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Terrorism as a Preferred Instrument of Syrian Policy

Terrorism is the use of violence in which the objective is to harm states, population groups or single individuals in order to cause panic, and reduce their will and power of resistance, so as to advance the political objectives of those employing the terror. Terrorist operations may be divided into two main categories: acts initiated and carried out by terrorist organizations, and acts supported, initiated or carried out by states, which make use of state institutions and organizations for that purpose. Syria under the rule of Assad is a state which affords patronage to terrorism, supports terrorist organizations and uses terrorism as a tool with which to further its strategic objectives. Syria is thus part of that small “club” of seven states sponsoring terrorism, which also includes Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya Cuba and North Korea. 

Executive Summary

1. The purpose of this study is to analyze the use of the “terror weapon” as an instrument of Syrian policy during the 28 years of Syrian President Hafez Assad’s rule. This study was prepared by Dr. Reuven Ehrlich, a Research Fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya and an expert on Lebanon who has written articles and books on the subject, including a book about Syrian involvement in Lebanon.
2. The study assesses the factors behind the use of the “terror weapon” during the period of Assad’s rule and the changes which have occurred in the 1990s in the choice of targets for terror, as well as in the modus operandi of the activation of the “terror weapon.” It examines the reasons for these changes and the characteristics of Syria’s involvement in terror in recent years. The paper also addresses the question of to what extent Syria’s use of the “terror weapon” has resulted in political gains both in the regional arena and in connection with the Arab-Israeli conflict. The anomalous phenomenon of the use of terror by a state involved in the Middle East peace process and its significance are explored as well.
3. The primary conclusions arising from the study are as follows:

a. The Assad regime has made systematic use of the “terror weapon” since coming to power in 1970. The basic reason for this is the wide gap between Syria’s aspirations to regional hegemony and its desire to play a leading role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the objective limitations and weaknesses of Syria from a military, economic and demographic point of view.

b. From the Syrian perspective, the intensive use of the “terror weapon” allows Syria to advance a range of its interests both domestically and internationally: it guarantees the stability and survival of the regime at home; it enables Syria to apply pressure to its enemies in the Arab world; it strengthens the “Syrian order” in Lebanon; it punishes Western countries and achieves political gains from them; and, above all else, it furthers Syria’s strategic interests in the conflict with Israel. A recent example of the importance of the “terror weapon” in Syrian eyes is Syria’s strenuous opposition to the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 425, which is based on its fear of losing the use of the “terror weapon” in southern Lebanon.

c. The manner in which the “terror weapon” is used by the Syrian regime, as well as its targets, changes from time to time in accordance with political developments and changing pressures on Syria. In the past decade, one can perceive changes with regard to the manner in which the “terror weapon” was used when compared with the 1970s and 1980s. The factors underlying these changes were: the elimination of domestic opposition, the downfall of the Soviet Union, Syria’s isolation in the Arab arena, Syria’s participation in the peace process and its growing need for the United States. All of these factors led the Syrian regime to try and alter its image as a state sponsor of terrorism via tactical changes in the use of the “terror weapon”, but without making any strategic concessions concerning its use of terrorism as a weapon for advancing Syrian interests.

d. In the framework of these changes, it is possible to identify three significant differences between Syria’s use of the “terror weapon” in the 1990s in comparison with the past: first, the Syrians are careful to use “terrorist subcontractors” and refrain from direct involvement in terrorism as a result of lessons learned in the 1980s. Second, the order of priorities of the targets of terror have changed: Israel has become a preferred target whereas Turkey, the Palestinian Authority and pro-Western Arab countries have become secondary targets. Western countries have ceased to be direct targets of terrorism initiated by the Syrians. Third, the Syrians reduced their use of the left-wing Palestinian organizations whose terrorist activities abroad were revealed. They were replaced by a combination of other terror organizations activated by Syria and a joint Syrian-Iranian co-production involving the use of Islamic terror organizations in the framework of the strategic cooperation between the two sides.

