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Israel Widens Fight, Bombs Camp in Syria

An airstrike against a suspected terrorist compound signals a willingness to retaliate across borders and sparks Mideast outrage.

October 06, 2003|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israeli fighter jets flew into Syria on Sunday and bombed a suspected terrorist training camp, pushing Israel's fight to quell the Palestinian uprising beyond the boundaries of the Palestinian territories and sending waves of outrage throughout the region.

Israel struck Syrian territory in retaliation for a suicide attack that killed 19 people in a seaside restaurant hours earlier. Israel said it bombed an Islamic Jihad compound on the densely wooded site in El Saheb, about 14 miles northwest of Damascus, to "send a message" to unfriendly nations.

A lone man was reportedly injured, and there was some confusion over the target. Syrian officials insisted there was no camp there, only an ordinary run of civilian land, and Islamic Jihad denied training there.

"This is a very clear message both to Syria and to all those countries involved in the axis of terror directed against us," said Raanan Gissin, a senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "We will not tolerate that there will be sanctuary or immunity for anybody, regardless of geography. It's up to Syria whether Syria accepts the message and restrains its terror groups."

The predawn bombings, the first such strike in nearly three decades, unveiled a sharp shift in Israeli policy. After three years of battle in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel is now declaring the right to chase armed Palestinian factions onto their bases in foreign countries. It's a philosophy that echoes the U.S. doctrine that nations harboring terrorists are subject to attack.

It was the militant Islamic Jihad that sent a young lawyer to blow herself up in a crowded eatery Saturday and Syria was taken to task for aiding the group. Some Israeli officials described the air attack on Syria as self-defense.

"In the raid last night, Israel has upgraded its military reaction," said Israel Radio, citing military sources. "The raid is a strategic change for Israel, which will no longer contain the struggle and restrict it to the Palestinian Authority territory alone."

An infuriated Syria, at an emergency Sunday meeting of the U.N. Security Council, urged the council to condemn the attack. "Many people across the globe feel that Israel is above the law," said Fayssal Mekdad, Syria's United Nations representative.

While Syria is widely regarded as unlikely to respond with military force, a letter from the embattled state to the United Nations hinted otherwise. "Syria is not incapable of creating a resisting and deterring balance that forces Israel to review its actions," it said.

The Arab League, too, scrambled to an emergency meeting in Cairo, where Secretary-General Amr Moussa called the bombings against Syria an act of "state-sponsored terrorism" and said, "Can there be more chaos than this?"

After a heated session, the Arab League issued a scathing statement to protest the "unjust aggression" and confirm Syria's right to strike back. The raid threatened to pull the entire region into "whirlwind violence," the statement said.

Lebanon blasted Israel for attacking a sovereign nation, and Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher called the strike "an aggression on an Arab brotherly country." Muasher told Jordan's official Petra news agency: "It can drag the whole region into a circle of violence."

The strikes were launched on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, a watershed battle between Israel and Syria and Egypt.

"This can only mean that Israel wants war," said Imad Fawzi Shueibi, a political scientist at Damascus University. "I believe Israel is playing with fire. If Israel wants to take the U.S. example of striking terror abroad, it has chosen a very bad time."

Palestinian groups rejected Israel's description of the Syrian site. Islamic Jihad denied that it was their training center. And the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine said it once was theirs, but that it was now defunct.

Vincent Cannistraro, a former senior CIA official, said recent intelligence indicated that the site was a refugee camp, though in the past it had been used for training by both Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front. "There is no current terrorist training there. This is a symbolic act," Cannistraro said. "This seems like an escalation to send a message to the Syrians: Cease supporting Hamas and [Islamic Jihad]."

But Israel maintained that the base was used by a constellation of factions, including Al Qaeda and Hamas. A grainy video released by the Israeli army showed barracks and underground tunnels stacked with guns and explosives; Israel said it was footage shot by an Iranian television crew inside the Syrian camp.

According to Israel, the training base was operated with logistical help from Syria and money from Iran. Palestinians came to the camps for courses in explosives, artillery, guerrilla warfare and aviation, the Israeli army said. "Through Syria, Iran is sending a tentacle of terror into the [Palestinian] territories," Gissin, Sharon's advisor, said.

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