October 10, 2001 Special Dispatch No. 283

Terror in America (14): Syria's position: Define Terrorism Not Fight It.

October 10, 2001
Syria | Special Dispatch No. 283

Following the September 11 attacks, director of the Middle East Institute, and former U.S. State Department official, Edward Walker, published an open letter in the Arabic London daily Al-Hayat praising Syrian President Bashar Assad's letter of condolence to President Bush.[1] Walker expressed admiration for the Syrian leader, for Assad "chose not to set conditions for his support of the U.S."

Walker warned other Arab leaders: "The choice is clear, as President Bush plainly presented it following the attacks: 'Either you are with us in our battle against this global danger, or you are against us. Maneuvering and seeking a nonexistent common ground (i.e. a compromise with terrorism) will get you nothing, except, possibly, the loathing and condemnation of the [American] government, and of most Americans.'"[2]

However, the messages conveyed from Damascus through diplomatic and journalistic channels show that the Syrian position is actually closer to the diplomatic "maneuvering," against which Walker warned, than to unconditional support, which earned President Assad Walker's praise.

Following are a number of principles underpinning Syria's position in the fight against terrorism and its attitude towards the coalition now being formed:

An International Offensive, not an American-Led Offensive
One of Syria's conditions for cooperating with the U.S. is that the fight against terrorism be carried out within an international framework – more precisely, by the United Nations – instead of being led by the U.S. Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, who was a member of the European delegation that recently held talks in the Middle East, told AFP that, "except for Syria, no country has opposed the U.S.'s right to respond, provided that the response is justified and its targets defined…"[3]

Another disagreement with Syria related to the role of the Security Council: Syria opposed an action being authorized by the Security Council, as was the case on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War. Regarding the Taliban, Syria preferred international authorization by a forum such as the Durban conference. Al-Hayat's Damascus correspondent Ibrahim Hamidi reported that Syria believes that U.N. endorsement has to be obtained through the General Assembly, not the Security Council.[4] It should be noted that on October 8, 2001, Syria is expected to be voted in as a member of the Security Council.

Defining Terrorism as a Precondition for any Action
Another pre-condition set by Syria is that terrorism be defined – also by the U.N., or alternatively, by an international conference. An editorial in Al-Ba'ath, Syria's ruling party's newspaper, said, "It should be mentioned that Syria, through its late leader Hafez Assad, was the first to call for such a conference, in 1986." Syria's dictates regarding the content of such a definition is clear: Israel is to head the list. [5]

Along with statements that Israel is the root of all of terrorism, Syria hints at its readiness to also view Islamic fundamentalism as terrorism, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood movement which has in the past tried to topple the Syrian regime. Bashar Assad himself was quoted as saying, "No condescension towards the Arabs on the matter of the struggle against terrorism can be allowed… In Syria, we are very familiar with this issue, and we were the first in the world to deal with terrorist movements that threatened the regime. This happened many years ago."[6] This position was echoed by official Syrian sources to Hamidi: "Syria was one of the first countries to suffer from terrorism, at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. The five thousand Syrian intellectuals and citizens who died at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood two decades ago are comparable in number to the victims in New York and Washington."[7]

The Syrian press and top Syrian officials define the attacks on the U.S. as terrorism, but do not link them to bin Laden. The only reference to bin Laden was implied, when Syrian officials told Hamidi that "a distinction should be made between terrorism and legitimate resistance. Lebanon was witness to two such cases: Hizbullah is a legitimate movement resisting occupation, and is recognized by U.N. resolutions drawn up under the auspices of France and the U.S. in 1996, while terrorism is… the Al-Dhanya incidents."[8] (Al-Dhanya was the site of clashes between the Lebanese military and a fundamentalist group with links to bin Laden; the group had planned attacks on the eve of the millennium).

