The Syrian sanctuary


DESPITE the deaths in the World Trade Center bombing and the blood of the wounded, neither the American press, public nor government has yet focused on the basic nature of terrorism in and from the Middle East.

The full story of how the bombing was inspired, organized and paid for may not be told in court for years, if ever. We still do not know the truth about the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103.

But we do not need the courts, just the record of recent history, to understand that Mideastern terrorism is not born in some storage locker in New Jersey or the furies of a few traveling fanatics.

Wherever the inspiration and money for the World Trade Center bombing came from, the tragedy at least gives us a chance to examine Mideast terrorism and see it whole -- a major danger in international life, a planned policy, not a mad unfathomable passion.

It is fathomable, oh yes. Mideast terrorism originated in and is carried out from the capitals of those states that believe that their power at home and reach abroad are served best by inflaming hatred and organizing, financing or giving safe haven to gangs that will create paralyzing fear among domestic dissidents and foreign foes.

In the past half century, most Muslim Mideastern states paid for or organized terrorism for two reasons -- to wage war against Israel and protect their own dictatorships.

Now some of them find themselves threatened by terrorist movements they helped create or arm -- fundamentalist or political.

The Western focus is on Iran and Libya. But it is Syria that has made itself the most politically important terrorist state. President Assad is accepted respectfully as the key to Mideast peace, courted by the U.S. and Israel, all without surrendering Syria's position as sanctuary, base and dispatch point for terrorist gangs from the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Japan, Turkey and other interesting places.

Say this for Syria: it makes no pretense. Recently, it encouraged Hezbollah, the Iranian-Lebanese specialists in kidnapping and murder, to carry out a large military exercise in Syrian-occupied Lebanon.

The U.S. has Syria on its terrorist list. For years, U.S. administrations urged Assad to close terrorist camps in Syria; no action. Now, Secretary of State Christopher does the same; same results.

The story was told in a House hearing Tuesday, in an exchange between Rep. Tom Lantos of California and Edward Djerejian, assistant secretary for the Near East under the Bush and Clinton administrations.

LANTOS: Does Assad accept the fact that he provides safe haven for terrorist groups on Syrian soil?

DJEREJIAN: We present the facts to his government as we see them, very candidly, very frankly. And we have not been able to narrow the differences between us on that.

LANTOS: It is your judgment that, as of today, there are still terrorist groups on Syrian soil?

DJEREJIAN: Yes. . . . But . . . we have absolutely no evidence of the Syrian government itself being engaged in an act of terrorism since 1986.

What? A government allowing terrorist gangs to operate from its own soil is not "engaged" itself? In whose court?

"Not since 1986" -- that absolves Syria of any responsibility for destroying Pan Am 103. Once the U.S. said that was a Syrian-Iranian job but now blames only Libya.

So: We are expected to believe that in the same city, Frankfurt, at the same time, a Syrian-based Palestinian gang and a Libyan gang, with past relations, were busily working on bombing an American plane but somehow one never knew what the other was doing and the speedy Libyans just got there first.

In the campaign, Bill Clinton promised families of the Pan Am victims that he would answer all questions about Syrian and Iranian involvement. Presumably he will hear out intelligence agents who believe the Syria-based gang knew it was infiltrated and handed off the job to its Libyan backup.

The Israeli and American governments now obviously believe that not spreading the truth about a terrorist dictator, thus appeasing and strengthening him with respectability, will make peace with him more likely and more lasting.

As when?

A.M. Rosenthal is a columnist for the New York Times.

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