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Message for Syria

October 26, 1986

For years, major Western nations have chosen to treat Syria's involvement in international terrorism as a dirty little secret. Everyone knew it existed, but at the same time it was considered as something best not to be spoken of, at least in public. Fear had a lot to do with this prudent silence. For one thing, American, British and French citizens are all being held hostage in eastern Lebanon, in territory controlled by the Syrian army, and it is accepted in Western capitals that their fate may well depend on decisions made in Damascus. Additionally, and of larger import, Syrian judgments and actions have much to do with matters of war and peace in the Middle East. The Western calculation has been to try to influence those crucial judgments for the better by avoiding steps that might agitate Syria.

Last week, in a London courtroom, a jury that had been specifically instructed not to concern itself with larger political questions shattered the silence about Syria's role in terrorism. It did so by returning a guilty verdict against Nezar Hindawi, who had been accused of attempting to plant a bomb aboard an Israeli El Al airliner at a London airport. Had the bomb gone off as it was intended to do while the plane was in flight, 375 passengers would have died. Proof of Hindawi's guilt was overwhelming. No less conclusive was the evidence presented that he had acted as an agent of Syrian intelligence, trained and briefed in Damascus and directly aided by the staff of Syria's embassy in London, including the ambassador himself.

Within hours after Hindawi was sentenced to 45 years in prison, Britain broke diplomatic relations with Syria. It was a correct action and also a courageous one, for Britain cannot be unaware that its move could lead to vengeful Syrian reprisals. In short order, in a show of allied unity, the United States withdrew its ambassador to Syria, a step that stops just short of a full break in relations. The American action marks a notable departure from the Reagan Administration's tread-easy policy toward Syria, a country the United States officially lists as a supporter of terrorism, but one which it has hesitated to confront directly on that issue. The Administration has instead preferred to focus its fire--quite literally--on Libya, militarily a more vulnerable country and politically a more isolated one.

Meanwhile, police and intelligence agencies in France and West Germany continue to turn up evidence of active Syrian involvement in terrorist activities in their countries. It's not immediately clear whether these disclosures stem from an unusual operational carelessness on the part of Syria, which has always taken pains to mask its role in terrorism, or whether they reflect a new mood among the Europeans that it is time to get tough with terrorism's sponsors, regardless of possible consequences. Whatever the reasons, the battle against this menace can only be helped by having the facts about one of its main sources honestly exposed, and by having those Western nations that have been among its victims showing some political solidarity at last.

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