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U.S. Urges Restraint in Mideast

The timing is awkward for Washington, which has been asking Syria for help in the region.

October 06, 2003|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Responding to the latest cycle of attack and retribution in the Middle East, the United States on Sunday cautioned Israelis, Palestinians and Syrians to refrain from further violence and "keep in mind the consequences of their actions."

The State Department issued its appeal after the destruction that began Saturday when a Palestinian woman blew herself up in a beachfront restaurant in Haifa, killing 19 others, some of them children. Hours later, Israel responded by sending several warplanes to Syria, hitting what it said was a terrorist training camp. No one was killed.

"We have consistently told Syria that it must cease harboring terrorists and make a clean break from those responsible for planning and directing terrorist action from Syrian soil," spokeswoman Joanne Moore said. "We urge both Israel and Syria to avoid actions that could lead to an escalation of tension."

The hostilities come at a particularly awkward moment for the United States, which has been working to enlist Syria's help in bringing stability to the region and to restore momentum to the deadlocked "road map" -- the U.S.-brokered peace plan that calls for the creation of a temporary Palestinian state by year's end and a final state by the end of 2005.

In addition, the State Department is negotiating with Syria on providing electricity for the reconstruction of Iraq. It also has been pressing Damascus for months to crack down on Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Hezbollah, the three main extremist groups in the region.

Arab leaders warned that a "circle of violence" could envelop the region in the wake of the strike. Several Middle East experts agreed that Israel appeared to be signaling its willingness to escalate the fighting to stop deadly attacks like the Haifa restaurant bombing, which came on the day before the beginning of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

"This was a very deliberate attempt by the Israeli government to raise the ante so people in the region, the U.S. and the U.N. will take notice," said Henri J. Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and a former member of the State Department's policy planning staff. "Clearly this is an attempt by Israel to say [that] the people engaged in [suicide bombings] and who support them pay no price. Now there is going to be a real price -- enough is enough."

In Washington, President Bush called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday to express his condolences over the deaths in Haifa, to condemn the suicide bombing and to discuss the attack in Syria. A White House spokesman, Ken Lisaius, declined to discuss details about the conversation, other than saying that Bush emphasized to Sharon "the need to avoid heightened tension in the region at this time."

The State Department has described Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism.

In May, Syrian President Bashar Assad indicated after meeting in Damascus with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that his government had closed several offices of Islamic and Palestinian extremist groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

But Assad, who came to power in 2000 after the death of his father, longtime strongman Hafez Assad, has a tenuous hold on power. Most of his father's hard-line cronies remain, and the younger Assad has been either unwilling or unable to enact the sorts of reforms he has promised.

"We have repeatedly told the government of Syria that it is on the wrong side in the war on terrorism and that it must stop harboring terrorists," a senior administration official said. "And that is still our view."

The State Department was careful to note in its brief official reaction to the violence that it was not informed of the Israeli action until "several hours after the attack."

Still, the U.S. may find itself in a bind. Coming down too hard on Syria could jeopardize three key elements of Bush's foreign policy: Syrian cooperation on a Middle East peace plan, stability in the reconstruction of Iraq and an end to outside support of militant extremist groups.

At the same time, condemning Israel for reacting to an attack on its soil by retaliating against a nation believed to support militants might seem inconsistent, in light of the American war in Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"What the Israelis appear to have done in attacking Syria is not unlike what we did after Sept. 11 in attacking training camps of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan," Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a Democratic candidate for president, told "Fox News Sunday." "Unfortunately, the Syrians have continued to refuse American demands that they break up terrorist bases and headquarters in their country."

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