The notion of an Israeli-Syrian alliance against terror may strike some as ludicrous, but after the killing of a Hamas mastermind this week in Damascus, that idea is gaining traction.
Hamas called Sunday's killing of Izzadin Sheik Khalil a "despicable crime" and blamed it on the Mossad, but it took Syrian authorities a full nine hours to come out with their own, tersely worded condemnation. It was a far cry from Damascus' outrage after Israel bombed a terrorist camp on its outskirts last October, a departure that experts attributed to the U.S.-led pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Hamas mastermind was assassinated in the Syrian capital in a bombing that blew away the city's decades-old image as a safe haven for terrorists.
"Assad is very keen to win favor with the United States," ex-Mossad agent Gad Shimron said on television. "Who knows how many parties were involved in this operation?"
Last week, the Al-Hayat newspaper said an unspecified Arab intelligence agency had agreed to Mossad Chief Meir Dagan's request for information on the whereabouts of senior Hamas fugitives. On Sunday, many Palestinians were convinced that it was Syria that helped the Jewish state, because Assad shut down the Damascus offices of Hamas and kindred group, Islamic Jihad, last week. Israeli officials had no comment, but the Associated Press quoted security sources in Jerusalem as claiming responsibility for the bomb planted in the seat of Khalil's car.
For many Israelis, it appeared a logical extension of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's vow to crack down on Palestinian terrorists before implementing his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank next year.
"We must send a message to the world's terrorists as a whole that there are no safe hiding places for them, and that Israel can reach anywhere it needs to in order to get a terrorist -- if it needs to," former Mossad Chief Danny Yatom told Israel's Army Radio.
Perhaps evincing a new confusion at losing its Syrian haven, Hamas threatened in a statement to abandon its policy of not attacking Israelis outside Israeli borders, only to be contradicted by group officials who said no such decision had been made. Israeli security sources said Hamas, which has always claimed to be a local movement, was worried about being too closely identified with international terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.
But there are hazards closer to home. When a Hezbollah military chief was slain in a Beirut bombing in July, also blamed on the Mossad, the Lebanese militia responded the next day killing two Israeli soldiers on the border. Yet with Hamas already carrying out attacks at full tilt, the prospects of such escalation are limited.
"With a genocidal group like Hamas, 'provocation' is an empty word," a Sharon confidant said.