4. In light of these changes it is possible to characterize the current situation regarding Syrian support and patronage for terrorist organizations as follows:
a. The Syrians provide patronage and political, propaganda and operational support to at least 10 of the 35 terrorist groups (or more than 30%) appearing on the US State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism (as of April 1998). The ideology of these terrorist organizations calls for the destruction of Israel and they oppose the peace process, the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat.

b. The terrorist groups under Syrian patronage can be divided in to four categories as possible:

1) Hezbollah;

2) Palestinian Islamic organizations: Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad/Shkaki);

3) Radical left-wing Palestinian organizations: the PFLP-GC/Jibril, the PFLP/Habash, the DFLP/Hawatmeh, The Palestine Liberation Front, the Fatah Revolutionary Council/Abu Nidal, Fatah/Abu Mussa and an extremist faction of the Popular Struggle Front;

4) Other Middle Eastern and International terrorist groups: Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Japanese Red Army and other terrorist organizations.

c. Hezbollah and other Palestinian terrorist groups’ policy of carrying out terrorist attacks is part of Syrian strategy and is influenced by it. However, Syria does not have sole and absolute control over these terrorist groups. Contrary to the 1970s and 1980s, Syria cooperates with its strategic ally Iran, and the terror attacks carried out by Palestinian Islamic organizations serve the joint and shared interests of the two countries. Thus, the Syrians make use of the Islamic organizations which receive ideological guidance, political and operational instructions as well as military and financial support from Iran.

d. The headquarters, training bases, logistical, political and propaganda offices of these organizations are primarily based in Syria. In this framework, it should be noted that Damascus is the primary center of left-wing Palestinian organizations opposed to the Palestinian Authority and the Oslo Accords. Syria serves as an important arena oactivity for Hamas outside of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, and senior Hamas officials carry out operational, political and propaganda activities from Damascus. The infrastructure of the “Palestine Islamic Jihad” outside of Judea, Samaria and Gaza is primarily located in the vicinity of Damascus, from where its operations and activities in the “territories” are directed.

e. The leaders of most of these terrorist organizations reside in Syria, from where they oversee and direct the military, political and propaganda activities of their organizations against Israel and other Arab states. Among the senior leaders and activists of the terror groups residing in Damascus are: Dr. Ramadan Shalah, Secretary-General of Islamic Jihad and his deputy Ziad Nehaleh; Imad al-Alami, chairman of Hamas’ “Interior Committee”, who is a dominant figure in activating the organizations’ military apparatus for carrying out attacks; Ahmed Jibril, George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh, leaders of the three main left-wing Palestinian terrorist organizations. Also active in Syria are middle- and low-ranking military activists of all the abovementioned groups.

f. The Syrians permit these groups to maintain their military and political infrastructure in areas under their control in Lebanon. The most widespread infrastructure belongs to Hezbollah, which is also the leading group which concentrates attacks in southern Lebanon. The Syrians also permit some limited activity by the left-wing Palestinian terrorist groups. With Syrian approval, the Beka’a Valley continues to serve as an organizational and training center for Middle East and international terrorist groups.

g. The Syrians support a number of anti-Turkish terrorist and underground organizations, particularly the “Kurdish Workers Party” (PKK). They allow the PKK to train in Syria and Lebanon and to use both countries as operational and political-propaganda bases against Turkey. The PKK’s leader, Abdallah Ocalan lives in Damascus, and several senior members of the organization also live in Syria. The organization has bases and offices in Damascus, northern Syria, the Beka’a Valley in Lebanon and along the Syrian-Turkish border which are used for operations.

h. Islamic terrorist groups operating in Arab countries against pro-Western regimes find sanctuary in Syria and Lebanon and use them as bases for their training activities and logistical infrastructure. The terrorist organizations direct their terrorist and subversive activities against Arab governments from Syria and Lebanon, and the Syrians do not make any serious efforts to prevent it, despite repeated and varied protests by Arab states, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

i. The Syrians grant sanctuary to terrorist and criminal industries in Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley. Both in areas under Syrian Army control and in those under the control of Hezbollah, there are widespread “industries” for the planting and production of drugs and large-scale currency forgery (especially American currency). The industries’ products are marketed in Israel, Arab states and Western countries. There are many indications that the Syrians assist these industries and enable them to exist, since they share in the enormous profits generated, and possibly also because of their interest not to confront Hezbollah and powerful local elements dealing in these “industries.”

