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Copyright 2002 Ha'aretz
Name Of Newspaper

March 25, 2002

HEADLINE: Syria Can, But Won't, Influence Hezbollah Over Kidnap Victims

BYLINE: Amos Harel

Syria has turned down requests by European states to use its influence over Hezbollah by taking action to return to Israel the four kidnapped Israelis in the hands of the Lebanese fundamentalist militia. In those contacts, the Europeans emphasized that by helping in the case, Damascus could improve its standing in Washington, which since September 11 has been suspicious of Syria as a state providing shelter to terrorists.

According to information in Israel, Syrian President Bashar Assad was notified in advance by Hezbollah about their plans to kidnap Israeli soldiers and he received a detailed report on the kidnapping of Elhanan Tannenbaum right after it took place. Furthermore, he is kept up to date on the case by Hezbollah's leadership.

Three Israeli soldiers, Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham, and Omar Suwad, were kidnapped from the Mt. Dov area on October 7, 2000, and apparently died at the time or soon after the kidnapping. A few months ago, the IDF declared the three dead, with their whereabouts unknown. Col. (res.) Tannenbaum was kidnapped in October 2000 in Europe and was taken to Lebanon, apparently through a third country.

According to foreign reports, Israel has been conducting negotiations with Hezbollah to return the three bodies and Tannenbaum in exchange for Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Germany and other states are mediating in these efforts, but as far as is known, no progress has been made. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah occasionally mentions the kidnappings in public, while Israel maintains a veil of deliberate ambiguity on the matter.

In recent months, the defense establishment has come to the conclusion that Syria plays "a central role" in the affair, and could help solve it. Senior security sources claim Syria has "up to date and reliable" information about the four Israelis and that it has influence over Hezbollah in the affair. However, the Syrians refrain from getting involved, even after the Europeans told Damascus that a humanitarian gesture on the matter of the kidnapped Israelis would score them points in Washington, an assessment Israel shares.

Damascus is troubled by its relationship with Washington in the wake of September 11. The U.S. has delivered various messages - sometimes inconsistent - about its attitude to Syria since the terror attacks on New York and Washington. Hezbollah, under Syrian patronage, was added to the American list of terror organizations it has targeted, and one of Hezbollah's leaders, Imad Maragnieh, was put on the list of terrorists wanted along with al-Qaida activists. The Damascus residencies of various terror groups has also been mentioned by Washington - but so far, the U.S. has taken no tangible steps against the Syrians, with Iraq at the top of their agenda for the "next phase" of the war on terror.

Israeli defense sources say the Syrian leadership has been intensively dealing with the question of how to improve relations with Washington. The issue apparently came up in the recent visit to Syria and Lebanon by Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi and in the ongoing dialogue with Nasrallah. The Syrians believe the U.S. threats against Hezbollah could damage them, Lebanon and Iran.

Against that background, the Europeans suggested Syria take an active role reining in Hezbollah's activities against Israel on the northern border. In the past six months, the Syrians indeed have enforced a policy of restraint on Hezbollah but Israel believes that overall, Syria's role remains negative in the kidnapping affair.

Assad was informed ahead of the kidnapping on Mt. Dov, which took place despite the fact the IDF withdrew from all of southern Lebanon and retreated to a boundary approved by the UN. Assad heard about the Tannenbaum kidnapping after the fact, but has been kept up-to-date by Nasrallah and other Hezbollah leaders.

Security services sources say that Assad tries to portray the Mt. Dov kidnapping as legitimate resistance against "the Israeli occupation." That is how he described it in a conversation with then U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright shortly after the kidnapping. He also continues to back the Hezbollah kidnapping of Tannenbaum, which Israel calls "an act of piracy and terror, and a blatant violation of international law." Indeed, Syria is still working to reduce international pressure on Hezbollah, most recently with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara telling U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in New York last November at the UN, that Hezbollah is a national liberation movement and not a terrorist organization.

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