PHILADELPHIA - Two months ago, the carnage was on the streets of Israeli cities, where suicide attacks by fundamentalist Palestinians left more than 60 dead and hundreds wounded. This month, it has been in southern Lebanon, where Israeli bombing—retaliation for rocket attacks by Hezbollah fighters—has killed at least 100 civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands.
"New York Times" illustration for this article.
In dealing with the man who can end this violence—President Hafez al-Assad of Syria—it's important to understand that both sets of attacks on Israel are part of an effort to disrupt the Arab-Israeli peace process. Yet the United States treats Mr. Assad as a peacemaker, sending Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Damascus, hat in hand, to ask for help. (Competing with six other foreign ministers, Mr. Christopher was kept waiting over the weekend while Mr. Assad met first with Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov of Russia.) Mr. Assad has both the power and the motivation to use violence against Israel. Damascus is host to the headquarters of Hamas, the Palestinian guerrilla group. While he does not control it, Mr. Assad provides considerable aid and has the clout to veto a planned attack on Israel or give it his blessing. He does control Hezbollah, the guerrilla group that has launched the rockets against Israel. It is based in Lebanon, which Mr. Assad has effectively ruled since 1990.
The Syrian President despises the deal Mr. Arafat made with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in September 1993. "There is nothing good in it," he said in an interview on American television a month later; he accused Mr. Arafat of giving away too much.
His own country's diplomacy with Israel—five years of face-to-face talks in Washington—seems to be conducted less from a wish to make peace than in the hope of burnishing his reputation in the West.
Mr. Assad has even publicly repudiated these negotiations. Three times, the United Nations General Assembly passed identical resolutions about Israel's talks with its neighbors, expressing "full support for the achievements of the peace process thus far" and stressing "the need for achieving rapid progress." And three times, Damascus voted against the resolutions. (Indeed, inside Syria, the Government-controlled press has celebrated nearly every killing of Israeli citizens.)
Why the attacks on Israel now? The relative success of Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority in assuming leadership in Gaza and the West Bank may have worried Mr. Assad, who apparently decided to put a stop to it.
He certainly did. Suicide bombings carried out by Hamas so angered Israelis that Prime Minister Shimon Peres slowed the talks over Israel's further withdrawal from the West Bank. Then Hezbollah's rockets spurred Operation Grapes of Wrath, the attack that has made Israel look bad, frayed American-Israeli ties and threatened to halt Israel's talks with Mr. Arafat entirely.
Israeli and American politicians have tended to blame Iran too much and Syria too little for attacks on Israel, hoping this fiction would help the peace talks with Mr. Assad.
But the only way to reduce Palestinian and Lebanese violence against Israel is to recognize Mr. Assad's culpability and get tough with him. For Mr. Peres, this means focusing on Syria's role. For Washington, it means calling off the endless cajoling of Mr. Assad. After all, when Saddam Hussein makes trouble, the Secretary of State does not travel to Baghdad. Why should he rush to Damascus?
Only when Mr. Assad worries about becoming the target of military confrontation and international sanctions—the diplomatic isolation economic boycotts imposed on other rogue Middle East regimes—might he stop the violence. Anything less gives him a free hand to stymie Arab-Israeli peace virtually without penalty.