5. An analysis of these organizations’ terrorist activities in the service of Syrian and Iranian interests in the 1990s shows that the “terror weapon” has caused damage to Israel and the peace process of both a strategic and tactical nature. The use of the “terror weapon” in the era of the peace process has caused casualties in Israel, both among the IDF and the civilian population. Besides this, these organizations’ attacks, particularly by the Palestinian Islamic groups, significantly contributed to the disruptions in the peace process, mainly in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere.

6. There is an anomaly before us in that Syria is the only member of the “club” of nations supporting terrorism which also participates in the peace process. Syria’s participation in the peace process is, in its view, a source of strength, since it gives Syria a form of “immunity” from military retaliation for its anti-Israel terrorist activity. But at the same time it is a source of weakness, since Syria is more vulnerable and exposed than in the past to political pressures from other countries participating in the peace process. Past experience proved that the use of political pressure on Syria, mainly by the United States, brought about restraint and moderation in the use of the “terror weapon”, although it did not put an end to the Syrian use of it.
7. The main lesson from analyzing the phenomenon of Syria’s use of terrorism as an instrument to obtain political gains in the era of the peace process is that alongside the existence of the process, a determined continuous struggle must also be waged against terrorism and against the countries behind it. The bitter lesson learned over the past several years is that if the use of terrorism is not halted, it will be very difficult, and maybe impossible, to make progress in the peace process at all levels. In this connection, it would be worthwhile to emphasize that Israel’s struggle against terrorism is not enough in itself, but requires close and continuous political and security cooperation by all countries interested in the success of the peace process, and the United States must take the leading role in this effort. Such cooperation must find expression, among other things, in systematic pressure on Syria and on other countries who consider the frequent and systematic use of the “terror weapon” as a legitimate tool to promote their internal and external interests.

Beyond the ongoing and continuous struggle against terrorism and countries giving it sanctuary, there exists a fundamental shared interest of Israel, the United States, the European Union and pro-Western Arab states, in which any future peace treaty between Israel and Syria must include a clear Syrian obligation, supported by international supervision and surveillance mechanisms, to reject the use of the “terror weapon”. Insistence by Israel and pro-peace countries on this issue is both prudent and justified in light of the destructive potential inherent in the “terror weapon”, which, if not uprooted and neutralized could intensify in the future and once again be directed not only against Israel and its neighbors, but also against the entire international community.


Terrorism is the use of violence in which the objective is to harm states, population groups or single individuals in order to cause panic, and reduce their will and power of resistance, so as to advance the political objectives of those employing the terror. Terrorist operations may be divided into two main categories: acts initiated and carried out by terrorist organizations, and acts supported, initiated or carried out by states, which make use of state institutions and organizations for that purpose. Syria under the rule of Assad is a state which affords patronage to terrorism, supports terrorist organizations and uses terrorism as a tool with which to further its strategic objectives. Syria is thus part of that small “club” of seven states sponsoring terrorism, which also includes Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya Cuba and North Korea.

Hafez el-Assad and Muammar Ghadafi: members in good standing of the “sponsors of terror club”

The use of terror as an instrument in the hands of Syrian policymakers, as well as the sponsorship of terrorism, is as old as the Assad regime. The use of terror, and the way in which it has been utilized by the Syrian regime, has changed over the years, as a consequence of developments in Syria, in the inter-Arab arena, in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and in the relations between Syria and Western countries, principally the United States. In the course of the 1970’s and ’80’s the Syrian regime faced internal and external difficulties, which led it to an intensify its use of terrorism, at times including direct Syrian involvement in acts of terror. In the ’90’s, witthe stabilization of Assad’s domestic situation, the establishment of the “Syrian order” in Lebanon, the reduction of tensions between Syria and other Arab states, Syrian involvement in the peace process and the loss of its main supporter after the collapse of the Soviet Union — the Syrian regime was forced to change the manner in which it exploited terrorism. It did not abandon the use of terror as a way of advancing its strategic objectives, but had to alter its mode of operation in order to blur its involvement.

