It was an angry Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak who telephoned his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad on Monday, November 3.
“I am coming to see you and bringing along my senior adviser, Osama el-Baz,” Mubarak told him.
Assad took the news without a word, then invited Mubarak to spend the night and hold further discussions on a wide range of issues on Tuesday.
“No, I have to get back to Cairo Monday night,” Mubarak replied shortly.
The Egyptian leader entered the Radwa presidential palace at 5 p.m. and left for Damascus international airport at 8 p.m.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and Middle Eastern sources report that Mubarak brought with him a message of unprecedented harshness from Washington. Nothing like it had been conveyed to any regional leader since Saddam Hussein was put on notice of the fate awaiting him if the Americans invaded Iraq.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources have viewed the transcript of the three-hour Mubarak-Assad exchange:
Mubarak: “I am here because Washington asked me to pay you an urgent visit. I discussed this with our other Arab brothers and they told me they are deeply troubled by the situation. You must understand that your actions in Iraq and Palestine may expose Syria to the peril of becoming the “Cambodia” of the Iraq War.
Mubarak used the Cambodia metaphor to convince the far less experienced Syrian leader of the hazards of persisting in his support for Iraqi guerrilla fighters and Palestinian terrorist organizations. He could well incur a bombing offensive against Syrian targets on the scale of the secret 1973 air blitz the Nixon administration loosed against Cambodia and Laos on the advice of secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
Assad: Is that the message the Americans asked you to deliver?
Instead of answering the question, Mubarak declared: Don’t expect me or anyone else in the Arab world to come to your aid. Remember that no one rushed to help Saddam Hussein or the Palestinians.”
Assad: I’m not saying that not one Arab guerrilla joining Saddam’s resistance came from here, Syria. But you know as well as I do that many also enter from Saudi Arabia and recently from Kuwait.
Mubarak: That’s true, but it is also true that more than half of the fighters do come from here.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counter-terrorism sources confirm Assad’s claim that Kuwait is increasingly the source of Al Qaeda fighters heading for the flashpoint zones of the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad. They enter without difficulty through Iraq’s southern border in the guise of merchants traveling to Baghdad on business and are collected by Iraqi intelligence officers loyal to Saddam, who escort them to Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah, Samara and Tikrit.
Mubarak: Now, let’s talk about Hizballah. Your greatly esteemed father (the late president Hafez Assad) never gave Hizballah the kind of free rein to sound off and behave in the way it does under your custodianship. What is going on here? You let them publish their newspapers in Syria and their clerics teach in Syrian religious schools. What are you waiting for? For them to grow into a political force in Syria that no one can stop?
And what are you thinking of letting opposition factions in your regime run off with national policy? Your father must be turning in his grave. How can you allow them to publicly threaten to attack Israeli settlements in the Golan Heights? And what is this woman who was employed by your father as an ordinary translator doing publicly haranguing Israel as if she were your foreign minister?”
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, Mubarak referred to the foreign ministry’s powerful head of foreign relations Buthaina Shaaban. In the early stages of the Iraq War, Washington had judged Shaaban pro-American and counted on her moderating influence on Assad’s regime. But as time goes by, she is becoming increasingly militant and issuing statements that may or may not be closely coordinated with the president or his close advisers.
The day after Mubarak’s visit to Damascus, Shaaban sent her spokeswoman Bushra Kanafani to be interviewed by the Damascus correspondent of the Saudi newspaper Sharq al-Awsat. Kanafani delivered a scathing attack on the United States and Israel. The Americans, she said, must withdraw their forces from Iraq; they are to blame for the rise of terrorism. “The problem is the United States,” Kanafani said, “not Syria.”
Implicitly rejecting the strong US warning Mubarak delivered to Assad, she said, “When America entered Iraq there was no terrorism problem. Now there is the problem of terrorism and of al Qaeda.” The Syrian official went on to declare, “America must be more objective. …the matter has changed from one of weapons of mass destruction and toppling a regime to a new one of terrorism.”
The spokeswoman’s freedom to publish her sharp rejection of Mubarak’s comments and Washington’s warnings in the London-based Saudi newspaper underscored the justice of the Egyptian president’s advice to Assad to curb the extremists lest they weaken his hold on power and begin dictating presidential policy.
But in one respect, the younger Assad resembles his father. In their conversation, instead of addressing Mubarak’s arguments point by point, he launched into a long-winded, rambling discourse on the historical roots of the Bush family’s hostility toward the Iraqi government with asides on the Israeli-Arab conflict.
A visibly impatient Mubarak cut him off saying it was time to break for the Ramadan evening meal.
While Mubarak and Assad talked tete a tete, Osama al Baz conducted a stiff exchange with hard-line Syrian foreign minister Farouk a-Shara, reprimanding him for failing in his duty to fully brief and advise the Syrian president for fear of losing his job to the rising star Buthaina Shaaban. “Your passivity is costing the president and Syria dear,” said the veteran Egyptian diplomat.
The normally cold and reserved Assad is described by Egyptian sources as being in high good humor at the evening meal. He even cracked jokes, which made his guests wonder.
On the flight back to Cairo, Mubarak asked his advisers to account for the Syrian president’s uncharacteristic gaiety. One ventured to remark that his wife had just given birth to their first child, a daughter; another that the Syrian leader was covering his unease over the warning from Washington.
Al Baz’s explanation was quite different. Shortly before Mubarak’s visit, on Sunday, November 1, Syria convened an urgent foreign ministers’ conference of Iraq’s neighbors to discuss the guerrilla war against coalition forces. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, Iran and Turkey were invited. After some of the foreign ministers protested, Hoshar Zebari, the foreign minister of the provisional Iraqi governing council, was asked to join the gathering. Offended at the manner of his invitation, he declined to attend.
No one present understood why they had been called until Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al Faisal rose to speak. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, the prince took them all by surprise with an unusual proposal. He suggested the creation of a special Iraqi intelligence agency to pool all the incoming data on Iraq received by the governments represented. This agency would study and analyze the data and submit recommendations to the participating governments.
After a moment of surprised silence, it dawned on the ministers that the Saudis were seeking to compensate for their lamentable lack of intelligence on Iraq by their proposed pool.
Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul broke the impasse by saying bluntly that, with all due respect to the dignitaries present, Ankara had no wish to share intelligence with either Iran or Syria.”
With that, the meeting broke up.
Al Baz offered his boss the view that the Syrian president was prevailed upon to bring the foreign ministers together in Damascus as an urgent favor to Riyadh. But the event had shown the Syrian leader his own strength in the inter-Arab arena. Furthermore, according to the Egyptian president’s adviser, the Bush administration had more than one string to its Syrian bow. One was the threatening stance embodied in Mubarak’s mission to Damascus, but Assad had also received cheering signals that some mitigation of punishment was in the works.
As soon as he returned to his office in Cairo, Mubarak got in touch with US Vice President Richard Cheney with a full report on his conversation with Assad.