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Terrorism Making the Syrian Connection

5 minute read
Michael S. Serrill

The House of Commons was packed and restive as Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe rose to make a statement. Just four hours before, a London criminal court jury had convicted Jordanian Terrorist Nezar Hindawi, 32, of plotting to blow up an El Al jet by using his Irish girlfriend, Ann Murphy, as a human time bomb. Testimony at the trial had strongly implicated Syrian officials, and Howe was expected to issue a stinging denunciation of the Damascus government.

But Howe went much further. After calling the act a “monstrous and inhumane” crime, he said, “It is totally unacceptable that the Syrian Ambassador, members of his staff and the Syrian authorities in Damascus should be involved with a criminal like Hindawi.” Then, to a roar of approval from Members of Parliament, Howe gave his extraordinary news: “We have therefore decided to break diplomatic relations with Syria.”

The bold action, which could expose British nationals around the world to new terrorist violence, was the strongest in many years against the hard-line and secretive regime of Syrian President Hafez Assad, who has long been accused of both harboring and sponsoring terrorists in his country’s fight against Israel and its Western allies. An Israeli official immediately called the shutdown of Britain’s diplomatic mission a “courageous act.”

The move was also cheered by other Western governments. In Washington the White House announced that the U.S. was indefinitely withdrawing its Ambassador to Damascus to underscore its endorsement of the diplomatic cutoff. “We support the British decision,” said White House Spokesman Larry Speakes. “In the coming days we will be in close consultation with Her Majesty’s government and other allies regarding additional steps that we and others will take.” In Ottawa, Minister of External Affairs Joe Clark announced that Canada was also calling home its Ambassador.

The Syrian government, which has been ordered to vacate its London embassy in fashionable Belgrave Square within seven days, reacted with belligerent indignation. “The present British government, since it took power, has made it a permanent practice to launch hostile campaigns against Arab states and Third World countries,” said a Damascus official. The state-run television announced that Syria has closed its airspace, ports and territorial waters to British planes and ships, and that the 19 British diplomats in Damascus had one week to leave.

For years, Syria has escaped Western reproach by carefully covering its terrorist tracks. Circumstantial evidence could be found of Syrian links to dozens of actions, including the bombing of a TWA plane over Greece last April, attacks at the Vienna and Rome airports last December and the bombing of the U.S. Marine headquarters in Beirut in October 1983. But solid proof has been hard to come by, which has allowed Assad to assert his innocence. Just three weeks ago, in an interview with TIME editors, he insisted that “no terrorist acts are carried out from Syria, by Syrians or others.”

Even when the Syrian terror links have been almost certain, Western officials, including British ones, have often chosen to look the other way, ^ mindful that Syria is an important player in Middle East politics and is thought to hold the keys to the release of 20 American, British, French and other hostages held by terrorists in Lebanon. Western officials have also been cautious in dealing with Assad, because Syria has a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union.

The evidence in the London trial, though, was overwhelming. Hindawi entered Britain in late January with a Syrian diplomatic passport under a false name, and visa applications endorsed by Syrian foreign ministry officials. During the trial, prosecutors showed how he gave his pregnant fiancee a bag with plastic explosives in the lining before she was intercepted by security agents as she boarded a flight to Tel Aviv. When the bomb plot was foiled, prosecutors said, Hindawi fled to the Syrian embassy, where officials provided him with a disguise and safe haven.

After the guilty verdict, the judge, Mr. Justice William Mars-Jones, declared that if Hindawi’s plot had been carried out, it would have been a “horrendous massacre.” He added, “We will not tolerate the activities of terrorists.” Mars-Jones then sentenced Hindawi to 45 years in prison, the stiffest jail sentence ever handed down by a British court.

Syrian Ambassador to Britain Loutof Allah Haydar was informed of the break in relations during a frosty ten-minute meeting before Howe’s Commons speech. An angry Haydar later gave a brief news conference on the embassy steps, at which he said, “I have done nothing wrong. This whole thing is an Israeli- American plot.”

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was credited with considerable courage in deciding to risk the consequences of taking a stand against Syrian terrorism. Said a proud senior British official: “By her tough and unflinching stance, the Prime Minister has confirmed her position as one of the world’s leading antiterrorists, perhaps the most resolute of all.”

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