A Digest of debkafile Round-the-Clock Exclusives in the Week Ending May 14, 2009

Sharp US reversal: From detente to new sanctions against Syria


09 May: An unnamed Syrian source described Washington's decision of Friday, May 8, to renew US sanctions because of the continuing threat Damascus posed to US interests “a routine measure.” The source said the measure would not affect dialogue between the two countries.

After a major diplomatic offensive to thaw relations with Syrian president Bashar Assad, US president Barack Obama sent a letter to Congress accusing Damascus of “supporting terrorism, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining US and international efforts with respect to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq.”

debkafile's Middle East sources explain Obama's change of heart by his disappointment with Assad's refusal to respond to the efforts of US envoys to persuade him to start moving away from Tehran and stop transferring arms to the Shiite terrorist Hizballah. He also refused to keep his hands off Lebanon's June elections, in which Hizballah and pro-Syrian factions are challenging the western-backed majority government.


Pakistan hangs back from major Swat offensive, holds secret talks with Taliban


10 May: debkafile's military sources report that accounts of a major Pakistan military offensive launched to flush Taliban out of their strongholds in the northern Swat Valley are inflated. This is not to say that hundreds of thousands of civilians are not fleeing the valley. Some half a million are on the move and will join the same number displaced since August, generating a large-scale humanitarian catastrophe.

The Pakistani army has so far not fought a single pitched battle with the Taliban, nor rooted them out of any cities and villages under their control. Instead, they are using long-range artillery against Taliban positions and warplane and helicopter strikes against small Taliban groups on the move. The 15,000 Pakistani troops poised in the Swat Valley are not about to launch a major offensive against the 5,000 Taliban fighters standing against them. For one thing, double the number of troops would be needed. For another, the Islamabad government and local insurgent chiefs are in secret negotiation to arrange for the army to move “victoriously” into the main Swat towns of Mingora and Kambar without facing resistance. Taliban would retreat to the countryside, undefeated and with minimal losses. Both sides would then revert to the original deal for the imposition of Sharia law in the province in return for a ceasefire.


May 10 Briefs


·        Four knife-carrying Palestinians caught heading for Jerusalem and Hebron.

·        Israeli security sources: Stabbing attempts orchestrated for Pope Benedict's visit Monday:
One would-be terrorist picked up in Gilo, Jerusalem.
Second heading for Jerusalem through the Tunnels Road.
Two more stopped outside the Cave of the Patriarchs, Hebron

·        New anti-tank missile armor, Windbreaker, fitted on first Israeli Chariot-4 tank unit.


Gates demands resignation of US Afghanistan commander


11 May: US defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked for the top US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan to resign and recommended he be replaced by a former Special Operations officer in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.

The incoming chief, currently the director of the joint staff, was forward commander of the US military's covert Joint Special Operations Command from 2006 to August 2008, which was responsible for tracking down and killing al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi in April 2006, as well as high-profile Sunni insurgents.

Gates seems to believe that McChrystal's special operations tactics may succeed better in breaking Talilban-al Qaeda resistance than the more traditional methods of the departing Gen. McKiernan.


Pope Benedict's Yad Vashem speech disappoints Israel


11 May: The widely anticipated address by Pope Benedict XVI at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center in Jerusalem was too general, theological and abstract to ease strains with the Jewish people.

The pontiff offered no apology; nor did he mention Germany and the Nazis, when he said: “Those who lost their lives must never lose their names or be forgotten” and “The atrocity which disgraced mankind must never happen again,” without specifying its perpetrators.

“The Catholic Church feels deep compassion for all victims of persecution,” said the German-born pontiff.

Benedict's five-day visit to Israel and the Palestinians began at Ben Gurion on arrival from Jordan, Monday, May 11, when he called for the establishment of a “Palestinian homeland,” plunging deep in the most sensitive Middle East politics. He was greeted by a long line of welcoming dignitaries headed by Israel's president, prime minister and heads of the various faiths.

Around 30,000 police are on duty in Israel's largest security operation in years, involving also decoy helicopters for his carefully-balanced itinerary in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Wednesday, the pope visits the Palestinian refugee camp at Bethlehem and leads a mass at Manger Square. Thursday, he spends in Nazareth where he also meets Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.


Netanyahu-Mubarak Talks Aim for Arab-Israel Front against Iran


11 May: If successful, Binyamin Netanyahu's first talks as Israeli prime minister with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak at Sharm el Sheikh Monday, May 11, could mark the epic birth of Israel's first alliance with two key Arab nations, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in order to stop Iran. Netanyahu has bought the proposition that he may have to pay his two Arab partners in the coin of concessions to the Palestinians. But the Israeli leader believes it is worth the price for the sake of a working partnership with Egypt and Saudi Arabia against Iran.

In strategic-historic terms, he believes that would be a more advantageous deal than succumbing to American arm-twisting. After all, Cairo and Riyadh are willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel against Iran – unlike the Obama administration.

The Israeli prime minister utterly rejects the tradeoff implied in US National adviser Gen. James Jones statement Sunday that a two state-solution would diminish Iran's existential threat to Israel, with no guarantee of the latter.


