Israeli Military Strikes Syria
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JIM LEHRER: A new round of violence in the Middle East, and to Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: This was the scene at a Haifa restaurant in Israel after a Saturday suicide bomb attack that killed nine and wounded 50. Hours later, Israeli warplanes bombed a camp called Ain Saheb in Syria, just ten miles from the capital, Damascus. Israel released this videotape of the camp, saying it was used to train terrorists from Palestinian groups like Islamic Jihad, the group that claimed responsibility for the Haifa bombing. Israeli spokesman Avi Pazner said Syria was harboring Palestinian terrorists.
AVI PAZNER: We warned repeatedly all the countries concerned, especially Syria, where the headquarters of the Islamic jihad is based until today. And the United States has repeatedly asked Syria to close down all facilities for terrorism. Syria has not done so. Our action is aimed not against Syria but against the Islamic jihad. But every country must understand that if you harbor terrorists you will be responsible for what happened to them.
MARGARET WARNER: Islamic Jihad denied having any training camps in Syria.
ABU EMAD EL-REFAEI (Translated): There are no military bases in Syria for Islamic jihad. The target behind striking inside Syrian territory is a serious and dangerous signal.
MARGARET WARNER: Sunday’s air strike was the first Israeli attack deep inside Syrian territory since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which began 30 years ago today. At an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security council yesterday, Syria’s ambassador urged the council to support a resolution condemning Israel’s move.
FAYSSAL MEKDAD, U.N. Ambassador, Syria: We hope that the security council will play its effective role in maintaining peace and security in the region and telling the aggressor to stop its aggression, and to tell Israel that without stopping such actions, the situation will escalate, and it is not only Syria that will suffer but all parties will suffer tremendously.
MARGARET WARNER: US Ambassador John Negroponte did not join in the criticism of Israel’s action.
JOHN NEGROPONTE, U.N. Ambassador: We urge both Syria and Israel to avoid any actions that could lead to heightened tension. And we’ve consistently told Syria that it must cease harboring terrorists and make a clean break from those who are responsible for the planning and directing of terrorist action from Syrian soil.
MARGARET WARNER: At a white house press conference today, President Bush was asked if he thought Israel’s attack on Syria was justified.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I talked to Prime Minister Sharon yesterday. I made it very clear to the prime minister, like I have consistently done, that Israel’s got a right to defend herself, that Israel must not feel constrained in terms of defending the homeland. However, I said that it’s very important that any action that Israel take should avoid escalation and creating higher tensions.
MARGARET WARNER: Syria’s proposed U.N. Resolution is still being considered. First let me say I misspoke on that videotape. There were nineteen killed in the Haifa bombing, not nine.
MARGARET WARNER: Now for an assessment of what’s behind the Israeli attack and what it may lead to we turn to Samuel Lewis, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel; he’s not a senior adviser to the Israel Policy Forum, a group that promotes American involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Edward Djerejian, former Ambassador to Syria and to Israel; he’s now director of the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
Welcome to you both.
Ambassador Lewis, for Israel to attack another country in that explosive neighborhood, why did they do it and why now?
SAMUEL LEWIS: I think the why did they do it is that they’ve gotten totally frustrated with many conversations with us, and with others about bringing the message to Damascus that the headquarters of these organizations need to be closed down and they haven’t been. Why now, I think because you had this incredible moment after three weeks of no terror bombings, then this dreadful tragedy near Haifa on the beach. And that brought the kind of outpouring of grief and anger and frustration that occurs frequently after these events. And the government was obviously going to do something to retaliate — a lot of pressure on them to retaliate by expelling Yasser Arafat. They’ve said they’re going to, they just keep stalling about saying how or when or in what way. And they may well have seen this kind of an act, not one which attacks Syria, but attacks a base in Syria, as giving a kind of message to the Syrians that may get their attention in ways that the diplomatic messages have not.
MARGARET WARNER: Pick up on that Ambassador Djerejian, Israeli Radio called this a strategic change for Israel. Do you think it’s that profound that it’s really a policy shift on Israel’s part in terms of the lengths to which it will go to pursue suicide bombers and those that support them?
EDWARD DJEREJIAN: Well, the attack on a land target in Syria is the first since 1973. So it is significant that Israel has decided to launch an attack against another neighboring Arab country. But I do believe that of course given all the frustrations with the suicide bombings inside of Israel, and the actions that Israel is already taking inside the West Bank in Gaza against Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, that this is a new dimension, the challenge now is to assure that through miscalculations there isn’t an escalation of tensions in the region itself, as the president has indicated, in his press conference.
MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Djerejian, is Israel correct when it says that Syria has been giving safe haven to Islamic jihad, to Hamas, to groups that launch terror attacks inside Israel, and if so, why?
