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Shutting Doors in Syria May Not End Militants' Attacks

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  • Joseph M. Hochstein
    New York Times, July 18, 2003 Shutting Doors in Syria May Not End Militants Attacks By DEXTER FILKINS
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 18, 2003
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      New York Times, July 18, 2003
      Shutting Doors in Syria May Not End Militants' Attacks
      By DEXTER FILKINS
      http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/18/international/middleeast/18SYRI
      .html?th

      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
      demand.

      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
      phone.

      "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
      return soon.

      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
      inside.

      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
      Ministry.

      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
      closed.

      "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
      humanitarian work."
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