Likewise, Syria's position regarding what is not terrorism is uncompromising. As far as Syria is concerned, Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad are not terrorist movements, but national liberation movements whose military activity is deemed legitimate by the U.N. charter. To demonstrate this position, on the first anniversary of the current Palestinian uprising Syria hosted a conference attended by leaders of all organizations it deemed liberation movements: Hizbullah Director-General Hassan Nasrallah, Hamas Political Bureau head Khaled Mash'al, Islamic Jihad leader Ramadhan Abdallah Shalah, PFLP-General Command Director-General Ahmad Jibril, and PFLP Overseas Command chief Maher Al-Taher.

Also attending the conference was Deputy Secretary-General of the Syrian Ba'ath Party Abdallah Al-Ahmar, who presented the position of Syria "which endorses this conference and with it all the men of the resistance. As in the past, and present, Syria will in the future continue to be a haven for those struggling for liberation, and for the restoration of honor and holy sites."[9] During the conference, Hizbullah Director-General Hassan Nasrallah said, "None of us must commit suicide or endanger his people only to avoid being called a terrorist…"[10]

Bashar Assad stated, "[We] must not allow the charge of terrorism to be slapped on the resistance movements fighting the occupation, both in Lebanon and in Palestine... the Europeans understand this matter," he added.[11] "…[W]e in Syria do not think that the Arab and Islamic situation is weak; on the contrary, the Americans need the Arab and Islamic countries in order to forge the American coalition, and woo them… Following the September 11 explosions, the U.S. has not demanded anything [regarding Hizbullah]; on the contrary, the lists of organizations designated 'terrorist' was changed, [and] the names of organizations and forces resisting the Israeli occupation were omitted. This proves that the Americans desire to woo these parties, because they need them for the battle. This also proves that the Syrian position does not contradict the truth, and that all [we] need is patience…"[12]

But despite Assad's claim that the Europeans, and perhaps also the Americans, "understand this matter," media reports indicate that during talks between the Syrian leadership and the European delegation, disagreement arose on the matter of defining terrorism. Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel himself acknowledged, in a joint press conference with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq A-Shar': "I cannot agree with the definition of terrorism of my [Syrian] colleague, and I do not think that he agrees with my definition."[13]

During the same press conference, A-Shar' explained his country's position on the issue: "When your lands are occupied by foreign forces, you have no alternative but to liberate your homeland. Your means are, first and foremost, to launch a war against the enemy occupying your land, or fight against the colonialism in every way possible… If [you] insist that there is no difference between the legitimate right of the peoples to struggle against foreign terrorism and killing innocent civilians in distant places, and if [you] insist that there is no difference between terrorists and those defending their land and trying to liberate it – then there is no difference between the victims of terrorism and the terrorists themselves."[14]

A Two Phased Approach
At this point Syria is acting on the assumption that in the first phase, Syria and the militant organizations under its aegis will not be on the list of targets of American military, political, or economic sanctions.

This immunity, however, is assumed by the Syrian leadership to be temporary. It was reported that President Assad himself "knows that there is a first phase and a second phase."[15]

Assad's words indicate that Syria takes into account the possibility that in the second phase of the American action, Syria may be subject to economic sanctions: "We are getting past the first phase, concerning [militant organizations] and states resisting the Israeli occupation. In the second phase, there will be many economic pressures… [we will have to] cope with these pressures..."[16]

Assad expressed concern about the possibility that in the second phase, Israel would exploit America's need for intelligence and dispatch information liable to embarrass the Arabs.[17]

Syria's Parameters for the Fight Against Terrorism
Once a definition of terrorism satisfactory to Syria is attained, and Syria's additional conditions are met, Damascus would be willing to cooperate with the international fight against terrorism. Hamidi reports that in the talks with the Europeans, Syria indicated its willingness "to participate in political and security actions provided that these security actions do not involve participation in assassinations, but [only] investigations and exchanges of information, to be followed by legal action." Syria absolutely refuses to participate in military actions because such actions "would incite to terrorism and harm civilians." Damascus did not agree to participate in military operations because it "is unwilling to enter into a coalition whose goals, outcomes, means, and final date are not defined."[18]