EDWARD DJEREJIAN: The Syrians have been given safe haven to Palestinian groups since — for decades. I was recently in Damascus, I met with the top leadership, including the president of Syria. And the rationale they give is that Syria houses approximately 400,000 Palestinian refugees, and that they allow various groups that represent these refugees to have offices in Syria. This includes Hamas, this includes Palestinian Jihad, it includes groups such as the PFLPGC. They have made clear that given the constituency they have, they are not going to expel these offices from Syria, but that they will take certain measures to limit their operations, and they claim, they claim, and I’m just telling you what they tell the U.S. and us, that these offices are not operational, that they’re basically informational. But there’s a great deal of skepticism within the administration if they are just merely information offices.
MARGARET WARNER: Pick up on that, Ambassador Lewis, in terms of the line Syria has been trying to straddle here, at the onset of the Iraq War they actually announced they were shutting down the main offices of Islamic Jihad and Hamas, and they have had a very quiet border with Israel really for nearly 30 years.
SAMUEL LEWIS: Well, the border of the Golan Heights has been quiet, there’s a peacekeeping force there and both sides respected it. But the border between Lebanon and Israel and the Syrian very deep support for the Hezbollah on the Lebanese border, along with Iran, certainly hasn’t been quiet, nearly as quiet as we hoped it would be after the Israeli withdrawal. But let me make another point. Ed has made an important point, though, I think, about the skepticism in the United States administration about the Syrian position.
It isn’t just Israeli intelligence that believes that the leaders the Hamas and the Jihad in Damascus are clearly involved in sending messages and instructions and money and providing certain kinds of training for the operations inside. There’s been a long standing split between the leadership within and with out. And the leadership with out is now in Damascus. Whether they have an office open or not, they are there, and so it’s not illogical from the point of view of the Israelis who have given up, I think, on diplomacy to go after the leaders. This is a signal that they’re willing to do that.
And one last point: We have now made it, we the United States have now made it acceptable for Israelis to go after preemptively enemies outside their own borders, in a way that no previous administration had ever done. And I think Sharon and his cabinet are only constrained in the way in which they try to fight terror by what they think President Bush and this administration will find acceptable. And I think they believe that this is still acceptable in Washington.
MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Djerejian, do you think that’s partially what’s behind the administration’s response, that is there was no criticism, not even a gentle one, of what Israel did, striking another sovereign country?
EDWARD DJEREJIAN: Well, if you follow the president’s remarks very closely, what he did say is that he agrees that Israel is in this war against terrorism, as the United States is, and in the background of our going into Afghanistan and into Iraq, the Israelis have often, as Sam has cited, have noted that the United States is waging its battle against terrorism, preemptively, and Israel has a similar right. But, again, what the president was very quick to add is that the parties must be very cognizant of the consequences of their actions, and there should be no escalation. Again, the escalation, I think, is already happening across the Israeli Lebanese border, and one has to watch very carefully Hezbollah now, because Lebanon has always been a surrogate in these Israeli Syrian confrontations.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me just ask you to follow up on that: Do you think, Syria went to the U. N., but do you think we will see Syria also try to respond militarily, perhaps along the Lebanese border?
EDWARD DJEREJIAN: Well, certainly Syria doesn’t want a military escalation given the geopolitical realities of the balance of military power between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors. But, again, I will not be surprised to see Lebanon as the focal point of increasing tensions if there isn’t a political calming down of the situation through the U.N. or through diplomacy.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, Ambassador Lewis, take the flip side, what are the chances, do you think, that this strike will have what Israel hopes is the intended effect, which is to get Syria to somehow lean on these groups or constrain these groups to curb suicide bombings in Israel?
SAMUEL LEWIS: Well, Ed is more the expert on Syria, but my guess is that this very harsh signal will have some effect and that Damascus will do some things to quiet down the obviousness of the role the organizations play there. I wouldn’t expect them to expel them. But I think Syria is certainly uninterested in a war, and Israel isn’t either. But the Israelis are at this point getting more and more and more up against lack of good options. They’ve tried getting rid of all the leadership in the territories, and the suicide bombings continue. They are determined, this Israeli government is determined to rub out the leadership of these organizations. And if they can’t do it in the territories totally, then they’re going to expect to try it somewhere else.
MARGARET WARNER: Briefly, Ambassador Djerejian, do you think it will have the desired effect on Israel’s part, that is to get Syria to lean on these groups or curb them?
EDWARD DJEREJIAN: I think it will have some effect. I don’t think it will have a determining effect on what Syria does with these organizations, for the reasons I’ve explained. But I think what has to be very careful about is that logic doesn’t often travel in the Middle East, and hopefully there will not be a series of miscalculations that will lead to a heightened tensions and conflict in the region, I think that’s the real challenge right now. And, as Sam said, Israel’s frustrations over the options available to it in the wake of these bombings in Israel shows that there already has been an escalation, and the key now is to control it.
MARGARET WARNER: Ambassadors both, thank you.