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Syria Asserts Its Right to Self-Defense

Times Staff Writers

Syria on Saturday insisted that it had a right to defend itself, the latest verbal shot fired off in a week of increasingly belligerent rhetoric after it was attacked by Israeli warplanes.

Since Israel bombed what it said was a terrorist training camp near Damascus in retaliation for a suicide bombing in Haifa, the two nations have been trading threats in what most analysts believe amounts to little more than a dangerous political game.

“We hope that the Israelis will not repeat their aggression. In case of repetition, Syria has the right to exercise self-defense in all available ways,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bushra Kanafani said at a Saturday briefing in Damascus. “I am talking about self-defense, and self-defense has its meaning, so I don’t have to clarify.”

Syria is highly unlikely to pit its weak, creaking military against the stronger -- and U.S.-backed -- Israeli armed forces. And a cash-strapped, war-weary Israel has little motivation to open up another front in the north by provoking Syria and its Hezbollah fighters along the Lebanese border.

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Still, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has set a precedent, and secured U.S. approval for an expanded, regionalized brand of warfare.

The rules of battle in the Arab-Israeli conflict entered a new stage Oct. 5 when Israel launched its first attack inside Syrian territory in nearly three decades. Although only one man was reportedly injured, anger in Arab nations is still running high as Israel refuses to rule out the possibility of more attacks.

Though Syria denies that the bombed site was a training camp, Israeli military officials and politicians have been talking all week about the “message” they sent: Foreign countries, namely Iran and Syria, are not immune from attack so long as they aid armed Palestinian resistance. The countries themselves wouldn’t be the targets, Israeli officials say -- but the militants or their facilities are fair game.

After three years of Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting, Israel has expanded the battle of the intifada, or uprising, to a neighboring country. In a speech at a commemoration ceremony last week for soldiers slain in the last war with Syria, Sharon assured the world that he wouldn’t hesitate to repeat an attack on foreign soil if the message isn’t taken.

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“Israel will not be deterred from protecting its citizens and will strike its enemies in every place and in every way,” Sharon said.

In the era of the United States’ international war on terrorism and preemptive strikes, the old Arab-Israeli model of “war by proxy” might no longer function, analyst Ureib Rintawi wrote last week in the Jordanian daily Al-Dustour. The practice of attacking Israel indirectly by giving aid to Palestinian militants or funneling missiles to Hezbollah fighters might now prove to be outmoded, he wrote.

“Tel Aviv will never accept resuming the game in accordance with the older rules,” Rintawi wrote. “Its raid on Damascus may be the first announcement that the phase of ‘war by proxy’ has come to an end, and that henceforth Israel intends to change the war’s arena, tools, aims and rules.”

Israeli intelligence sources said the term “proxy” was no longer appropriate -- that Syria and Iran function as partners to the Palestinian fighters within the territories and to Hezbollah in the north.

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Iran and Syria dole out weapons, shelter and instructions, the Israelis said. And it was those groups that worked to undermine the latest peace plan, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a cease-fire, or hudna in Arabic, struck by the major Palestinian factions this spring and summer, Israeli intelligence sources argued.

“It was important to them to try to keep the flame high enough that this hudna would not hold,” an Israeli intelligence source said.

Apparently, the strike on Syria was some time in coming. Israel first decided to bomb Syria after a Palestinian bomber struck during the summer, but postponed the mission, military sources said. And in August, Israeli planes buzzed the home of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

For Israel, this is an opportune moment to expand the battle -- or at least reserve the right to do so in the future. Although most of the world’s leaders bitterly condemned the strike, the United States was hard-pressed to criticize, for Israel justified its attack by citing U.S. policy. Israeli officials explained that they were striking at terrorism at its source, just as the United States argued for its attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq.

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The first reaction from the United States was somewhat squeamish, but that uncertainty hardened into resolute support when President Bush said Israel had a right to defend itself, and that the United States might have done the same thing.

The surprise attack might have had more to do with domestic Israeli politics than with regional warfare, analysts said. Israel is in a bind, having already played many of its toughest cards against the Palestinians: The West Bank already has been reoccupied, and assassinations and mass arrests have weakened the Palestinian uprising and driven militants underground.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has been trapped inside his ruined West Bank compound for more than a year, and despite a standing threat, there is deep opposition within the Israeli government to exiling or killing him. Checkpoints and closures have rendered Israeli territory difficult, albeit not impossible, to breach.

But Israeli leaders concluded that they had to do something after a suicide attack killed 19 other people in a seaside restaurant in Haifa last weekend. Despite three years of intense combat, still the bombers come, by night and by day, to Israeli restaurants, supermarkets and discotheques. Each attack demands a response, for Israelis have gotten used to a certain retaliatory rhythm, to seeing their leaders take some military action after the loss of Israeli lives.

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The Haifa bomber was dispatched by Islamic Jihad, a militant organization whose leader lives in Damascus, the Syrian capital. Syria shelters training camps, Israel says, and, despite U.S. pressure, hasn’t closed all of the militants’ offices.

“Israel does not have a way to control the bombing of its citizens,” said Robert Blecher, a Middle East specialist at the University of Richmond in Virginia. “It’s trying everything that it can, and it’s even prepared to risk a larger confrontation in order to distract attention from the fact that that security [policy] isn’t working.”


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