aggression carried [out] by Israel against the sovereignty and territory" of Syria.

Negroponte has criticized the draft for failing to refer to Saturday's attack in Haifa, in which 19 people - including four children - were killed when a terrorist blew herself up in a popular restaurant.

"It's just incredible to me that in the wake of an event like that, a draft resolution coming from a delegation of the council would have no reference whatsoever to this dastardly act," Negroponte told reporters.

Iran also warned

Sunday evening's deliberations in New York continued beyond the start of Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day.

Before the Israeli delegation left to observe the Day of Atonement, Israel's ambassador to the U.N., Dan Gillerman, said it was ironic that a country accused of harboring terrorists was the one calling for a meeting to condemn the air strike.

It was "as if [Osama] bin laden would have asked for a Security Council meeting after 9/11," Gillerman said.

Gillerman also noted that no meeting was called to condemn Saturday's suicide bombing.

In the aftermath of the attack, Israel is sending warning messages both to Syria and Iran - the other country long accused by Israel and the U.S. of sponsoring anti-Israeli terrorists.

In a statement Sunday confirming the air attack on Syrian soil, the Israeli Defense Forces said that both Syria and Iran sponsored Palestinian terrorists.

"Syria gives cover to terrorist organizations within the country, including in Damascus, while Iran provides funding and direction," it said, adding a warning to "terrorist organizations and their supporters" that Israel would act with determination against them.

Also giving notice to Iran was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin, who told CNN that Israel would not tolerate "the continuation of this axis of terror between Tehran, Damascus and Gaza to continue to operate and kill innocent men, women and children."

The English-language Saudi daily, Arab News , said in an editorial that Sharon might have been acting on behalf of the U.S. when he ordered the strike.

"The notion that Washington used the Israelis to threaten the Syrians into line makes too much sense to be dismissed."

Islamic Jihad faxed a statement to a wire service in Beirut insisting it had no "training center or military presence in Syria," a denial echoed by representatives interviewed in a number of news reports.

Syria claimed the area bombed was a refugee camp.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow