Middle East Terrorism: A Muddled Scorecard

Damascus, Syria -- The U.S. invasion of Iraq was supposed to stop the "terrorists" dead in their tracks, or at least slow 'em down. After a trip through the Middle East, it became obvious to me that the Iraq war is having an effect opposite to what Team Bush intended. "Ali Ahmed," an Arab diplomat who prefers to remain anonymous says, "The Bush administration looks quite powerful on the surface, but so did the Romans near the end of their empire."

Sure, the Bush plan looked good at first blush. On May 1, Bush landed on the aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego and declared, "We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide. No act of the terrorists will change our purpose, or weaken our resolve, or alter their fate. Their cause is lost." Soon his envoys fanned out, like so many little Darth Vaders, to deliver the empire's message to the "agents of terror" in the Middle East.

But who are these so-called terrorist groups/states and are they listening?

First Stop: Syria

In language almost identical to the pre-war harangues about Iraq, Colin Powell accused Syria in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war of harboring terrorists and hoarding weapons of mass destruction.

It's true, say the experts, that for many years Syria has maintained a small stockpile of chemical weapons -- most likely poison gas -- as a poor man's defense against possible Israeli attack. No one has charged, let alone proven, any intent on Syria's part to use its arsenal as an offensive measure.

The charge of supporting terrorism, which conjures up visions of bearded Al Qaeda fanatics attacking U.S. landmarks, is equally misleading. Haithem Kelani, a former Syrian ambassador to the UN, says that the U.S. intentionally blurs the definition of terrorism, using it as a synonym for the Al Qaeda. According to Kelani, Syria has always opposed the terrorism of right-wing Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Their views, he says, "represent backwardness."

However, Syria defends Palestinian armed attacks on Israeli troops and settlers, and doesn't consider such acts to constitute terrorism. Historically, Syria backed the leftist opposition to Yasir Arafat within the PLO. When Islamist groups eclipsed the left within the Palestinian movement some years back, Syria offered some support to groups such as the Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Scorecard: In response to U.S. pressure, Syria has sealed its border with Iraq to prevent arms and fighters from entering the country, and it cracked down on open political activity by Palestinian groups in Syria. But it hasn't fully closed the Palestinian offices, eliminated its chemical weapons or otherwise met U.S. demands. In short, U.S. rhetoric is sufficiently intimidating to ensure caution but it has not accomplished much by way of concrete changes -- especially since the situation in postwar Iraq continues to deteriorate. "With the U.S. now preoccupied with fighting in Iraq," says Ahmed, "the Syrians know the U.S. has a harder time putting pressure on neighboring countries."

Second Stop: The Hamas, Palestine

The Bush Administration's bogeyman of the week is Hamas. In recent trips to Israel, both Colin Powell and Condi Rice demanded that the Palestinian Authority dismantle the organization and arrest its leaders. Hamas, and its lesser cousin, Islamic Jihad, represent the right-wing, fervently religious segment of the Palestinian movement. They want Palestine to become an Islamic state and use Islam to justify terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians.

But while these groups are respected in the Arab world because of their militant opposition to Israel, their suicide bombings against Israeli civilians remain highly controversial. Some in the Arab world condemn the bombings as morally wrong and politically counterproductive. Hisham Dijani, a Palestinian human rights activist in Damascus, says that Hamas hasn't "achieved anything important except killing people -- our people and their people. They have to fight the Israelis inside the occupied territories, not inside Israel, not in Tel Aviv."

But others I spoke with justify the suicide bombings inside Israel as desperate measures against an enemy who kills Palestinian civilians. Hashem Akkad, a member of Syria's National Assembly, told me, "We do not support such operations, but we understand why these people do this. They don't have any alternative."

But for the most part, both Hamas and Islamic Jihad represent a small minority of Palestinians. That is why both groups succumbed to pressure from the Palestinian Authority and agreed to a three-month ceasefire with Israel.

Scorecard: If the US hoped the Iraq invasion would undercut support for Hamas, think again. Hamas responds primarily to events on the ground in Palestine and Israel, not the presence of U.S. troops hundreds of miles away. As long as Israel illegally occupies Arab land and refuses to recognize a viable Palestinian state, these extremist groups will continue to enjoy a degree of popular support -- even when the majority disagree with their ideology.

Third Stop: The Hizbollah, Lebanon

Hizbollah has long been a thorn in the side of the United States. The Bush administration has demanded that both Syria and Iran stop supporting the Lebanese group.

Hizbollah is probably best known in the US for allegedly detonating the truck bomb that killed 241 Marines in 1983, and a string of kidnappings during the Lebanese civil war. But while the Bush administration continues to label Hizbollah as a terrorist organization, most in the Middle East do not agree with that designation.

None of the political and business leaders in Lebanon, including the right-wing Christian parties, view Hizbollah as a "terrorist" group. They see it as a legitimate political party with a guerrilla wing. Hizbollah also won widespread support for waging guerrilla war against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and forcing the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. Most Lebanese recognize Hizbollah as "the party of resistance in South Lebanon," says Farid el Khazen, the chair of the Political Studies department at the American University of Beirut.

El Khazen says that Hizbollah is now the most influential political party among Shia Muslims in Lebanon, with eight members elected to parliament. While most in the U.S. have only heard of their acts of violence, Hizbollah in fact manages a wide array of clinics, schools and other social service institutions. Roadside stands sell Hizbollah tsotchkes such as CDs, T-shirts and coffee mugs, and the group even has its own website.

The real concern of the US and Israel is not isolated acts of violence waged by the Hizbollah, but its well-organized guerrilla organization, which can potentially disrupt US plans for the region. Hizbollah not only opposes the US-backed road map for peace, it rejects a two-state solution in which a Palestinian and Israeli state would exist side by side -- a position unacceptable to both the US and Israel. It wants Israel to withdraw from all occupied Arab lands, Jerusalem to be made the capital of Palestine and all Palestinian refugees to return to their homes inside Israel.

"These three issues are not addressed in the road map," says Mohammed Raad, head of Hizbollah's parliamentary delegation.

Hizbollah doesn't have the power to stop a peace settlement by itself. But if Hizbollah resumed shelling of northern Israel, and the Israelis carry out a major retaliation, the resulting conflict could scuttle the peace process. But in recent years Hizbollah has tended toward political pragmatism, adapting its ideological positions to new Mideast realities. While calling for an end to Israel, Raad also stresses that Hizbollah will respect decisions reached by the Palestinians themselves.

Scorecard: While U.S. pressure on Syria and Iran has curtailed the military activity on part of the Hizbollah, it could be temporary. Hizbollah responds more to Israeli actions along the Lebanese border than it does to the U.S. troops stationed in Iraq. And no amount of U.S. pressure is likely to succeed in dismantling the Hizbollah. Once the peace process goes forward, even its sharpest critics expect the Hizbollah to continue on its parliamentary path. Dory Chamoun, president of the Christian-based, right-wing National Liberal Party says the Hizbollah will be "a political party like any other normal political party. This evolution will come."

While the United States continues to flex its diplomatic muscle around the Middle East, local folks are mostly unimpressed. Arabs see the U.S. military facing daily guerrilla attacks and increased Iraqi calls for its withdrawal. What initially appeared to be a massive victory for the U.S. empire is instead becoming a revelation of its weaknesses.

"Arabs are biding their time in the face of US belligerency," the Arab diplomat told me. "The U.S. will be bogged down in Iraq for a long time. We can wait."

Reese Erlich is a freelance foreign correspondent and the co-author, with Norman Solomon, of "Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You" (Context Books, 2003).


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