What is the significance of Syrian support for terrorist organizations? Syria’s patronage first and foremost allows the terrorist organizations to find refuge and shelter on Syrian or Syrian-controlled Lebanese territory, where they enjoy comfortable political and security conditions. Terrorist groups can thus organize training; develop a logistical infrastructure (Weapons, storehouses, communications, documentation, funds and so on); they can take advantage of the political and propaganda cover of official Syrian bodies. They can travel freely between Syria, Lebanon and Iran, and between Syria and Lebanon and other Arab states; they can develop channels of communication to the existing infrastructure in Judea, Samaria and Gaza; they can travel to and from Europe; they can develop a financial infrastructure and pass money on to activists in Judea, Samaria and Gaza; they can benefit from each others’ assistance; they can establish contacts with other terror-supporting states, principally Iran, Syria’s ally. At he same time, the Syrians keep a close eye on the terrorist organizations, particularly those who might potentially pose a danger to the regime. The Syrians see these organizations as essentially bargaining chips, which may be cynically used and then discarded. They expel terrorists from their territory and that of Lebanon, or imprison them without charge; they send intelligence agents into the organizations, and use them according to the shifting needs of the Syrian intelligence structures.

Why does the Assad regime choose to use terrorism as a preferred instrument of policy? The central reason for Syria’s support for terrorism is the wide gap between the far-reaching ambitions of the Syrian regime to achieve regional hegemony – primarily via Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians – and to play a leading role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the objective limitations and weakness of the Syrian state. In the military field, Syria has a strong military but is clearly inferior to Israel; It is not a state with a large population and political tradition of longevity, as is Egypt. It does not possess great natural wealth and economic resources, as do Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Iraq; It has no tradition of democracy or openness, and the existing Alawi regime, though it has brought Syria stability, behaves in a brutally oppressive fashion toward the opposition, which draws its own strength from the Sunni Muslim majority. In the absence of military, economic or demographic capabilities to translate into political strength and no moral or legal impediments, and without legitimacy at home, the regime has turned terrorism into its main weapon. The intensive and continuing use of terrorism makes it possible for the Syrian regime to advance by force a wide range of objectives while fitting in with changing requirements and developments: ensuring the survival of the regime at home; “punishing” Western countries and obtaining political gains from them; punishing Syria’s enemies in the Arab world and applying pressure to them; and advancing Syria’s interests in the Arab-Israel conflict. All this is accomplished without the need to resort to military force or engage in a military confrontation with Israel at an inopportune moment and in potentially disastrous circumstances.

Following is an analysis of the use of the “terror weapon” by the Syrians since 1970. This analysis will seek to compare the use of the “terror weapon” in the 1970s and 1980s versus the changes that have occurred in the Syrian modus operandi in the 1990s. It will also provide an updated assessment of the Syrian regime’s support and patronage for terrorist organizations.

Use of terror in the 1970’s and ’80’s

Terror as an instrument for suppressing opposition to the regime

In the 1970’s and ’80’s the Assad regime made extensive use of military force and brutal oppression to suppress domestic Sunni Muslim opposition, which at that time had raised its head and posed a danger to the stability of the regime. The use of the state’s military force to suppress opposition is not typical only of the Assad regime. Such methods have also been used by other members of the “club” of nations which support terrorism such as Saddam Hussein of Iraq, who did not hesitate to use chemical weapons against his own people, and the Iranian regime, which assassinated its opponents abroad.

The clearest expression of the use of the state’s military force against domestic opposition was the suppression of the popular rising in the city of Hama by elite units of the Syrian army, led by the 569 division, commanded by Rifa’at Assad, younger brother of the President, and the commando units (“special forces”) headed by Ali Haydar, (a prominent Alawi officer loyal to Assad). In the course of the attack carried out by these units on the city of Hama, the fourth largest city in Syria and stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, in January 1982, 15-20,000 Syrian civilians were killed, and whole neighborhoods were completely destroyed in this ancient and well-known city.

