Bush urges Sharon to avoid escalation of Mideast tensions

U.S. fears wider conflict in wake of Syria airstrike

Israel has `right to defend herself'

October 07, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush said yesterday that he had urged Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to "avoid escalation and creating higher tensions," reflecting U.S. concerns that the Israeli airstrike Sunday deep inside Syria could spiral into a wider conflict.

Senior aides sought to play down the risk, with a White House official saying that Bush and Sharon had agreed in their phone call after the Israeli strike "that it was important to avoid an escalation of tension in the region." But they acknowledged that such a danger always exists in the volatile Middle East.

"An airstrike like this adds to the atmosphere" of regional tension, another senior Bush administration official said, even though "neither Israel nor Syria is spoiling for a confrontation."

"You've got to worry," the official said. "Even if neither Israel nor Syria wants it, plenty of confrontations occur despite the intentions of each side."

Israel launched the airstrike in retaliation for a suicide bombing Saturday that killed 19 Israelis in the coastal city of Haifa. The attack occurred at a seaside restaurant on the Jewish Sabbath, a day before the start of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

After the bombing, speculation mounted in Israel that the Sharon government would act on its earlier threat to "remove" Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Instead, Israeli planes struck what the government said was a terrorist training camp northwest of Damascus used by groups that included Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which had claimed responsibility for Saturday's bombing.

Bush avoided any direct criticism of Israel during a joint news conference yesterday with visiting Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki. Bush said Israel should not "feel constrained" in defending itself against attacks.

"I made it very clear to the prime minister, like I have consistently done, that Israel's got a right to defend herself, that Israel must not feel constrained in terms of defending the homeland," Bush said. "However, I said that it's very important that any action Israel take should avoid escalation and creating higher tensions."

The president and other administration officials balanced their concerns about escalation with strong support for Israel in its struggle against Palestinian militants.

"Let's not lose sight of what happened over the weekend in Haifa," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "That was a horrific attack on innocent men, women and children, and terrorism must not be allowed to stand."

One administration official noted that Israel had chosen its target carefully to minimize civilian casualties. No fatalities were reported. While the site had been a terrorist camp at one time, he said, it was unclear whether it remained active.

"I would lean toward inactive," the official said.

It was also unclear whether the camp had been used by Islamic Jihad or another Palestinian militant group, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

Since the end of the 1973 Middle East war, which erupted on Yom Kippur with a surprise attack on Israel by Egypt and Syria, Israel had refrained from attacking Syria directly, even though it has accused Damascus of harboring terrorists and helping arm Hezbollah guerrillas who periodically attack targets in northern Israel from across the border in Lebanon.

During the past three decades, Israel has mostly confined its military actions outside the occupied Palestinian territories to Hezbollah military positions and training camps in Lebanon, but has occasionally hit Syrian military targets in Lebanon. Syria maintains a large military presence in Lebanon.

The airstrike renewed concerns of a wider conflict that were raised three years ago with the start of the Palestinian uprising.

"It worries me a great deal that this barrier's been broken," said Edward Walker, a former assistant secretary of state for the Near East who now runs the Middle East Institute think tank. He said the Israeli strike "opens the door to subsequent attacks into Syria."

The attack "adds to tension in the region, makes it more difficult to back away from confrontation and undermines our position in the region," he said.

As if to underscore his point, an Israeli soldier was killed near the border with Lebanon yesterday in what may have been a reprisal by Hezbollah.

While Israel is far superior to Syria militarily, that might not be the only factor Syrian President Bashar Assad has to weigh, Walker said.

"There is a point at which Bashar Assad, to retain the support of the military, will have to do something to assuage the pride of the military," Walker said.

The Israeli airstrike followed numerous signals from Washington that the Bush administration is losing patience with Syria, which has long been on the State Department's list of nations that sponsor terrorism.

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