Unity In War Seen as Defeat for Terrorism
Syrian, Iranian cooperation hailed as milestone; experts warn that Palestinian, Iraqi retribution attacks possible
WASHINGTON — TERRORISTS may find it more difficult to operate in the wake of the Persian Gulf war. United States officials are hoping to build on the reluctant but unprecedented cooperation they achieved during the war with Arab countries - some of them past sponsors of terrorism - to help thwart the problem in the future.
Lessons learned from a massive global security drive have also proven valuable.
``Seeing if we can institutionalize some of these changes is the important challenge,'' says one Bush administration official. ``There are no assurances right now.''
Yet capitalizing on the success the West achieved with Syria, Iran, and other countries will depend in part on postwar restructuring in the region and progress on Arab-Israeli issues.
The next few months remain perilous for the West.
Experts say the temptation will be for governments and other entities to let their guard down now that the war is over, even though the drubbing Iraq took may inspire some radical Arab and Muslim groups to seek retribution.
``The history of terrorism is that we forget - we become complacent,'' says Robert Kupperman, a terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The Gulf conflict did mark something of a turning point, even if a temporary one, in the war against terrorism. Intelligence gathering and cooperation among European countries and the United States reached new levels.
More unusual, though, was the help of Arab nations, some of which have been known to foment attacks of their own in the past.
This included the cooperation of Syria and Iran, which, US officials say, were instrumental in reining in terrorist elements under their influence.
At the same time, Egypt, Syria, and other members of the coalition put pressure on Libya to hold down its activities.
These efforts, coupled with the arrest, expulsion, or tight surveillance of Iraqis in more than 30 countries, is believed to be a major reason why Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's call for a ``holy war'' of terror against the West was not successful.
There may have been other reasons, too, of course: the international trade embargo may have hindered Saddam Hussein's ability to underwrite terrorist groups; coalition bombing may have disrupted Baghdad's ability to communicate with them; the groups may have decided it was not in their long-term interest to side with a leader who clearly was going loose the war.
Yet, whatever the case, the cooperation and heightened security is credited with at least helping contain the problem.
``It has been an outstanding success so far,'' says one US official.
More than 160 terrorist attacks have been recorded worldwide since the Gulf crisis began, far more than during the same period a year ago.
Many of these attacks were aimed at US targets overseas.
Most, however, were by ``free-lance'' groups or local extremists that had no ties to Baghdad. They were not the state-sponsored spectaculars that Iraq had promised and the West had feared.
US officials say several major Iraqi attacks were foiled.
From here, administration officials hope to build on the cooperation developed during the war to limit future activity. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait seem likely to be counted on as partners with the West.
Other countries will require more delicate diplomacy. US officials say they are encouraged by the ``moderate'' line Syria has taken so far in the peace process, and by the conciliatory tone of some members of Iran's ruling elite.
At the same time, the magnitude of the coalition victory and degree of cooperation achieved may, as one US official puts it, show Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi how ``isolated and vulnerable'' he is.
Still, dangers abound.
Ultimately Arab states, as well as the Soviet Union, will pursue what best serves their own interests in the region. Much will hinge on postwar security arrangements and whether there is progress on the Palestinian question.
``It is not certain that in the postwar Middle East there will be the same shared sense of purpose and unity'' there was during the war, says Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert and senior managing partner at Kroll Associates. ``There are some positive developments and some obvious dangers.''
Arab or Islamic extremists may seek revenge for the depth of carnage in Iraq. Saddam himself could still foment activity. Palestinian groups, already frustrated by what they see as the failure of diplomacy to further their cause, may see terrorism as their only recourse.
``We haven't won the terrorism war,'' says Bruce Hoffman, at terrorist specialist at the Rand Corporation. ``We have just won one battle.''