State terror: Syrian links highlighted

Two unusual aspects are highlighted by the conviction of Jordanian Nezar Hindawi: The trial, which ended Friday in London, provided a rare insight into the inner workings of a terrorist operation.

The court's evidence strongly suggested that Mr. Hindawi's attempt to smuggle a bomb aboard an Israeli jet at Heathrow Airport April 17 was almost entirely a Syrian state production. This, analysts say, is clearly not a case of Syria simply helping or exploiting an extremist Palestinian faction, such as that of Abu Nidal, as is suspected in some other instances.

Although detailed evidence is lacking in many cases, observers say it is uncharacteristic for Syria to employ its own clandestine apparatus directly against an Israeli target. Discovery could trigger an ugly vendetta between the two states' secret services or a full-scale war.

This is not to suggest that Syria, like some other states in the region, is not deeply involved in what is widely called terrorism. But for it to engage Israel directly in this arena, observers say, falls outside the established pattern of such actions -- inasmuch as any pattern can be discerned.

Seeking to explain this apparent anomaly, some Mideast observers conclude the Hindawi attempt may have represented an effort by the Syrians to avenge the humiliation they suffered at Israel's hands 10 weeks earlier.

On Feb. 4, Israel intercepted a Libyan airliner bound for Damascus, forcing it to land in Israel. The Israelis said they thought Palestinian guerrilla leaders were on board. In fact, the plane was carrying the No. 2 man in Syria's ruling Baath Party, Abdullah Ahmar, and other top officials. They were interrogated for several hours before being allowed to resume their journey. Syrian leaders vowed to avenge this ``act of international terrorism and air piracy.'' The sternest warning came from the chief of staff, Gen. Hikmat Shehabi: ``We will . . . teach those responsible a lesson they will not forget. We will choose the manner, the time and the place which suits us.''

``I'm sure this had a much greater effect on the Syrians than was generally appreciated in Europe at the time,'' says a longstanding military observer of Syrian affairs. ``I was subconsciously expecting something spectacular in reply.''

Even if the April attempt were a retaliation, trial evidence suggests that much of the infrastructure used in the Hindawi attempt was already in place before the February incident. ``It shows that the Syrians may be much further down this particular path than some people may have realized,'' a veteran observer says.

In a region where nations have been locked in a life-or-death struggle for decades, analysts say, violence in one form or another has been adopted as a valid policy instrument by many states at one time or another. ``From the Syrian point of view, the concept may have seemed entirely legitimate, given some of the nasty things done by both sides over the last 30 years,'' one Western source says.

What constitutes terrorism and state sponsorship is a highly charged question in an area where violence is endemic and multifaceted. The context of a particular action, one Western analyst says, can be more important than its content in perceptions of what is and is not terrorism. But bombing and shooting attacks, assassinations, hijackings, and hostage-taking -- all directed against civilians -- are generally defined as terrorism.

Israel itself, one Mideast observer says, is not exempt of charges that it has resorted to actions viewed by some as terrorism. An underground group once led by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is held responsible by some historians in connection with the 1948 murder of Swedish UN envoy, Count Folke Bernadotte.

In the early 1950s, an Israeli spy ring was held responsible for bomb attacks on American and other Western targets in Cairo, apparently aimed at driving a wedge between Egypt and the West.

A decade later, the Israeli secret service was credited with a letter-bomb campaign that deterred German scientists working on Egyptian military projects. According to Israeli authors, an intimidation campaign was mounted nearly 20 years later, to deter European and Arab scientists working on Iraq's nuclear project, which Israel bombed in 1981.

Some observers believe Israeli agents were behind the 1979 car-bomb explosion in Beirut that killed Abu Hassan (a Palestine Liberation Organization leader) and at least 12 Lebanese civilians. During the siege of Beirut in 1982, this writer witnessed crowded apartment blocks demolished by Israeli warplanes with precision, in the apparent belief or hope that PLO chief Yasser Arafat was inside.

The evidence of the Hindawi case may suggest otherwise, but the general belief so far is that Syria's involvement in terrorism has not been aimed simply at hurting Israelis or Jews for its own sake. Like a number of other states in the region -- notably Iraq, Iran, and Libya -- Syria is seen as having adopted terrorist tactics in pursuit of specific policy goals.

To avoid responsibility and reprisals, such actions have been pursued through proxies, shadowy front organizations, or existing extremist groups with similar goals. In the case of Iran, such untraceable outfits as ``Islamic Jihad'' have claimed responsibility for bombings, kidnappings, and other actions closely in tune with the nation's policies.

Observers acknowledge that Syria, Iraq, and to a lesser extent Libya, have used -- and perhaps been used by -- such groups as that of dissident Palestinian Abu Nidal, which has been based in all three countries at different times.

Given the secret nature of such collaborations, the complex relationships between the state intelligence services and the fringe or freelance groups with which they collaborate are very obscure.

Another British court case has provided some insight which may have wider validity. In April 1983, three members of Abu Nidal's group were given heavy prison sentences for the attempted assassination of Israeli Ambassador Shlomo Argov. Israel cited this attack as a reason for its invasion of Lebanon. It was subsequently revealed that the ringleader was an Iraqi intelligence colonel.

Analysts have plausibly argued that the Iraqis knowingly sparked off the invasion to ease their own situation in the war with Iran. Not only did Iran's ally, Syria, become embroiled in battle with Israel, but this gave Iraq a pretext for announcing a unilateral cease-fire and withdrawal from Iran on June 9, 1982, a ploy which failed to end the Gulf war.

The demands of that same war pushed Iraq increasingly toward the West and the Arab moderates, prompting it to drop its involvement in terrorism, and finally to eject Abu Nidal and his men.

In contrast, Syria's circumstances have led it in other directions. Apparently feeling left out on a limb by Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, Syria's fear is that Jordan or the PLO will make another separate deal that would finalize its isolation. Working largely out of Damascus, Abu Nidal's men are seen as responsible for a series of killings of Jordanian and PLO officials abroad in the early 1980s. At the same time, they launched a series of terrorist attacks against Jewish and Israeli targets in Europe and elsewhere, with the aim of discrediting the PLO.

Syria's relations with Jordan began improving last fall, and the attacks on Jordanians stopped. But the campaign to undermine the PLO's diplomatic aspirations has continued, with the 1985 Rome and Vienna airport attacks and last month's Istanbul synagogue massacre all attributed to Abu Nidal's followers.

The chaos of Lebanon has helped provide obscure conditions in which kidnappers of Western citizens have been able to serve Libyan, Iranian, and Syrian ends without necessarily incriminating the countries concerned. Britain now knows that if it allows US jets based there to bomb Libya again, British hostages in Lebanon may be killed, as happened in April. France has begun balancing its pro-Iraqi Gulf policies in the hope of winning freedom for abducted Frenchmen. There are signs that the US attitude toward Syria is moderated by the knowledge that Syrian cooperation would be essential in securing the release of the US hostages.

The general message seems to be that terrorism can pay off as an instrument of state policy, provided it can be denied and does not attract sanctions which may outweigh the benefits, analysts say. Iraq's case shows that if a country's circumstances change, its interest in using terrorism can wane. Without such a change in conditions, analysts doubt whether even the repercussions of the Hindawi case will do much to change the picture.

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