In another report, Hamidi mentioned three more Syrian pre-conditions: "A strongly-worded political message to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (warning him); Israel will be excluded from any military actions undertaken in Afghanistan; and there will be no changing of the political map of any country."[19]

Europe: A Bridge Between Cultures
The Syrian leadership is in direct contact with the American leadership, but these remain low-key. Although the American government maintains an embassy and diplomatic relations with Syria, the gap between the two countries' interests and ideologies is vast. Syria, for example, is on the U.S. State Department's list of states supporting terrorism. When asked about this, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq A-Shar' replied, "We do not believe in this list. Many countries do not believe in it, because we have all been fighting terrorism for years. We were the victims of terror [of the Muslim Brotherhood] for six or seven years, and no one helped us, as we are helping the Americans now."[20]

Thus, most of the contacts with the Syrian leadership – as with the Iranian leadership – were held by Europeans. However, as far as the Syrians were concerned, the significance of European involvement goes beyond tactical mediation. The Syrian leadership – and to a large extent the entire Arab world – does not accept the American statement that "either you're with us or you're against us." Syria and other Arab countries seek a third way.

Furthermore, the Syrians differentiate between the Europeans and the Americans. Hamidi reported that the Syrian leadership considers the European role as a highly important "bridge between the American culture and the Arabic-Islamic culture."[21]

Fighting Terrorism or its Roots?
Another point that came up repeatedly in the Syrian media is the distinction between acts of terrorism and "the root causes of terrorism." Syria demands a direct struggle against what it sees as terrorism – that is, Israel. On the other hand, regarding the terror attacks on the U.S., "Syria emphasizes that the struggle against [that kind of terrorism] demands a return to the roots of the problem"[22] – that is, again, Israel.

Syria's preference—fighting the "roots of terrorism" rather than fighting terrorism itself was summed up succinctly in an article by Dr. Y. Alaridi in the Syria Times. "Fighting terrorism is like fighting windmills. Terrorism cannot be fought; we have to fight the root causes of terrorism. Poverty is a cause of terrorism; and the U.S. can contribute with her billions to fight the root against poverty. Oppression is another cause; and half the world population are oppressed and the U.S. can do something on this front. Treating people and the 'third world countries' as supremacists is a root cause. Democratic behavior among nations helps in developing a healthy world. Usurping and sucking the resources of the helpless third world countries is also a source of resentment; it leads to frustration; and the outcome is terrorism. Undermining other cultures' values, and trying to impose on them specific dictates leads to rejection and consequently terrorism. More than any other root cause, occupation stands as the main cause for hating the occupier and whoever supports it.

"The mafia, that uses terrorism as one of its tools to achieve certain sick ends, can be fought by crippling its barons' activities. But when over half the world suffers from poverty, feels oppressed, with undermined values, with rights usurped and under occupation… terrorism simply cannot be fought, and any war against it is a losing one."[23]

[1] Walker is perceived in some Egyptian papers as the good guy versus Thomas Friedman who is considered to be the bad guy.

[2] Al-Hayat (London), September 25, 2001. (Excerpts from the letter are translated from the Arabic).

[3] Al-Hayat (London), September 29, 2001.

[4] Al-Hayat (London), October 1, 2001.

[5] Al-Ba'ath (Syria), October 1, 2001.

[6] Al-Safir (Lebanon), September 25, 2001.

[7] Al-Hayat (London), September 28, 2001.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Al-Safir (Lebanon), September 29, 2001.

[12] Al-Safir (Lebanon), September 27, 2001.

[13] Al-Hayat (London), September 29, 2001.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Al-Safir (Lebanon), September 27, 2001.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Al-Hayat (London), September 25, 2001.

[18] Al-Hayat (London), October 1, 2001.

[19] Al-Hayat (London), September 28, 2001.

[21] Al-Hayat (London), October 1, 2001.

[22] Tishreen (Syria), October 3, 2001.

[23] Syria Times (Syria), September 30, 2001.

Share this Report: