Analysis / Perceptions Count as Much as Bombs in War With Syria

Hamas activist Mesbah Abu Hweileh, 35, survived a bombing Monday that destroyed his car on a Damascus street just after he and his family stepped out of the car. Hamas and the Syrian government immediately blamed Israeli intelligence agents for the afternoon explosion that slightly injured three passers-by, but Israeli officials denied knowledge of the bombing, saying Syria "always blames Israel" for untoward events on its soil.

Even if Israel was not responsible for the assassination attempt, it was perceived as being responsible by the Syrian government, and Damascus apparently has something to go on: two previous assassinations of Palestinians in Syrian territories and the unconfirmed reports from some months ago about Israel recruiting a Lebanese cell to assassinate Hamas leaders living in Syria.

From the Syrian perspective, it is not only an intelligence failure and a blow to its prestige, but also a real concern that Israel could open a new front inside Syria. That would topple the Syrian strategy founded in the days of Hafez Assad, according to which Syria could wage war against Israel or control political events through proxies. Behind that approach was the Syrian hope that it could avoid opening a direct front with Israel.

Indeed, the proxy war, based mostly on Hezbollah activity in Lebanon and Syrian readiness to occasionally demonstrate its ability to restrain them, is what made it possible for Syria to maintain a quiet border with Israel for decades. "Hosting" the Palestinian organizations, particularly Hamas and Islamic Jihad on Syrian territory, now creates a complicated dilemma for Damascus. Syria may claim that it only allows public relations efforts by those organizations in its territory, meaning no plotting and execution of terror attacks, but that claim is rejected by Israel and the U.S.

The cooperation between Syria and those groups (and Hezbollah) has already led to tightening of American sanctions on Syria, the congressional adoption of legislation that makes Syria accountable for terror activities by those groups and the lack of American and Israeli confidence in Syrian calls for renewal of peace talks.

But it is not only with Israel and the U.S. that Syria has problems. The Palestinian Authority, whose heads were greeted with much respect and honors last week in Damascus, found it difficult to find out who exactly makes the decisions about negotiations between them and the organizations in Damascus on key issues: participation in the upcoming PA elections, and attacks on Israeli targets.

The Fatah and PA leaders wanted to hold talks with one address, the one that is in the territories and mostly in Gaza. Egypt, too, would be happier if it did not need to bring in representatives from both Damascus and Gaza whenever it wants to talk about a cease-fire or a broad Palestinian agreement on any issue.

For its part, Syria believes that if the leadership of those Palestinian groups is forced out of Syria, it could lose the only lever at its disposal to be involved in the process, or at least influence the organizations in the territories and thereby influence the organizations and Palestinian moves toward Israel. That way, Syria believes, it can use proxies to foil any Palestinian decision that would result in a unilateral agreement between the Palestinians and Israel.

On the other hand, a Syrian decision in favor of expelling the Palestinian headquarters from its territory would create a dilemma for Israel, because Syria would thereby be fulfilling one of the basic conditions Israel has posed for any dialogue with Assad. But until the real or virtual Israeli actions force Syria to decide to get rid of the Palestinian offices in Damascus, Israel will have to come up with solutions to the attacks on its forces in Gaza. Those attacks were taking place long before Syria became the host for those organizations, and they are not dependent on any orders arriving from Syria but rather on the operational capabilities and opportunities that arise from the availability of means and targets in Gaza.