Syria's outrage over Israel's air attack on an alleged terrorist training facility near Damascus cannot be taken too seriously. The notion of sovereignty has not prevented Syria from hosting Palestinian groups, whose goal is not only to violate Israel's sovereignty but to eliminate it entirely. So the questions raised by Israel's unprecedented bombing of Syrian territory are political, not legal.

Foremost is the practical question of whether the assault on this camp will prevent the Islamic Jihad, which took credit for the October 4 suicide bombing in Haifa that prompted the raid, from assaulting Israeli civilians again. The answer is absolutely not. Even if every Palestinian terrorist were thrown out of Syria, the capacity of Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the Martyrs Brigades to do their bloody work would remain unaffected.

It is worth asking, therefore, why Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would take an action that has no effect on the terrorists but that ends a thirty-year truce between Syria and Israel. Syria could now launch crossborder attacks against Israel, either directly or through proxies such as Hezbollah, and rightfully blame Israel for having set the precedent by breaking an agreement that Syria had been honoring. While Syria is in no position to launch a full-scale war against Israel, it could cause mischief that would make life very unpleasant for Israelis living in northern Israel--a problem the Sharon government surely does not need in addition to its other current troubles.

Some argue that a retaliation by Syria may be exactly what Sharon intended to provoke. The neo-con ideologues in Washington may even welcome one, for it would provide them--and Israel--with a convenient pretext for taking even more serious measures against a country that has long been on their hit list.

Others believe that Sharon had to do something to quell Israeli outrage over the brutal Haifa bombing, which killed twenty people, including two entire families. The usual target for Sharon's retaliations is Yasser Arafat. Although there was no evidence to connect Arafat to this bombing, this has not inhibited Sharon from blaming him in the past. But this time, blaming Arafat would have presented a problem, because Sharon's cabinet has recently passed a resolution declaring its intention to remove the Palestinian leader from Ramallah, which has raised the Israeli public's expectation that the Sharon government will do nothing short of that in retaliation for Arafat's next offense. Given the United States' opposition to such a move and the difficulty of implementing it without killing Arafat, Sharon may have simply decided to "change the subject" by pointing in a different direction and attacking Syria instead. If such was his intention, the tactic worked.

The question, of course, is at what cost. The attack on Syria deeply upset Arab leaders in neighboring countries, reinforcing their view that Sharon is a man who knows no rational restraints. And because President George W. Bush approved Sharon's action, the United States' expectation that it can count on Arab leaders to help it resolve post-conflict problems in Iraq has been dealt a severe blow.

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  • Henry Siegman is Senior Fellow and Director of the U.S./Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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