In mid-September Paris was a city under siege. Five bomb blasts in 10 days had left 10 people dead, and Prime Minister Jacques Chirac vowed a “crushing and unflinching” response to terrorists, whom French officials linked with Syria. But last week that French resolve seemed to evaporate. At a meeting in Luxembourg, the British government asked its 11 European Community (EC) partners to adopt sanctions against Syria for its alleged role in the attempted bombing of an Israeli airliner in London last April—a plot that prompted Britain to sever diplomatic ties with the regime of Syrian strong man Hafez al-Assad on Oct. 24. The meeting, however, produced nothing stronger than a verbal condemnation of the unidentified state agencies involved in the bomb plot—and the opposition to Britain’s plan was led by France. Explained Jacques Toubon, a Chirac aide: “To lose our heads and strike brutally would have been a policy of hara-kiri for a country like ours.”
The EC stance angered many Britons—“Eurowimps let down Britain,”
headlined London’s Daily Mail—and France bore the brunt of the criticism. The French position was further compromised by reports last week that Paris had struck a secret deal with Syria. According to the newspaper Le Monde, the French agreed to make a major sale of weapons to Syria and, in return, Syria
While denying reports of a secret arms deal, the French refused to take diplomatic action against the Syrians
used its influence to end the wave of bombings in Paris —at least temporarily. But Denis Baudouin, a spokesman for Chirac, denied that there was any such truce. And although he acknowledged that the government had authorized the sale to Syria of armor plate and other “defensive material,” Baudouin stressed that France would accept an EC ban on
arms sales to Damascus should one be imposed. Still, most diplomats say that France has been negotiating with Syria on terrorism —and French citizens seem grateful that the bombing campaign has ceased. “If it takes concessions to stop the bombs,” said French political commentator Richard Lissier, “the French will support concessions even if it annoys our allies.”
Britain’s breach of diplomatic relations with Damascus followed the Oct. 24 conviction of Jordanian Nezar Hindawi, 32, who was jailed for 45 years for trying to blow up an El AÍ jet by hiding a bomb in the carry-on luggage of his pregnant girlfriend, 32-year-old Ann Marie Murphy. An El AÍ security guard discovered the bomb before she could take it on board at London’s Heathrow Airport. Although Hindawi denied the charges, police said that he had earlier confessed that Haithem Said, a senior Syrian air force intelligence officer, had recruited and paid him to blow up the plane. Following Britain’s rupture of relations with Syria, the U.S. government withdrew its ambassador from Damascus and Canada called back its ambassador, Jacques Noiseux, for what Ottawa described as “consultations.” But the EC countries rejected the British pro-
posai either to recall ambassadors or restrict the operations of Syrian Arab Airlines.
Observers linked the French opposition to sanctions with earlier press reports that France was negotiating to sell Syria helicopters and artillery. Then came the Le Monde report tying the arms deal to a wider arrangement on terrorism. According to the newspaper, the French sent a message through Syrian and Algerian officials to the family of Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, the 35-year-old Lebanese Christian who is awaiting trial in France for the 1982 murders of Lt.-Col.
Charles Ray, a U.S. military attaché in Paris, and Yacov Barsimantov, second secretary at the Israeli Embassy there. French officials say that Abdallah’s family was behind the Paris bombings.
The French message, the newspaper said, was that Abdallah might be acquitted for lack of evidence at his trial in February—if there were no more bombings in the meantime. Late last week two more bombs exploded but no one was injured.
In any case, French officials denied a deal. But Interior Minister Charles Pasqua conceded that the two countries’ security services are now working together against terrorism. “We have had several missions that went
to Syria,” Pasqua told a Saudi Arabian magazine, “and I really think that this collaboration is bound to develop.” Beyond curbing terrorism in Paris, the French have other reasons to cozy up to Damascus. They need the Syrians’ help in securing the release of seven French hostages in Lebanon. And they are anxious to avoid further attacks on French troops in the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in Lebanon.
The sanctions question will arise again at an EC meeting in London on Nov. 10. Meanwhile, Britain will veto the renewal of $195 million in EC aid to Syria at a meeting in Brussels this week, a move designed to stir London’s European allies to stronger action. At the same time, both Washington and Ottawa are trying to coordinate any future moves with the Europeans, and France could be the key. French President François Mitterrand said that if evidence clearly implicated any country in terrorism, “there can be no compromise.” That could be a signal that the socialist Mitterrand might try to push the conservative Chirac into taking a firmer stand against Syria.
-BOB LEVIN with BRIGID JANSSEN in Paris, ROSS LAVER in London and HILARY MACKENZIE in Ottawa
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.