Terror tactics

Israel namechecks the 'war against terror' to justify everything from incursions into Palestinian territory to the bombing of Syria.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Israel’s attack on Syria has been condemned as a ‘gung-ho’ assault that ‘flouts all international rules’.

Following the suicide bombing of a restaurant in Haifa on Saturday, which killed 19 people, Israel launched a retaliatory air assault on a Palestinian camp 14 miles north of Damascus. The Israeli authorities claim the camp is a training ground for Islamic Jihad; Syria says the camp is home to Palestinian refugees. President Bush called for Israeli ‘restraint’, while the UK Guardian said the air assault was a ‘reckless act typical of Israel…a clear, contemptuous breach of international law’ (1).

Israel’s attack was certainly contemptuous. But the bombing of Syria appears to be a sign of weakness on Israel’s part, rather than signifying a gung-ho confidence or strength. Israel’s turn to Syria is less about angling for ‘military domination’ of the Middle East, as one report claimed on 6 October, than an example of Israel lashing out in fear and desperation.

Far from justifying its military actions as a defence of its sovereignty and territory, Israel increasingly piggy-backs on the ‘war against terror’ to justify attacking its enemies. Ariel Sharon’s regime has namechecked the ‘international campaign against terrorism’ as a justification for its incursions into Palestinian territory and now for its assault on Syria. If the attack on Syria shows anything, it is the destabilising impact of making ‘war against terror’ into a de facto organising principle of international relations.

This was Israel’s first serious air assault against Syria in almost 30 years, since the Yom Kippur war of 1973. Explaining the attack, Israeli official Avi Pazner said: ‘Any country who harbours terrorism, who trains terrorists, supports and encourages them, will be responsible to answer for their actions.’ (2) This sounds remarkably like a speech given by President Bush earlier this year: ‘Any person, organisation or government that supports, protects or harbours terrorists is complicit in the murder of the innocent.’ (3)

Israel feels itself increasingly isolated on the world stage, viewed by many as an archaic regime. The Israeli authorities appear incapable of justifying their retaliatory strikes on their own terms and in their own interests, instead turning to the West’s war-against-terror-in-general in a desperate search for legitimacy. According to Ariel Sharon: ‘Just as the USA…has been acting in its war against terrorism, using all its might against terror, so we will act.’ (4)

Many on the left claim that Israel pulls the strings of America’s foreign policy, determining how the Bush administration acts in the Middle East. In fact, an isolated Israel hides in the shadow of the world’s ‘war against terror’, reading from the anti-terrorism script for its military actions.

Indeed, Israel’s war-on-terror talk highlights its loss of traditional purchase on American politics and policy. Following the attack on Syria, President Bush may have said that Israel has a ‘right to defend itself’, but he also called on Israel to ‘avoid creating higher tensions’ and reiterated American support for a Palestinian state. Desperate to stay on side with an increasingly impatient US administration, the Israeli authorities couch their policies in suitably ‘internationalist’ terms, rather than defending their own right to defend and attack.

It is a bit rich of President Bush to call for Israeli ‘restraint’ following the bombing of Syria. As part of the burgeoning ‘war against terror’, the Bushies have shifted their focus from al-Qaeda, to the Taliban, to the first axis of evil (Iraq, Iran and North Korea), to the second axis of evil (Libya, Cuba and Syria), to the ‘60 nations’ that apparently pose a terror threat to the world (5). And as part of this process, the administration has often singled out Syria for condemnation.

In April this year, during the war on Iraq, Bush spokesman Richard Perle called on Congress to pass a Syrian Liberation Act, to help ‘free Syria from the tyrannical rule of the Ba’ath Party’. Both Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell accused Syria of harbouring ex-Iraqi officials and terrorists (6).

The Bush administration’s anti-Syria comments may have been so much posturing, especially as it felt the Iraq war spinning out of control in March and April this year – but such war talk can have an impact on the ground. Having condemned Syria as ‘evil’, as a nation ripe for regime change, as a state that allegedly harbours terrorist networks, Bush and co can hardly be surprised when Syria is attacked by Israel as part of Israel’s apparent commitment to the world’s ‘stand against terror’.

The Syria attack shows that organising international relations around battling the ‘embittered few’ – around standing up to small terror groups that apparently pose a threat to the civilised world – can easily heighten instability in already unstable parts of the world.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) Sliding towards chaos, Guardian, 6 October 2003

(2) Quotes regarding Israel’s strike in Syria, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 5 October 2003

(3) Remarks by the President from the USS Abraham Lincoln, US State Department, 1 May 2003

(4) Full text: Sharon’s address, BBC News, 4 December 2001

(5) See War against what?, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) See Next stop Syria?, by Brendan O’Neill

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Topics Politics


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