3. Is Time Running out for Assad?
Syrian president Bashar Assad came in for another, especially sharp, caution this week from Washington, the burden of which was: “You’ll be hearing from us soon.”
The Syrian president should not be too surprised, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, if the American-Kurdish assault developing in northern Iraq – the oil-rich town of Kirkuk was captured Thursday, April 10 and Mosul is next – just happens to slip over the border to strike at targets in Syria.
America’s reckoning with Assad gets longer every day. He has been generous with strategic backing including arms sales for the Saddam regime, provided the Iraqi leader, his family and hierarchy with an escape hatch and alternative command post, opened up a corridor for pumping Arab volunteers into Iraq, supplied hidden locations for Saddam’s unconventional weapons, and willingly sponsors and provides bases for terrorists.
The Americans therefore can pick and choose their targets in Syria. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources believe they may opt for strikes against the Damascus-based headquarters of the Palestinian Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorist groups, as well as the Syrian army and intelligence units integrated in the Iraqi-Syrian-Russian jihad infrastructure. US forces may also deal a side-swipe to the Shiite Hizballah terrorists in Lebanon.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, the US war command may be hurrying along the deployment of the US 4th Infantry Division in northern Iraq in order to strike out at Syria in the days to come. The Fourth and its tanks, which are now offloading in Kuwait, are needed to boost the units posted in the Baghdad area. Yet the tanks are on their way north to join their crews, who landed earlier at new airstrips laid by American military engineers at Harir and Bakrajo airfields in northern Kurdistan.
And additional airlift is ferrying US military units from bases in Germany into northern Iraq via Turkey since the end of the diplomatic standoff between Washington and Ankara that delayed the opening of the northern front. Turkey has secretly opened its borders to transiting US forces, albeit without their heavy equipment, and made its air bases available for US warplanes, including B-52’s formerly based in the UK, to fly missions over Iraq.
Hizballah – Chief “Jihad” Recruiter
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources add that the Hizballah is to be co-opted to Saddam’s “jihad” guerrilla war against US forces. On April 5, the fiery Hizballah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah told a meeting of the group’s leadership: “We must step up warfare in Iraq and the resistance to the American and British occupation. And we must keep up the pressure on Arab regimes by inflicting heavy, heavy, heavy US and British casualties.”
Nasrallah’s deputy, sheikh Naim Qassem, briefed the session on the discussions Hizballah’s security officers have been holding on the Iraqi jihad plan with Iraqi and Syrian representatives.
The Shiite group has already been useful as a recruiting agent for fighters around the Muslim world. The United States has received information that Syrian and Hizballah intelligence agents, organized by the Palestinian Jihad Islami’s Damascus-based leader, Ramadan Salah, are going round the Persian Gulf and the Middle East recruiting local political leaders and militia chiefs.
Salah has the right background. Last May and early June, he spent time in Iraqi vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan’s Baghdad offices when they handed out tasks for Iraqi intelligence officers to train jihad recruits in the use of chemical weapons. According to intelligence assessments, some 1,200 of these Islamic Jihad fighters are already in Iraq.
Saddam and his sons, Uday and Qusay, plan to keep the “jihad” operation fully under their control. They have set up command headquarters in Syria, but the two young Husseins and Saddam’s senior commanders certainly slip in and out of Iraq as needed for secret meetings. It is not yet clear if they have been able to muster sufficient organized strength to get their “jihad” campaign running. Saddam and his boys were almost certainly out of Baghdad when a B-1 warplane dropped four 2,000-pound bombs on Monday on a restaurant where the United States believed they were meeting top aides.
Like the Viet Cong
Saddam prepared himself thoroughly to lead a guerrilla war. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that according to information reaching Washington, he was tutored by experts over the past year in the lessons of the ill-fated German invasion of Russia in World War Two and Viet Cong tactics against US troops in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s. He is sure he can conduct as successful a guerrilla war of attrition as the Viet Cong once the Americans consolidate their hold on his country.
The Syrian president is as eager as Saddam to see the rough jolts the Iraqi “jihad” inflicts on the Arab governments, a punishment for being too impotent to induce the United States to call off its invasion of Iraq. They trust that regime changes in the Arab world will eventuate quite quickly in response to the upsets in Iraq. The “Arab street” they believe will join up with Saddam’s guerrilla campaign in Iraq in droves to become the carriers of a popular revolution spilling over throughout the region.
In all this uproar, one terrorist voice is thunderously silent, that of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda group.
Deep inroads have been made in the organization. Last month’s capture in Pakistan of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged to have organized the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, undoubtedly disrupted al Qaeda’s plans for a wave of terrorist strikes. But the al Qaeda has also been focusing its efforts and aspirations on a particular target: the staging of a fundamentalist coup in Saudi Arabia. Sensing Saddam’s “jihad’s” potential as a formidable rival network, al Qaeda is strengthening its foothold in the oil kingdom. Even if it fails to overthrow the al-Sauds, al Qaeda’s leaders believes limited control of some Saudi regions would restore the territorial base lost in Afghanistan to make it possible to continue its international terror campaign and compete on improved terms with Saddam’s legion for pride of place in the Arab world.