The use of terrorist methods against opponents of the Assad regime has taken place not only within Syria itself. Opposition members living in Europe and the Middle East have been systematically murdered by the security and intelligence agencies of the regime, who have made use of diplomatic immunity and of Syrian embassies as bases for carrying out terrorist operations. Some examples of assassinations of this kind in which Syrian governmental institutions were involved: In Amman a member of the Syrian embassy’s personnel stood at the head of a death squad which murdered Abed al-Wahab Bakri, exiled leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. (July 1980). In Kuwait Syrian embassy employees were behind an attempted terrorist attack on an organisation of Muslim Brotherhood supporters (November 1980). In Paris, Salah al-Din al-Bitar, a former prime minister of Syria and one of the founders of the Ba’ath party, was assassinated (July 1980). In West Germany the Syrian embassy was involved in an attempt on the life of Muslim Brotherhood leader Issam al-Attar, in which Attar’s wife was killed (March 1981).

Terror as a tool for promoting Syrian objectives on the pan-Arab arena

In the pan-Arab arena, frequent use of the “terror weapon” has been made by Syria against Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians, three of the component factors of “Greater Syria” (in the Syrian view). This was done in an attempt to impose Syrian hegemony over them and bring them into line with Syrian policy. Syria also used the “terror weapon” against Egypt and Iraq, its two main rivals in the Arab world, albeit with less successful results. It was used against Egypt at the end of the 1970s because of what the Syrians viewed as Egypt’s departure from its joint strategy with Syria (by agreeing to make a separate peace with Israel after Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem). Iraq, on the other hand, served as a target for terror attacks so long as relations between the competing Baathist regimes were hostile.

What particularly stands out in the pan-Arab arena is the Syrian use of terrorism in Lebanon, mainly against opponents of the “Syrian order”. The main Lebanese leaders killed by Syrian proxies were: Bashir Gemayel (who was accused by Syrian propaganda of being a “Zionist proxy”); and Kamal Jumblatt (accused of being a “traitor” and an “American agent”). Bashir Gemayel, commander of the “Lebanese Forces”, was murdered by Habib Tanius Shartouni, a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), (which has often been used as a “subcontractor” by Syrian ), three weeks after being elected president of Lebanon (September 14, 1982). Kamal Jumblatt, the main Druze leader who stood at the head of the Palestinian and left-wing organizations and was the moving spirit behind the anti-Syrian coalition in the Lebanese civil war, was murdered by Syrian agents after the Syrian army took over the Shouf mountains and entered Beirut (March 16, 1977). The Lebanese media also came in for special treatment, having shown too much support for Syria’s opponents, in the opinion of the Syrians, during the Lebanese civil war. For example Salim al-Lawzi, editor of the newspaper Al-Hawadeth, who took an anti-Syrian line in his paper and was forced to flee to London, was brutally murdered during a visit to his homeland. (His body was found on March 4, 1980. His fingers had been dissolved in acid, as a warning to all who might dare to write against Syria).

Syrian terror in Lebanon also took the form of collective punishment, not only against opponents of the “Syrian order” from among the Christian population (1978), or in the city of Zahle (1980-81), but even against Muslim inhabitants of Beirut. Immediately following the renewed entry of Syrian forces into Beirut in February 1987 (from where they had been

forced to leave by the Israeli army in 1982), the Syrians killed 23 men and women in the Basta quarter in the northern part of the city. The Syrians claimed the victims belonged to Hezbollah and opposed the handover of their base to Syria. Hezbollah labeled it a “massacre in cold blood.” “Voice of Islam” radio, the Hezbollah station, claimed that the pathology report of the doctor who examined the bodies confirmed that all those killed had received gunshots to the head, from behind, from a distance of three meters. Among the dead were 4 women, and 4 youths. All had been shot in a single room. It became clear that all had been subjected to violence and torture before being killed. Their hands had been tied behind their backs (“Voice of Islam”, February 25, 1987). Approximately 50,000 people took part in the victims funerals, chanting “Death to Ghazi Cana’an”, as he was viewed as bearing responsibility for the massacre (Al-Nahar, February 26, 1987).

