1. Is Secret Dialogue with Washington Swinging Assad Round?

Syrian president Bashar Assad is beginning to be perceived as either a very confused or a very wily character. Outwardly, he appears reasonable and amenable to demands made of him – particularly from Washington. When facing inward to the Middle East and his personal preferences, the fine promises scatter in the wind.

On November 30, the New York Times ran a surprise interview with the Syrian President, in which he gave cool, calm and measured responses to sensitive questions on the situation in Iraq, Syria’s complicity in the guerrilla war against US forces, its links with the Lebanese Hizballah group and the prospects for peace talks with Israel.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington reveal that the interview was the outcome of a top-secret dialogue taking place for the last three weeks between “private” US individuals and the Syrian presidential palace, a process which Washington hopes may lead to a change of heart in Damascus.

This dialogue, we reveal here, turns on the main points at issue between the United States and the Assad regime which have brought forth US congressional endorsement of punitive sanctions. It also aims to bring about a resumption of Syrian-Israeli negotiations whose agenda would be cut-and-dried in advance to prevent the talks dragging out.

But most immediately, Assad is being asked to deny al Qaeda sanctuary and the use of Damascus international airport as a convenient point of transit between the Persian Gulf and the Middle East and a connecting hub for terrorists to fly onto Europe and the Far East. He is being petitioned to persuade Iran to shut the door on al Qaeda and for both Syria and Iran to hand over the Islamic terrorists they harbor to American custody through a third party. The Syrian president is also under pressure to pull the military carpet out from under the Hizballah and join Washington and Lebanese leaders in forcing the terrorist group to reinvent itself as a political party.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources, the Bush administration’s point man in the secret dialogue with Bashar Assad is none other than former secretary of state James Baker, whom President George W. Bush appointed last week as special envoy for reducing Iraq’s foreign debt mountain left by the Saddam regime.

Syria claims Saddam Hussein paid Syria a debt of more $500 before he went to ground.

The Americans claim Syria is holding $3 billion of the deposed Iraqi ruler’s funds salted away in secret bank accounts and demands the surrender of $2.5m. For Baker and his team, the dickering over the hidden cash cache is the cover for their movements in and out of Damascus. Baker’s progress reports are communicated directly to the US President.

More than spin needed to lift Assad regime's image

Our sources say it is safe assume that it was the former secretary of state who pulled wires for the rare New York Times interview to take place with the Syrian leader – a chance for him to polish Syria’s tarnished image with the American public.

Additional polish was supposed to be applied last week by Syria’s minister for expatriate affairs, Butheina Shaaban. She launched a charm offensive among American Jewish leaders to break some ice ahead of possible progress in setting up peace talks with Israel.

Shaaban has been portrayed in the United States as spokeswoman of the new breed of young, liberal Syrian bureaucrats. Fayez Sayegh, director of Syria’s official news agency under Assad’s father, the late president Hafez Assad, was also brought back into play as a “talking head”.

However, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, Shaaban’s mission was not exactly a smash success. The violent accusations she flung at Israel and its prime minister, Ariel Sharon, in her address to Los Angeles Jewish leaders Monday, December 8, were not very popular; neither was her version of events in Iraq and the US military role in the country. In fact, voices were raised and harsh recriminations exchanged.

In the Middle East arena, meanwhile, the Syrian president is described by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Beirut sources as swinging two ways. He clings to his links with the four most dangerous terrorist groups in the Arab Muslim world – the pro-Saddam guerrillas, Al Qaeda, Hizballah and Palestinian rejectionist terrorists. Yet he also persists in his private conversations with semi-official Americans, without coming down one way or the other on any issue.

He looks as though he is performing a delicate balancing act on a tightrope that no one can quite see.

Assad’s impenetrable maneuvers have had three important consequences, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s exclusive sources have discovered.

1. Al Qaeda Begins to Pull up Stakes in Syria

Al Qaeda’s top command appears to have decided on a course of prudence. Tuesday, December 9, secret emergency orders were issued to fighters and activists present in Syria to depart the country with all possible speed. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources, network members planning travel to Syria were instructed to cancel their plans, warned that on Syrian soil they now ran the risk of arrest, interrogation with torture and being handed over to the enemy – the United States.

Ironically, the fundamentalist network’s order was couched in similar terms to the advisories published by the US and British governments warning citizens against traveling to Middle East locations for fear of al Qaeda terrorist attacks.

Our sources are trying to establish what proportion of al Qaeda strength scattered across Syria – in Damascus, the madressas around the capital, and northern towns like Homs and Aleppo – picked up the order to leave and obeyed it. Or where those who did, went next. But one thing is clear: The bond of trust that governed al Qaeda’s relations with President Assad and his military intelligence for three years – and provided the terrorists with free passage between Syria and Iraq as well as the unrestricted use of Syria’s air and sea ports – has been seriously weakened.

It is too soon to tell how this apparent turning-of-the-tide will affect the level of warfare American and coalition forces face in Iraq from Syrian-Arab combatants partnered by Al Qaeda terrorists. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and counter-terrorism sources have not confirmed news reports this week of “search and destroy” missions carried out by US special forces inside Syria to halt the influx of terrorists into Iraq. What is certain is that US special forces deployed in the frontier area do occasionally cross into Syria.

2. Syria and Jordan zoom into crisis

Syrian president Assad and Jordan’s King Abdullah have never been the best of friends and rarely had a good word to say about one another. Their respective fathers, Hafez Assad and King Hussein, also stayed at arm’s length although over the years they came to respect – and beware of – each other.

The sons do not share their fathers’ restraint. Syrian-Jordanian frictions simmering for the past months have now flared up to such a degree that Damascus abruptly stopped construction of a dam on the Yarmuk River that was to be hub of a joint water project. Tempers in Damascus rose during last week’s visit to the White House by King Abdullah. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources, Assad flew off the handle to his close advisers, accusing the Jordanian monarch of maliciously stirring up ill will against him in his talks with the US president.

According to reports reaching Damascus, Abdullah asked Bush why no American action was taken against Syria and why it was allowed to continue to move fighters into Iraq.

To even the score, the presidential palace ordered the Syrian media into action. On Tuesday, December 9, they lampooned Abdullah as wearing a paper crown and hard-selling Israeli military and financial interests in Iraq. Syrian newspapers cast aspersions on Jordanian firms for the “crime” of acting as agents for Israeli manufacturers supplying food and construction to Iraq.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in Amman report that Faisal Fayez, Jordan’s new prime minister, got on the phone to top Syrian business leaders in an attempt to pour oil on troubled waters, with no success.

The next step predicted by some Middle Eastern military and intelligence sources as par for the course would be the call-up of reserves in Syria and Jordan and military buildups on both sides of the neighbors’ shared frontier.

3. Assad’s New York Times interview censored for home consumption

While the cause of much speculation in the West, Bashar Assad’s comments to The New York were carefully edited before they reached the average Syrian in the streets of Damascus.

The presidential censors made sure that such “sensitive” remarks, as those relating to possible peace talks with Israel and events in Iraq, were expunged before the paper hit domestic news stands.

Several Middle Eastern Internet sites have taken Assad to task for repressive practices which are compared to the methods of North Korea’s Kim Jong II. The website of the Syrian communist party, an important ally of Assad’s Baath party, stated: “The deletions were the best and clearest examples of the kind of mentality at work in the presidential palace and the fossilized philosophy of a president who still believes leaders can say one thing in English and then make it look different in Arabic.”

As one editor put it: To think that some Westerners still believe that Syria has a forward-looking, reform-minded ruler!

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