Taliban hits E. Afghan government center after US replaces top commander


12 May: Taliban launched massive suicide bombing attacks Tuesday, May 12, on two government buildings in the eastern Afghanistan town of Khost that houses a big American base near the border with Pakistan. US forces attending a meeting with Afghan officials responded, sparking running gun battles that killed an estimated 20 people and wounded three US troops.

According to some reports, the Taliban's multiple attacks in Khost were planned to ambush the US forces responding to the explosions.

The Khost attack came as the new US ambassador, former general Karl Eikenberry, presented his credentials to Afghan president Hamid Karzai in Kabul, the day after the top American commander Gen. David McKiernan was replaced by Obama with Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a former Special Operations forces officer.

Military sources say the rebels' attacks have become more complex and sophisticated. The Khost attack was one of the deadliest in recent months.


Netanyahu, Mubarak, Abbas meet Obama in Washington this month


12 May: President Hosni Mubarak is invited to talks with US President Barack Obama on May 26, eight days after the Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's May 18 visit. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas follows on May 28.

debkafile's Middle East sources report that the private one-and-a-half hour conversation Netanyahu and Mubarak held a at Sharm el-Sheikh Monday, May 11 focused on the urgency of a common Israeli-Arab strategy for dealing with Iran and its allies, which Egypt too has defined as a threat to its own and Middle East stability. Both are worried by the Obama administration's lenience toward Tehran.

Their brief statements later dealt only with their differing approaches on the Palestinian issue.

Mubarak stressed the vision of two states for two nations and the Arab peace initiative, calling on Israel to take up the peace dialogue with the Palestinians from the point it ran aground last year.

Netanyahu, while pledging to renew talks in a matter of weeks, omitted to support two states and emphasized the talks must start on a fresh basis, focusing on diplomatic, economic and security issues. Israel and its Palestinian neighbors can co-exist in peace, security and prosperity, he said.


May 13 Briefs


·        Israel's 2009-2010 state budget approved by cabinet majority of 26 vs four. VAT was raised and a 6 percent across-the-board budget cutback ordered to narrow the deficit.

·        Pope Benedict XVI supports a “sovereign Palestinian homeland.” He urged Palestinians to stop resorting to violence and terrorism. The pope pledges prayers for the embargo to be lifted in Gaza.


Egypt acts to block Hamas arms smuggling – finally


13 May: Egypt has deployed 600 commandos in civilian garb in the northern Sinai town of El Arish and the divided Gaza town of Rafah for its first ever serious effort to cork up the hundreds of Hamas' arms smuggling mega-tunnels into the Gaza Strip.

Now, for the first time, chances are good for severing the subterranean lifeline feeding the Hamas arsenal which has blasted Israel for eight years, a high-ranking Israeli security officer commented. “If Cairo had done this three years ago,” he said, “Iran might never have been able to move in on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and spread its wings across into Egypt territory.

Cairo has taken four significant steps:

1. It has closed off the sector between El Arish and Rafah as an off-limits military zone. Vehicles going in or out are searched by Egyptian commandos.

2. Roadblocks are posted 20 kilometers apart on Sinai road connections to the Suez Canal and Red Sea coasts.

3. The tunnel owners of the El Arish and Rafah were warned that gun-runners face years in an Egyptian jail with hard labor.

4. Sinai Bedouin chiefs were handed hefty cash grants to stop the arms smugglers from transiting their territories.


Iranian sources: Obama to free four Iranian “diplomats” in swap for US journalist


13 May: Those sources reveal that US journalist Roxana Saberi was released Tuesday, May 12, as part of an exchange deal for Washington to free four senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards intelligence officers captured in Irbil, northern Iraq in January 2007. Defined as “diplomats” by Tehran, they ran terror operations and covert arms supplies from Iran then to al Qaeda and Sunni insurgent networks.

The Obama administration is also considering releasing to Tehran information on the fate of the Iranian diplomat who disappeared in Pakistan four months ago. The four Iranian agents have not yet been freed, but senior Iranian and Iraqi sources say it will happen soon. The date depends on Tehran satisfying Washington's demand for information on the former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who has never been heard of from the time he disappeared on the Iranian island of Kish in March 2007.


CIA chief visits Israel, mixed Washington assessments on Iran


14 May: CIA Director Leon Panetta visited Israel two weeks ago to explore Israel's intentions with regard to a raid on Iran's nuclear facilities and its alignment with Egypt and Saudi Arabia for this shared objective.

The agency's latest assessments – that Iran lacks adequate military resources to shield its nuclear sites from attack and would also pull its punches in responding to an Israeli strike – were not taken seriously by Israel or the Egyptian and Saudi leaders, who heard them from defense secretary Robert Gates at around the same time.

They suspected that Washington is trying to prevent Israel's link-up with Egypt and Saudi Arabia for sending its warplanes against Iran through the skies of its two Arab partners, without asking the United States.

Panetta and Gates alike returned home convinced that Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf emirates are far more fearful of a nuclear-armed Iran than of clashing with the Obama administration over its Iran policy. This has prompted a policy review in Washington, which is still going on, producing Obama's sudden decision to address the Muslim world from Egypt on June 4 and his renewal of sanctions against Syria. It bodes a smoother visit to Washington by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu next Monday, May 18.

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