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Copyright 2000 Jerusalem Post
Jerusalem Post

January 21 2000


BYLINE: Gerald M. Steinberg

For decades, Israelis viewed Syria as the most hostile and implacable of the bordering Arab states. The Syrian record includes the shelling of civilians below the Golan Heights prior to 1967, and the torture of captured Israeli soldiers (some chose to die by their own hands rather than face Syrian captivity). While other Arab states exchanged captured spies with Israel, Eli Cohen was hanged in the center of Damascus.

Beyond settling the issues of borders, water, security, etc., if relations are to improve, the Syrian government and society must first demonstrate that the old attitudes have changed fundamentally. Handshakes and a change in body language are important, as is an end to the propaganda and crude anti-Semitism in the official media. However, to be convincing, more is required.

In addition to returning the body of Eli Cohen, the most important confidence building measures relate to resolving the questions regarding Israeli soldiers missing in action.

Syria is responsible for the fates of Zecharia Baumel, Zvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz, and, in part, for Ron Arad. These four soldiers have been missing for many years, and during this time, the Assad government has turned its back on all humanitarian requests for help.

Baumel, Feldman, and Katz were captured in the Lebanon War on June 11 1982, during the battle of Sultan Yaqub. A few hours later, they were driven on an open flatbed truck through the central streets of Damascus. Dean Brelis, who reported for Time Magazine, reported that "the Israeli crew looked exhausted, downcast, typically combat fatigued. When the crowd surged around them, taunting, they looked frightened..." The Associated Press noted that when the truck stopped, "The Syrian soldiers shouted slogans and witnesses said they identified their prisoners as the Israeli tank crew." Immediately afterwards, they disappeared.

The Syrian government has made a number of efforts to "close" the cases of these soldiers. Three weeks after the battle, they claimed that their bodies had been buried in the Jewish cemetery in Damascus. The Red Cross examined the remains, and determined that the bodies were not those of the three missing soldiers. (However, one of the dead was identified as Zohar Lifshitz, who had commanded Yehuda Katz's tank.)

Many years later, in December 1993, PLO head Yassir Arafat suddenly turned over half of Zachary Baumel's army name tag, but without providing any details. The source of this vital piece of information, and the location of the other half of the name tag, and of Baumal, remain hidden. Although relations between the Syrian and Palestinian leaders are far from cordial, they seem to be working together to hide information regarding these captured prisoners of war.

The key remains in Damascus, and in April 1994, French President Jacques Chirac revealed that the Prime Minister of Lebanon had told him "in no uncertain terms that only Assad knows what happened to the [Israeli POWs]".

The responsibility of Syria in the case of Ron Arad is less direct, but the Assad regime is clearly in a position to help locate the missing Israeli Air Force navigator. Arad was shot down over Lebanon in October 1986, and he parachuted safely to the ground. Efforts to rescue him failed, and he was captured. One year later, his family received a letter and photo from him, but then the trail disappeared. His captors reportedly "sold" Arad to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and may have been kept in the Iranian Embassy in Beirut before being sent to Iran.

The trail of evidence points to Iran and its agents and allies, and these groups are primarily responsible for accounting, and hopefully releasing Arad. However, Lebanon is a Syrian "protectorate", and if the Assad regime wants something, no obstacles are placed in its path.

Iran is also a close Syrian ally, and Iranian planes use a special runway at the Damascus airport to supply weapons to Hizbollah. During the long Iran-Iraq war, Damascus was the only Arab capital to side with Teheran. Syrian weapons and spare parts were crucial in preventing the defeat of Iran. If Assad was so inclined, he could certainly ask his Iranian friends to cooperate in resolving the case of Ron Arad. And if past debts were not enough to gain Iranian cooperation, Syria could find a number of pressure points and sources of leverage to gain the needed assistance.

Jewish tradition and the basic elements of common humanity require that every effort continue to be made to return the captured soldiers. Unless otherwise proven, we must assume that they are still alive. Indeed, other people have "disappeared" for long periods in Syria. The International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers reports that "Historically, the Syrians have held people in this manner until it became profitable to release them..."

An agreement, not only with Israel, but also with the U.S., will only be possible when the Syrians demonstrate that they share basic humanitarian values. If Mr. Assad wants to get into the game, full cooperation in determining the fate of the Israeli POWs is a fundamental prerequisite.
Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg
Director, Program on Conflict Resolution
Political Studies, Bar Ilan University
Ramat Gan, Israel

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