Syria Ready To Fight 'Active Terrorism,' But Not 'Resistance'

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Syria said it is ready to be a partner with the West in its fight against terrorism but it does not consider the Palestinian militant organizations that it hosts in Damascus nor the Lebanese-based Hizballah as part of that struggle.

Syria, who is on the U.S. State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism, disappointed both visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Wednesday as it did visiting Canadian Foreign Minister John Manley earlier in the week.

Blair and Manley are meeting with various leaders in the Middle East as part of the Western push to consolidate Arab and Muslim support for the war on terror.

Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem Wednesday, Manley said he was only partially satisfied with the responses he received from Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Syrian leadership.

"They were not able to give me a satisfactory response on the missing in action. They did not take any responsibility for any groups that use violence in order to achieve political objectives, and from that point of view it was not a satisfactory meeting," Manley said.

"From the point of view of their expressions of desire to see peace in the region, their denunciation of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11 and their willingness to be part of a campaign against terrorism globally - their responses
were very satisfactory," he added.

Assad told Blair on Wednesday that Syria had "made distinctions between terrorism and resistance, and insisted on the distinction between Islam and terrorism."

At least 10 militant Palestinian groups are headquartered in Damascus, including the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, whose leader called for attacks on the U.S. prior to Sept. 11. He retracted his remarks a few days later under pressure from Syrian officials.

Syria also supports the militant Shi'ite Islamic group Hizballah, which operates in areas under Syrian control in southern Lebanon.

Three of Hizballah's top leaders were recently named as those on America's "most wanted" list. Israel wants the organization to be put on President Bush's short list of terror organizations, which will be dealt with in the second phase of the war against terrorism.

Although it never claimed responsibility, Hizballah is believed to have been behind the separate suicide car bombings of the U.S. Embassy, U.S. Marine Corps base, and the French army compound in Beirut in 1983, in which some 250 Americans and 60 French were killed.

Assad, who made reference to what he called "Israeli terrorism" against the Palestinians, said that the international community must first arrive at a "group definition" of the phenomenon of terrorism.

"We support resistance fighters who seek to liberate their lands," he said. "Active resistance is very different from active terrorism."

Blair reiterated his support for a Palestinian state next to Israel, but urged Syria and other regional players to rein in "radical" Palestinian groups.

"The only possible long-term solution is Israelis and Palestinians living side by side," he said. "Whatever the differences are, the only way of restarting the peace process is by going back to the negotiating table."

Blair is due in Israel late Wednesday or early Thursday, but his arrival time has not been announced for security reasons. He is scheduled to meet with both Israeli and Palestinian Authority leaders.

Western officials had hoped that Assad would show more flexibility on the issue of backing the Palestinian groups and Hizballah.

There is a growing debate as to whether there is a difference between "freedom fighters," which may carry out suicide bombings and other attacks on civilian populations in order to achieve political aims and "terrorists" who do the same.

Another nuance concerns guerrilla warfare, which some say is legitimate because it only fights against military targets.

Just how the U.S. and the West view this debate will be a major determining factor on how it relates to various groups in the Middle East in the second phase of its war against terrorism.

Israel has been trying to convince the West that the terrorism it has suffered from for years, is no different than that experienced recently by the U.S. "Terrorism is terrorism," has become Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's mantra.

In his comments in Jerusalem, Manley said that "the use of violence in order to achieve political objectives, particularly against civilian populations, is unacceptable, and the victims of that violence are equally victimized no matter who is the perpetrator."

Nevertheless, he declined to say if that definition specifically applied to Israel.

"I'm not here to try to give definitions to a word. We have a situation here which is complex and difficult and where there's plenty of blame to be shared," Manley said. The solution, he added, could only be found in a ceasefire and a return to negotiations.