Shutting Doors in Syria May Not End Militants' Attacks
- New York Times, July 18, 2003
Shutting Doors in Syria May Not End Militants' Attacks
By DEXTER FILKINS
DAMASCUS, Syria, July 16 — The cast-iron gate that guards the
offices of Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that has
operated for years in an apartment building here, is locked
tight, in apparent compliance with a longstanding American
But just where the group's leaders have gone and what they are up
to is a different matter. At least one Hamas leader, while
keeping a low profile, is still in town, and still answering his
"No one is here anymore," said the Hamas leader, whose nom de
guerre is Abu Bilal, when called recently at his home here. "Now
leave us alone."
Such is the essential contradiction underlying recent
declarations by Palestinian leaders that, at the behest of the
Syrian government, they have closed the headquarters of at least
10 militant groups bent on waging war against Israel.
The closing of the offices is regarded by American officials as
an important test of the willingness of Syrian leaders to modify
their historic hostility toward Israel. Syria's actions are being
watched with particular interest as the Bush administration
pursues its most ambitious Middle East diplomatic initiative to
date, the so-called road map.
The two largest militant groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad,
recently agreed to a cease-fire. Still, the Bush administration,
evidently preparing itself for the day the cease-fire ends, made
10 groups here targets for closure.
While it is clear that Hamas and Islamic Jihad have indeed closed
their doors in recent weeks, it is much less apparent that they
have ceased the activities that prompted the American demands in
the first place. Palestinian leaders say most of the senior
commanders of the groups are still in Syria, or planning to
Visits to the offices of five of the largest groups revealed them
to be in various states of being closed. While Hamas and Islamic
Jihad were closed, three other groups — the Democratic Front for
the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation
of Palestine and the Popular Front for the Liberation of
Palestine-General Command — were open, with staff members working
A Western diplomat here, speaking on the condition of anonymity,
maintained that, offices or not, the Palestinian militants were
still engaging in activities intended to bring about military
strikes against Israel.
"While there has certainly been a diminution of activity," the
diplomat said, "there is still evidence that operational activity
is continuing of a terrorist nature.
"As long as some of these leaders have a cellphone and a laptop,
they will be able to operate," the diplomat said.
For their part, Syria's leaders say they want to secure a larger
say in how the current peace plan unfolds. They are especially
interested in winning back in future negotiations the Golan
Heights, Syrian territory occupied by Israel since 1967.
Syrian officials insist that the decision to close the offices
was made by the militants themselves. "They said they were going
to close their offices down, and that is what has happened," said
Dr. Buthaina Shabaan, the spokeswoman for the Syrian Foreign
One senior Palestinian leader said the groups decided to shut
their offices six weeks ago, after their leaders were summoned by
the Syrian foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa. He said that the
minister said the Americans were applying severe pressure, not
just over the offices but over the suspicion that senior members
of Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq had taken refuge in the
country. Indeed, at the time of the meeting, Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad had just recently met with Secretary of State
Colin L. Powell.
Khaled al-Fahoum, a senior Palestinian leader who is unaffiliated
with any of the 10 groups, said it was the perception of the
participants that the foreign minister was convinced that, after
years of asking the Syrians to close the offices, this time the
Americans were serious.
"He never asked them to leave, he just told them not to be
active," said Mr. Fahoum.
The leaders of the militant groups, grateful for Syria's many
years of support, agreed to close their offices and disappear —
but not necessarily to leave the country. Some of them, like
Mousa Abu Marzook and Khalid Meshal of Hamas, are said to have
left Syria, but Mr. Fahoum said it was his understanding that
none of them were leaving for good.
"The leaders are all still in their houses," Mr. Fahoum said.
"All of them."
Like the office once operated by Hamas, an apartment used as an
office by leaders of Islamic Jihad in a Damascus neighborhood
appeared to have been abandoned. On the second floor of an
apartment building, the door was answered by a Palestinian man
named Akram Abdul Moti.
Mr. Moti, a student of Islamic law, said he and four of his
friends had taken over the apartment about six weeks ago. Mr.
Moti said he did not realize who had occupied the three-bedroom
flat before him until his phone began to ring with callers asking
for Islamic Jihad.
"We always hung up the phone," Mr. Moti said.
A short time later, Mr. Moti said, a man wearing a suit and tie
showed up at his door and asked if anyone had left telephone
messages for the group. Mr. Moti said no, and the man went away.
Though neither Mr. Moti nor any of his roommates claim membership
in Islamic Jihad, he, like many others in the neighborhood here,
said he approved of the bombing campaign the group had mounted
against Israel. He said Islamic Jihad enjoyed widespread support
among the 400,000 Palestinians who live in Syria, many of whom
live in the crowded apartments of the Damascus suburbs.
"Yes, they kill civilians," Mr. Moti said, standing in his
doorway. "But Sharon does, too."
While the offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad appear to have been
vacated, the offices of some of the other militant groups are
buzzing with activity.
On a recent weekday here, the headquarters of the Popular Front
for the Liberation of Palestine, one of those groups, was full of
young men, some coming and going, others milling about. The walls
outside the offices were adorned with posters memorializing
Palestinian men who have been killed by Israeli soldiers.
No one of those in attendance would identify himself, nor would
they allow a visitor to come inside. One of the men there, who
referred to himself as "Allah," explained that the office was
"It's become a sport club," he said.
As the activity there suggested, the task of stopping the
operations of these groups might be more complicated than just
shutting their offices. For instance, in addition to waging an
armed struggle against Israel, the Democratic Front for the
Liberation of Palestine also operates a research library, another
one for children and a school for the deaf. The school for the
deaf, the group's leaders say, is financed by Japan.
"We do two things," said Mutasem Hamada, a leader of the
Democratic Front, in an interview in the organization's office.
"There is the armed struggle, and then there is our cultural and