Monday, September 27, 2004

Israel kills Hamas official in Damascus

The New York Times reported Israel blew up Mr Khalil, a mid-level official of the militant organization Hamas, on Sunday. His sport utility vehicle exploded in Damascus in a neighborhood heavily populated by Palestinian refugees. Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said that "just because Hamas leaders are operating from Damascus, this does not grant them immunity.''

Zeev Shiff explains that the direct rational for the killing was that Khalil helped financed the Hebron terror cell whose members carried out the double suicide bombing in Be'er Sheva. But he also placed the strike in the longer term Israeli strategy of stepped up pressure on Syria, a policy begun at the outset of the US invasion of Iraq. Israel killed Ghalib Awali, a Hizbullah leader in Beirut earlier this year. In one case, the Israel Air Force destroyed a Syrian radar station in Lebanon. In another, a training camp not far from Damascus, known to be uninhabited, was bombarded from the air. There were also unarmed responses in the form of IAF flyovers that broke the sound barrier over the Assad family home in Latakia. The strike on Khalil raises the anti because it took place in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

For its part, Syria interprets the killing as an Israeli attempt to halt the growing cooperation between Damascus and Washington over Iraq. Foreign Minister Sharaa claimed that U.S.-Syrian relations "are complicated, with Israel being a constant source of negativity, giving false facts about the region and fabricating Syria's reputation in it." He explained Israel's continuing campaign against Syria as an effort to scuttle Damascus' efforts to restart peace negotiations in the region or to keep Syria out of the terrorism headlines. SANA, the official Syrian news agency, stated that "This terrorist operation reaffirms Israel's intentions to destabilize security and stability in the region at a time that both international and regional efforts are being exerted to ease that tension."

Washington will most likely try to exploit its unusual position in this affaire. Both Israel and Damascus are eager to win Washington's favor. Israel is worried about Powel's recent remarks that Syria is being cooperative and positive. Israel must fear that any rapprochement between Syria and the US will inevitably lead to increased US pressure on Israel to give up the Golan and restart regional peace talks.

Damascus is eager to rehabilitate its image in the West. With pressure being placed on Syria by UN resolution 1559 ordering it out of Lebanon, US economic sanctions, and constant Washington assertions that Syria is a rogue state, President Asad is willing to make important concessions to the US, to avoid further sanctions. Damascus made a major concession to the US last week when it ordered the top Hamas leaders, Khaled Mashal and Imad al-Alami, to leave Damascus. This is something Washington has been demanding of Syria for well over a year. The fact that Israel would strike Damascus only days after Asad made this concession, is a sign that the US will keep the pressure on. Washington of course needs Syrian help at the Iraqi border and is sending a further military mission to Damascus this week. But by using its Lebanon card and continuing to sanction Israeli strikes, Washington is able to begin a dialogue with Syria without seeming to make any real concessions. Damascus, although furious at the Israeli strikes, has been careful not to blame the US, as it ordinarily would, for fear of jeopardizing the talks and playing into Israel's hand. In this way, Washington is sitting pretty. It can squeeze Syria in Lebanon, demand cooperation in Iraq, and still allow Israel to strike it at will. Damascus, which claimed the Burns visit as an important diplomatic victory, must be wondering what it really gained.

Israel's ability to infiltrate the Hamas leadership in Damascus is likely to further rattle the group after Israel killed Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his successor as Gaza leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, in missile strikes earlier this year. "They (Hamas leaders) have to take more precautions than they are doing now," said Ali Jarbawi, a Palestinian political science professor. "[The Israelis] are trying to reach Hamas everywhere."Last week, the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper reported that in response to a request by Mossad chief Meir Dagan, an Arab intelligence service gave Israel information on Hamas leaders abroad, including where they live, what their hobbies were and even what food they eat.

Syria ordered top Hamas leader, Khaled Mashal, and another senior official, Imad al-Alami, to leave Damascus, their longtime base, according to a Palestinian close to the group. Syrian officials told Mashal and al-Alami they should find safer territory, and Alami reportedly went to Iran while Mashal surfaced briefly in Cairo and then disappeared. But Israeli analysts say the killing of Khalil was more than retribution. Operationally, it deprives Hamas of a key military leader, they say, while sending a strong signal to Syria that Israel will not tolerate its hosting of Hamas and other radical groups in Damascus. "Also, this attack inside Syria’s capital shows the authorities in Damascus that it cannot be used as a hiding place. This is a blow to the prestige of the regime."

Michael B. Oren, a historian at the Shalem Center, a research institute in Jerusalem, said he believed that Israel would become more active in Syria. "I think this is something we'll see more of because there is a paucity of Hamas targets in the West Bank and Gaza."

Another item reported recently is that Syria is brokering a secret deal to send atomic weapons scientists to Iran, the Sunday Telegraph reports. A group of about 12 middle-ranking Iraqi nuclear technicians and their families were transported to Syria before the collapse of Saddam's regime, the Telegraph claims. The transfer was arranged under a combined operation by Saddam's now defunct Special Security Organisation and Syrian Military Security, which is headed by Arif Shawqat, the Syrian president's brother-in-law. Western intelligence officials believe that President Asad is desperate to get the Iraqi scientists out of his country before their presence is used by Washington as a further reason to target Syria as part of the war on terrorism.

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