Not only in Lebanon have the Syrians made use of terror. Jordan was a preferred target for Syrian terrorism in the first half of the 1980’s, against the background of the deterioration in relations between the two countries. Egypt became a target after Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and the Camp David Accords as part of a campaign to punish Egypt and isolate it in the Arab world. The PLO and Fatah leadership were also a traditional target for Syrian terror whenever relations became strained, against the background of the ongoing Syrian desire and efforts to become the sponsor and guardian of the “Palestinian cause”.

In the 1970’s and ’80’s the Syrians carried out a large number of terrorist attacks or attempted terrorist attacks against several Arab states, either through direct involvement or by employing Palestinian “subcontractor” organizations. Prominent among these groups was the Saiqa organization (a Palestinian group completely under Syrian control), which operated under the name of the “Revolutionary Eagles”. Attacks were also carried out by the Abu Nidal organization led by Sabri al-Banna (Abu Nidal), which in the 1980s acted as a subcontractor for the Syrians. In 1983-85, after moving his infrastructure from Iraq to Syria, Abu Nidal directed his organization’s terrorist activities against Jordanian diplomats in Jordan and abroad. The attacks ceased in 1985, with the rapprochement between Syria and Jordan.

An additional wave of attacks against Arab targets began at the end of the 1970s, after Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and the beginning of the Israeli-Egyptian peace process. The most prominent terrorist attacks against Arab targets after Sadat’s visit were: The attempt to blow up the Egyptian embassy in Bonn (January 1978); the taking over by Saiqa of the Egyptian embassy in Ankara (July 1979); the unsuccessful attempt on the life of Jordanian Prime Minister Muder Badran (January 1981) the abduction of the Jordanian representative in Beirut, Hisham Muhsan (February 1981); two attempts on the life of Arafat (October 1981); the explosion of a car bomb outside the offices of the pro-Iraqi Lebanese newspaper “Al-Watan al-Arabi” in Paris (April 1982 (in the explosion, a woman was killed and more than 60 passers-by were wounded. Later, two Syrian intelligence officers were expelled by the French from the Syrian embassy in Paris); the killing of Issam Sartawi, a PLO official who initiated dialogue with Israel, was carried out in Portugal by a gunman belonging to the Abu-Nidal group, apparently on behalf of the Syrians. (April 1982). (The statement taking responsibility for the killing of Sartawi was published in Damascus, and the hit squad set out on its mission from Damascus). Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership openly accused Syria of being behind the killing of PLO official and former Mayor of Hebron, Fahd Kawasme, in Jordan (December 1984).

Terror as an instrument for punishing Western states and making political gains

Western targets, mainly American and French, were among the preferred objectives for Syrian terrorism during the 1970s and ’80s: The United States was targeted by Damascus primarily as a consequence of Washington’s support

Use of the terrorist weapon in the 1990’s

Factors accounting for how the “terror weapon” is used by Syria

In the 1990’s, it was possible to point to the peace process which began at the Madrid Conference (1991) and Syria’s increasing need of the US as the two main factors which influenced the way in which the Syrian regime used the terrorism weapon. Assad’s considerations in this context were and are as follows:

a) Syria understood the importance of winning the support of the US — the only superpower left after the collapse of the USSR, Syria’s primary sponsor. The importance of the US grew with its involvement in the peace process and its role as a sponsor of the 1991 Madrid Conference. To this end, Syria had to try and reduce the damage which it accrued as a result of the use of terrorism in the 1970s and ’80s. Since 1979, Syria has been included in the American list of states which sponsor terror; this gave it a very negative image among American public opinion and in the U.S. Congress, obstructed its relations with the US and prevented it — inter alia — from receiving economic aid or assistance with sensitive American technologies. Similarly, use of the terrorism weapon obstructed Syria’s relations with the European Union, which placed an embargo on Syria following the revelation of the “Hindawi affair,” which was partly dropped in November 1994.

b) Syria developed an outstanding interest in winning the support of pro-Western Arab countries, including countries such as Egypt and Jordan, which are also involved in the peace process. During the 1970s and ’80s, it will be recalled that such countries were prominent targets for use of the Syrian terrorism weapon, against the background of political differences of opinion between them and Syria.

c) At the same time Syria was not neglecting its basic outlook which