Anyone who thought that Syria's recent support for UN Security Council Resolution 1441 on Iraq heralded a change in its policy on terrorism was in for a rude awakening Tuesday.
In an unusually blunt statement issued by the Foreign Ministry, Bashar Assad's regime flatly rejected a US demand that it shut down the Damascus office of Islamic Jihad. The declaration came in response to a letter sent over the weekend by Secretary of State Colin Powell after the massacre of 12 Israelis in Hebron on Friday.
Ignoring Powell's charge that Islamic Jihad is engaging in acts of terror, the Syrians invoked of all things freedom of speech to justify the presence of the organization's headquarters in their capital. "The Syrian government has more than once made clear the informational character of these offices, whose work is limited to expressing their viewpoint," the statement said. It went on to blame America for the recent upsurge of violence in the region, asserting that "the United States is responsible for the current bloodletting because it supports the Israeli occupation."
The irony of Syria's sudden interest in civil rights was undoubtedly not lost on people such as Riad al-Turk, who have witnessed firsthand what awaits those who dare to defy its rulers. At 72, Turk has spent the better part of the past two decades in prison because of his opposition to the successive Assad regimes. After being held largely incommunicado from 1980 to 1998, he was rearrested on September 1, 2001 in one of Syria's periodic crackdowns on dissent.
Earlier this year, on June 26, 2002, Syria's Supreme State Security Court convicted Turk of various trumped-up charges, such as "attempting to change the constitution by illegal means." He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison, despite his poor health as a result of diabetes and a heart condition. Amnesty International labeled Turk a "prisoner of conscience," and, after a number of countries expressed concern over his fate, Assad, granted him a presidential pardon on Saturday. Various other political detainees, however, remain behind bars.
That Syria has long been a regional troublemaker is nothing new. The US State Department has for years berated Damascus for its systematic trampling of human rights, and Syria still bears the label "state sponsor of terrorism." It continues to wage a proxy war against Israel through its support of Hizbullah in southern Lebanon, and its regime remains a tightly-controlled dictatorship, one whose rule is based more on fear than fidelity.
What is new, however, is Washington's growing impatience with Syria's antics. For too long, Damascus has been able to get away with occupying Lebanon, fomenting anti-Israel violence, and promoting the international drug trade through its cultivation of illicit narcotics in the Bekaa Valley. In his June 24 speech on the Middle East, President George W. Bush put Syria on notice, saying, "Syria must choose the right side in the war on terror by closing terrorist camps and expelling terrorist organizations." It was the first time in a long time that an American president had publicly singled out Syria for its methodical misconduct, and for that alone Bush is to be applauded. But if such stark words are to have any lasting effect on Syrian behavior, they will have to be backed up by greater pressure on the Assad regime.
As long as Assad is convinced that he can act with impunity, he will continue to push the envelope. As New York's Newsday reported on Tuesday, Syria has been violating UN sanctions imposed on Iraq after the Gulf War by illegally importing 150,000 barrels of Iraqi oil a day, thereby pumping the equivalent of $1 billion annually into Saddam Hussein's pockets.
In July, reports surfaced that Syria was helping Saddam to rearm for his upcoming confrontation with America, by ensuring a steady flow of weapons and ammunition from Eastern Europe via its ports. And, in early September, it was revealed that Syria allowed some 150 al-Qaida operatives to find refuge in the Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp outside Sidon.
At a time when the US is actively preparing to intensify its global campaign against terror, Syria's recent moves, including its refusal to shut down the Damascus office of Islamic Jihad, should lay to rest any doubts as to where its sympathies might lie. Clearly, Syria has chosen to side with terror. And while America may have its hands full right now between hunting down Osama bin Laden and gearing up for war with Iraq, that does not mean that the Syrian problem can afford to be brushed aside or ignored. Now, more than ever, is the time to put Bashar Assad on notice that if he continues to play with fire, he will be next in line to get burned.
©2002 - Jerusalem Post