Since early December, 2003, Washington has consistently brushed aside Syrian president Bashar Assad‘s many attempts to engage the United States in one form or another of diplomatic dialogue, demanding that he must first meet the terms of the ultimatum secretary of state Colin Powell slapped down during his visit to Damascus on April 13, 2003.
As we reported at the time, Assad was put on notice to surrender Iraqi regime members given sanctuary in Syria. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, a large group of Iraqi fugitives still enjoy asylum in the country, most living in the northern town of Haleb.
Powell further tendered a long list of demands to be met before Washington entered into normal dialogue with Damascus.
He demanded the handover of Saddam’s arsenal, including his weapons of mass destruction, which were transported out of Iraq into Syria between January and March 2003; the surrender of Iraqi funds deposited in Syrian and Lebanese banks; the halting of the flow of fighters, arms and money into Iraq and the Syrian-Iraqi frontier sealed to smuggling. Assad was required to withdraw his sponsorship from Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas, Jihad Islami, the Popular Front and the Popular Front-General Command and shut down their command centers in Damascus.
He was also informed that he must sever his connections with the Hizballah, pull the Syrian army out of Lebanon and stop manufacturing his own weapons of mass destruction including long-range and medium-range missiles.
The secretary of state, who gave Assad two weeks to meet these demands, drew a mixed and evasive response. On some items, partial Syrian cooperation was forthcoming. For instance he pushed across the border into Iraq some of the Iraqi regime members, but not the most important ones. To deflect US pressure, he repeatedly invited Israel to peace negotiations, hoping Washington would forget that Damascus continued to play host to terrorist organizations and ignored its other demands.
But Washington did not forget and kept on reminding Syria that its ultimatum must be met in full. Of late, US officials added a tough accusation: “In the course of the war and since you have put many American lives in jeopardy. That is not something that can be lightly dismissed.”
This week, a fresh message landed in the White House from the presidential palace in Damascus The gist is disclosed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources:
We understand that prime minister Ariel Sharon is not disposed in the near future to enter into negotiations with us and we understand that the administration has no interest in this. Therefore, to save us further embarrassment, we are asking you to state publicly that negotiations on the Palestinian track should be accompanied by negotiations on the Syrian track. That statement will commit you to nothing.
Syria is an organized state and no welfare organization. Everything has its price and worth. Halting Syrian assistance to groups described by you as terrorist movements cannot be effected overnight without a reason. If you want to discuss this seriously, tell us in advance what our action is worth to you.
Our Syrian experts note that this is the first Syrian indication of willingness to open a discussion on its support for terrorists.
Assad’s message goes on to suggest that, to avoid getting caught up in various official echelons in Washington and Damascus, future exchanges between Damascus and Washington be channeled through an intelligence route that will be conducted at the American end by the CIA and by Syrian military intelligence at the opposite end.
The message is under serious scrutiny in Washington.