The Lessons of Lebanon
Iran and Syria sponsor an ominous arms build-up on Israel's northern border.
by Michael Rubin
07/01/2002, Volume 007, Issue 41

Yellow Hezbollah FLAGS fly over the rubble of the Tourmus agricultural station on the Israel-Lebanon border. Following Israel's May 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Hezbollah guerrillas dynamited the cattle pens and vaccination clinics where Lebanese farmers once brought their livestock for immunization. "It's a shame. Disease doesn't know the border, and everyone will suffer because of this," one local farmer said. Hezbollah does not care. Emboldened by the Israeli withdrawal and United Nations moral equivalency, Hezbollah is determined to further the conflict. Sadly, Israel's muddled anti-terrorism policy, like that of the Bush administration, encourages such terror.

More than two years after Israel's unilateral withdrawal, peace is increasingly distant. Syria and Iran saw Israel's retreat not as a gesture of peace, but as a sign of weakness. Rather than enjoy peace, Israeli border towns prepare for renewed terror. Residents of Manara, for example, live behind high fences, barbed wire, and watchtowers. The UNIFIL post ten meters away across the border in Lebanon provides little comfort, especially after the October 2000 incident in which UNIFIL troops concealed evidence of a Hezbollah kidnapping across the U.N.-certified border.

Hezbollah does not operate in isolation. "Syria is the brains and Iran is the heart," one counterterrorism expert explained. Twice a week, Iran Air cargo planes touch down at the Damascus airport, supplying increasingly sophisticated arms to terrorist camps across the border in Syrian-occupied Lebanon. In recent weeks, Hezbollah has deployed thousands of missiles capable of striking targets as deep inside Israel as Haifa. Intelligence reports indicate that Iranian Revolutionary Guard brigadier general Ali Reza Tamizr has begun training Hezbollah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Hamas, and Arafat's Fatah on missiles capable of downing civilian aircraft.

The lessons of Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon are clear. Adversaries who do not desire peace will further conflict. The day after the completion of Israel's withdrawal, Hezbollah secretary general Hasan Nasrallah declared, "The road to Palestine and freedom is the road of the resistance and intifada! It should be neither the intifada that is framed by Oslo, nor that which is negotiated by the compromising negotiator in Stockholm. All you need is to follow the way of the martyred people of the past who shook and frightened the entity of this raping Zionist community."

Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat concurred. Two months after Israel's pullback, Arafat turned down Israel's offer of a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem, on 97 percent of the West Bank and Gaza and 3 percent of Israel proper. Instead, Arafat launched a war designed to strike not only in disputed territories, but also in Israel.

The second Palestinian intifada is not a grass-roots uprising, but rather a terror campaign perpetrated largely by Arafat's overlapping Fatah, Tanzim, Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade, and Force 17, with overt Syrian, Iranian, Saudi, and Iraqi assistance. With the State Department floating trial balloons of new peace plans predicated upon further Israeli concessions, and self-righteous European Union and U.N. officials demanding a cessation of Israeli self-defense, state sponsors of terrorism smell blood and sense victory.

On June 5, four days after Syria assumed the Security Council presidency, terrorists detonated a car bomb next to a public bus near Megiddo, killing 17. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility from its headquarters in Damascus. Three days later, the Iranian government rewarded the group by upping its budget 70 percent. When a suicide bomber killed 15 at a pool hall in a Tel Aviv suburb, Syria's state-controlled radio declared, "The wonderful and special suicide attacks [are] a practical declaration before the whole world of the way to liberate Arab Palestinian land." Clearly, Damascus is flaunting its support for terrorism.

The growth of anti-Israel terror is directly proportional to the decline of Israeli deterrence. When the Damascus-based PFLP assassinated Israel's tourism minister last October, Israel failed to retaliate against the group's headquarters. Sensing Israel's reluctance to hold him accountable for his proxy groups, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad grows increasingly bold.

On April 26, 2002, Israeli security forces intercepted an explosives-laden car bomb that the PFLP planned to detonate under the Azrieli Towers, Tel Aviv's equivalent of the World Trade Center. Ten thousand deaths would have resulted from the buildings' collapse. Less than a month later, terrorists attempted to blow up the Pi Glilot gas storage facility. Had they been successful, the entire population of Ramat Aviv Gimel--more than 20,000--would have perished in the fireball.

The tragedy of the situation is that Israel could end Syria's terror sponsorship within one month. After all, four years ago, Turkey forced Syria to do the same. Damascus once played host to Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) leader Abduallah Ocalan, a man responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in Turkey. In September 1998, Ankara decided it had had enough. President Suleyman Demiral declared, "We are losing our patience and we retain the right to retaliate against Syria." Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz warned that the Turkish army was "awaiting orders" to attack. Turkey staged military exercises along the Syrian border. The result? Syria caved, expelled Ocalan, and closed down PKK offices. For Damascus, terrorism is a worthwhile policy tool only so long as the regime need not pay a military price.

As scholars such as Daniel Pipes, Efraim Inbar, and Ely Karmon have shown, Turkey's success provides lessons to both Washington and Jerusalem. First, terrorism can be stopped, but those fighting terror must be willing to go to war to eradicate it. Second, terrorism is black and white. Unfortunately, it's a lesson many in the Bush administration do not understand.

Prior to joining the State Department's policy planning staff, Brookings scholar Meghan O'Sullivan argued that the United States should seek a "more nuanced" approach to terrorism, whereby "lesser penalties would apply to lesser levels of state sponsorship." Such nuance is dead wrong, since it implies some terror to be permissible.

Washington (and Jerusalem) should not exculpate state sponsors for the actions of their proxy groups. Just as the key to constraining al Qaeda was toppling the Taliban, the key to constraining groups such as Hezbollah, the PFLP, and the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade is a willingness to make their hosts pay the ultimate price.

Terror sponsorship cannot be subject to negotiation. When I taught in Iraq last year, my Baghdad University-trained translators consistently failed to comprehend three words: tolerance, compromise, and debate. Such concepts simply do not exist in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, nor do they in Syria and Iran. When urging dialogue and restraint, Secretary of State Colin Powell must understand that willingness to meet any terrorist demand, no matter how small, only rewards violence and indicates U.S. weakness. Terrorism is not the result of a cycle of violence. Rather, it is a result of too little retaliation.

Michael Rubin is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute