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Western Press Review: The Israeli Incursion Into Syria And Chechnya's Election Controversy

Prague, 7 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Media coverage today is dominated by discussion of Israel's 4-5 October raid on suspected militant bases in Syria. The cross-border incursion was the first of its kind between the two nations in more than 20 years and prompted Damascus to call for an emergency session of the UN Security Council. Several Mideast observers have voiced concern that violence between the neighbors could escalate tensions throughout the region, from the West Bank to Iran and Iraq.

Press commentary today also focuses on Sunday's (5 October) presidential election in Chechnya, in which Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov -- the Kremlin-backed candidate -- won 81 percent of the vote. After several of his political opponents dropped out of the race or were barred from running, Kadyrov was widely considered the only viable candidate.


"The Washington Post" in an editorial says following the 4 October "particularly horrific" suicide-bomb attack in Haifa, Israel "could have been expected to take retaliatory action. Yet instead of targeting members of Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the 19 deaths in a Haifa restaurant, the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon chose to carry out a bombing raid deep inside Syria."

The paper says Israeli officials later conceded the action was intended to "send a message" to Syria about its continuing support for militant Palestinian groups. "If so," the editorial says, "it was a risky move, not only for Israel but for the United States."

While Syria does provide some support for extremist groups like Islamic Jihad and Hamas, "[both] these organizations recruit and train almost all of their members inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip." So, the paper asks, "why stage a cross-border attack, and incur the inevitable denunciations from European governments and debate at the United Nations Security Council?"

The paper says, "Violence between Israel and Syria has the potential to escalate quickly into a mini-war involving Lebanon and possibly even Iran," further complicating U.S. efforts in Iraq. In any case, "Israel's decision to use force makes it harder for the United States to manage its own diplomatic and military balancing act with Syria and Iran."


A "Financial Times" editorial says the Middle East "is a seething cauldron," with deadlock prevailing in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, escalating chaos in Iraq, continuing concern over Iran's alleged nuclear program, "and uncertainty over whether the [U.S.] administration wants further regime change in the region."

In such circumstances, Israel's decision to attack targets in Syria in response to a suicide bombing "is not only contrary to international law; it also risks aggravating regional instability."

The 4 October suicide attack on a restaurant in the Israeli town of Haifa left 19 dead and many more wounded. "Obscene as that outrage was," the paper says, "its relationship to the Syrian target struck in reprisal is far from evident.... [All] evidence suggests [that] what Israel bombed was a derelict site long abandoned by a defunct Palestinian diaspora group -- totally unconnected to the suicide bombers."


Writing in Britain's "The Guardian," Chris McGreal says it remains unclear whether Israel's decision to attack suspected terrorist targets in Syria "was an act of desperation by a government unable to deliver a much-promised victory over the Palestinians, or a cynical calculation to redefine and widen the conflict, knowing that it will do little to curb attacks by Islamic Jihad or Hamas."

Following the Haifa suicide bombing, several Israeli ministers publicly urged Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to go after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "Sharon had apparently backed himself into a corner. He sought to grope his way out with a response to the Haifa bomb that would silence calls for him to follow through on the threat against the Palestinian leader."

The attack on Syria might also serve another purpose, McGreal says. Sharon "seeks to persuade the world that the suicide bombings are not about occupation, Jewish settlements or the racially driven seizure of Palestinian land. Israel, he says, is a victim of international terrorism and therefore part of a much greater struggle between Western civilization and Islamic fundamentalism." The attack on Syrian targets "fits neatly into that paradigm, particularly with the U.S. turning up the heat on Damascus to break its ties with Palestinian and Lebanese 'terrorist organizations.' But it also raises the specter of a wider conflict."

McGreal asks, "What will Mr. Sharon do when he feels the need to escalate his response after the next suicide bombing?"


An editorial in Britain's "The Independent" says a "free and fair election [might] have become the first step in ending the agony of Chechnya." But what passed for a presidential election last weekend (5 October) "almost certainly will not."

The paper calls on the United States and the European Union to make their "collective displeasure known." The West "should sponsor resolutions at the United Nations calling on all parties in the Chechen conflict to come to an agreed political settlement which can then be put to the Chechen people in internationally supervised elections."

But the paper says this "is not going to happen and the Chechen people will continue to receive even less support from the international community than even [the] Palestinians." The West simply does not have the will to challenge Russian President Vladimir Putin or his policies.

Putin is "a masterful manipulator of Western divisions and vanities." In return for Kremlin support or acquiescence over Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have acceded to Putin's policy in Chechnya. And yet this "did not stop Mr. Putin from allying himself at the UN with Germany and France in an effort to stymie the British-U.S. invasion of Iraq." Nor will Paris and Berlin be seeking to levy European Union sanctions "against this potentially lucrative trade partner over the abuse of human rights in Chechnya."

"The Independent" says, "the best that can be hoped for" is that Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov "manages to continue the tentative steps towards recovery and reconstruction that he has embarked upon," while seeking the broadest possible autonomy from Moscow.


A piece in "The Washington Post" by Fred Hiatt republished in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" today suggests that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush does not understand "that in the long run, fighting terror and promoting democracy [have] to go hand in hand."

Bush made it fairly clear that he was willing to sacrifice democratic principles to the war on terror when he welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin at Camp David, praising Putin's vision for Russia as "a country at peace within its borders, with its neighbors, a country in which democracy and freedom and rule of law thrive."

Hiatt says, "This description of Mr. Putin's Russia was so outlandishly fictional, so at odds with the KGB-inspired screw-tightening that has been the hallmark of Mr. Putin's regime, that the only possible conclusion was that Mr. Bush just doesn't care."

Administration officials say that Bush was more critical of Putin behind closed doors. But Bush's "public message seemed to be: Stand by my side and proclaim yourself an ally in the war on terror, and all else may be forgiven. You can shut down your media, rig elections, send troops rampaging through Chechnya, and Mr. Bush will stay mum."

Throughout the current administration, there are "bureaucrats and political appointees who are passionately committed to promoting democracy." But at the highest levels, "democracy seems to have become an afterthought, except when its championing is politically useful [or] relatively cost-free."


A "Financial Times" editorial says bluntly, "It is hard to find any objective observer who believes that the weekend election in the rebellious Russian republic of Chechnya was remotely free or fair."

The only credible rivals to Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov on the ballot "either withdrew, or were disqualified, in recent weeks. No serious international observers were willing or able to watch the voting, largely because of the lack of security. Chechnya is a territory in ruins, where murder and kidnappings are the norm...."

The paper says the 5 October election results "will do little if anything to solve the tragedy of the bloody 9-year-old war in Chechnya and the damage that it is doing to Russia both at home and abroad."

Kadyrov's Kremlin-backed ascent to the presidency "was supposed to be part of an internationally acceptable 'political solution.' But no such solution will be acceptable, or stable, unless it is accepted by the Chechen population. Mr. Kadyrov must now demonstrate that he is prepared to negotiate with his rivals and seek some form of reconciliation. He can try to exploit the sheer exhaustion of the Chechen population, appalled by the years of bloodshed. But as long as he is seen as Moscow's man, it seems likely to count against him."

The paper says the best solution -- if Russian President Vladimir Putin "could ever be persuaded to accept it -- would be for some form of international supervision of a peace process."


A "Le Monde" editorial today says the last hope for the Mideast "road map" was dashed with the departure of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas -- also known as Abu Mazen -- early last month. Saturday's suicide attack on a Haifa restaurant -- which killed several generations of the same family, including children -- "heralds a new level of monstrousness," "Le Monde" says.

Haifa was formerly known as a city that managed to maintain peaceful cohabitation between Israelis and Palestinians. The restaurant targeted by the suicide bomber was even co-owned by Jewish and Arab families.

Israel responded to the restaurant attack by launching a raid on suspected terrorist training camps in Syria, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is now publicly discussing broadening the fight against terrorism abroad. Washington gave its tacit approval of this policy by refraining from condemning the Israeli attack on Syria, which targeted areas within 15 kilometers of the capital, Damascus.

"Le Monde" says the expansion of attacks abroad will not be any more effective, because the death of each militant or group leader just fuels the fires of discontent. Expelling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat -- an option being considered by Israel, but opposed by Washington -- similarly risks only further enraging Palestinian sentiment.

As for the security barrier being built, which would reach deep into the West Bank and physically separate the two communities, the paper says it is illusory to imagine that this would be impenetrable. After all, last weekend's young female suicide bomber managed to cross it.


Writing in "The Washington Post," E.J. Dionne Jr. says in light of a preliminary report on the dangers posed by Iraq's weapons program, it is "increasingly obvious that the [U.S.] administration was willing to say whatever was necessary to get the Iraq war done on its schedule. It made the war a partisan electoral issue in 2002 and turned off potential allies abroad. The president lost the high ground that he and the United States occupied when our forces waged war on Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan."

Now that no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, Dionne says the administration's main "after-the-fact case for the war" to oust Saddam Hussein "is that Iraqis are much better off without him." And yet the White House "didn't have enough confidence in the humanitarian argument to make it the primary basis for war before the shooting started."