The French government, while proclaiming its refusal to negotiate with terrorists, has started to establish contacts with official and private Syrians who may have enough influence to prevent a resumption of the bombing that terrified Paris in mid-September.
The government denies that it suspects involvement by the Syrian government in the bombings, which killed nine people and injured more than 160 others in a 10-day siege. But most of the French press, ignoring the denials and examining the evidence, has concluded that the government is talking with the Syrians because it suspects that Syria is behind the terror.
The flurry of quasi-negotiations has evoked expressions of concern from aides around President Francois Mitterrand, a Socialist, and from members of Premier Jacques Chirac’s conservative coalition. Simone Veil, former president of the European Parliament and an influential conservative, told a television interviewer that she thinks the government’s policy on terrorism is “contradictory.”
The doubters are most troubled by Chirac’s use of Msgr. Hilarion Capucci as an intermediary last week. Capucci, a Syrian who was imprisoned in 1974 by the Israelis on charges of arms smuggling when he was Greek Orthodox archbishop of Jerusalem, conferred with the French minister of security, the Syrian foreign minister and, in the most controversial contact of all, prisoner Georges Ibrahim Abdallah.
The release of Abdallah, accused of complicity in the slaying of an American military attache and an Israeli diplomat four years ago, was the main demand of the terrorists who claimed responsibility for the bombings in Paris.
An aide to Mitterrand said the president does not understand why the government gave Capucci, who now lives in Rome, special treatment and special access to Abdallah. Even Jean Lecanuet, president of the Union for French Democracy, a partner of Chirac’s party in the governing coalition, joined the critics Monday.
‘Fooling With Capucci’
“I believe that the minister of foreign affairs must explain this double behavior of both refusing to negotiate and fooling around with Capucci,” Lecanuet said in a radio interview.
Capucci, who has said he came to Paris on a “mission of good offices,” announced that he will leave Paris today because he is “disgusted with the way I have been made the focus of politicking.”
Despite all the criticism, the Chirac government seemed to be following in many ways the pattern of previous French governments, both Socialist and conservative, in dealing with terrorism. The French have long felt it is possible and useful to negotiate their way out of a terrorist crisis.
The present crisis, in fact, has brought out a series of disclosures about negotiations in the past.
For example, Pierre Marion, who four years ago was director of the French intelligence agency, disclosed over the weekend that he had won a Syrian agreement to halt terrorist attacks on French soil after protracted talks with the brother of President Hafez Assad of Syria in 1982. The brother, Rifaat Assad, directed Syrian intelligence then.
The halt in bombings for almost two weeks has given many analysts time to reflect on the motivation of the Paris terrorists. Most speculation here has followed one of two lines:
The French police theorize that the attacks were carried out by Abdallah’s brothers and cousins as members of his Lebanese Revolutionary Armed Faction; the French press theorizes that some Middle Eastern power has put the Abdallah clan up to the bombings as part of a campaign to drive all French influence out of Lebanon.
Most editorial writers accuse Syria of being behind the bombings, although some believe Iran is responsible. Syrian officials have denied the accusations and have received a good deal of public support from Chirac and the rest of the government.
In the latest profession of support, Minister of Defense Andre Giraud told a radio interviewer, “There are no indications that permit French authorities to implicate the Syrian government in this wave of attacks.”
Nevertheless, the government is obviously focusing on Syria in the campaign to head off a resumption of bombing. That would indicate that, at the least, the Chirac government believes the Syrians have a way of influencing the bombers. Among other things, Syria controls the part of northern Lebanon that is home to the Abdallah clan.
Aside from conferring with Capucci, who is considered to be close to the Syrian president, the Chirac government sent Minister of Cooperation Michel Aurillac on a secret mission to Damascus last week to confer with Syria’s Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam and Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh. The trip was disclosed through a leak to the press.
Shareh stopped in Paris en route to New York last week to confer with Capucci after the latter’s visit to Abdallah in prison and his talks with French Minister of Security Robert Pandraud.
Almost as if to squelch speculation that it was negotiating the release of Abdallah, the Chirac government announced late last week that it intended to put him on trial next year for the slaying of Lt. Col. Charles Ray, the U.S. military attache, and Yacov Barsimontov, the Israeli diplomat.
Both the Chirac government and the previous Socialist government evidently came close to releasing Abdallah after past negotiations with his clan. Capucci has said he took part in one of these series of negotiations. At first glance, putting Abdallah on trial would seem to reflect a new resolve by the government not to release him.
But some French newspapers have hinted that there is little hard evidence to convict Abdallah of murder. If found innocent of murder, Abdallah, who is now serving a four-year sentence for carrying false documents and for illegal possession of firearms, could be released on parole.
Marion, the former intelligence chief, made his revelations about past negotiations with Syria in an interview with the magazine Nouvel Observateur. Marion said he met with Rifaat Assad, the Syrian president’s brother, in 1982 after a car bomb exploded in front of the Paris offices of an Arabic newspaper, killing one person and wounding 63.
Met for Many Hours
The French believed that Syria was behind this and other bombings. Marion said he met with Assad for many hours in two sessions and had to listen to long speeches denying any Syrian involvement. Despite this, Marion said he warned Assad that France would respond in some way if the terrorism did not stop.
Over dessert at dinner in their final meeting, Marion recalled, “I looked him in the eye and said, ‘Your excellency, you are going to promise me that there will be no more terrorist attacks in France.’ ”
“He made that promise,” Marion want on. “And he kept his word.”