Impatient to See Assad Go, Washington Made Much of Routine Syrian Scud Test
4 June: Last week, Syrian test-fired one elderly Scud B (200km range) and two Scud D (700km range) missiles, capable of delivering air-burst chemical weapons. Syria’s missiles are routinely tested every summer. This time, Damascus took particular care to aim the missiles southwest, so as not to mistakenly hit US forces operating in the al Qaim province on the Iraqi side of its border. The Scud B broke up and shed debris over Turkey.
All the same, The New York Times and the US State Department, confirming the Israeli report of the test, made a big fuss.
debkafile‘s military and Middle East sources report that a strong sense of trouble brewing pervades ruling circles in Damascus, as the Syrian Baath prepares for its 10th convention Monday, June 6, a gathering of major moment for the stability and future of the Assad regime.
A stack of problems is piling up on the Syrian ruler.
1. debkafile‘s counter-terror sources confirm that Syrian army intelligence agents hired contact killers to assassinate the prominent anti-Syria Lebanese journalist Samir Qaseer last Thursday, June 2, by booby-trapping his car. Moreover, three senior Syrian military intelligence officers reappeared in northern Lebanon last week to put their oar into the general election.
2. The Baath convention looks like becoming a battleground for delegates’ accusations and counter-accusations over the responsibility for Syria’s debacle in Lebanon. Assad is expected to use this dispute and the political reform slogan as an opening for sacking two- thirds of the top level of the Baath party’s ruling institutions.
3. Syria’s entire leadership is on edge over the looming return home aboard his private plane of the president’s black sheep uncle Rif’at Assad from 16 years in exile.
4. The certainty has gained ground in Middle East capitals that US president George W. Bush has decided to wash his hands of Assad once and for all.
Bush Policy Switch: Hamas Need Not Dismantle to Gain Recognition
6 June: The Bush administration, said “senior administration officials” in Crawford, Texas, on June 5, is showing signs of easing its hard-line approach towards Hamas… It has acceded to the (terror group) running candidates in the Palestinian elections, even while they refuse to disarm and are still listed by Washington as a major terrorist organization.
The “senior US officials” said they may be open to contacts with some Hamas political “affiliates” and left open the possibility of dealing with the group if it gave up weapons and ended violence. This was in contrast to past calls for its total dismantlement.
Middle East leaders woke up Monday, June 6, to find that the Bush administration had hit on a way of leapfrogging over the standoff between Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ declining clout and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s losing battle for a crackdown and total dismantlement of Palestinian terror. Both were now confronted with the compulsion to address a third party, the fully armed Hamas as is. To gain US recognition, the jihadist group is no longer required to dismantle its terrorist structures, foreswear violence, renounce its goal to destroy the Jewish state – or even to stop shooting Qassam missiles into Israel.
This shift also implies a curtailment of the Middle East road map by omitting the dismantlement of terrorist organizations as a pre-condition for peace talks.
This policy U-turn has major applications far outside the Israel-Palestinian arena – US contacts with Sunni Baathist guerilla leaders in Iraq, while they continue to wreak carnage; to Lebanon’s Shiite extremist Hizballah (which claims electoral victory in South Lebanon’s elections Sunday, June 4) despite its refusal to lay down its weapons, including 12,000 Katyusha rockets on Lebanon’s border with Israel; and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which is likewise bidding for a role in the democratic process without relinquishing the use of arms.
Washington will argue that it is leading the way to a breakthrough and Israeli will have little choice but to follow suit.
For Washington, the shift is a pragmatic acceptance of Mahmoud Abbas’ loosening grip over in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Alone he is but a broken reed for Washington’s peace policy. Sharon’s situation is not much brighter. Public approval for the Gaza pullback has dropped below 50%. Waiting for both their fortunes to improve could expose the Bush administrations’ entire Middle East stake to bankruptcy.
Havoc Grows and Palestinian Violence Escalates as Israel’s Pull-out Date Approaches
7 June: Israel’s new chief of staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz followed a given script when he declared firmly Tuesday, June 7: “Evacuation will not take place under fire. I say exactly what I mean.”
He was speaking to skeptical military correspondents outside Sderot, whose shocked citizens refuse to meet him after suffering waves of Qassam missile salvoes from the Gaza Strip throughout the day. Later, the attacks across the border into Israel and inside the Gaza Strip intensified until a missile struck a work-team in Ganei Tal’s greenhouse. Three workers were killed, two Palestinians and a Chinese, 5 were seriously injured, most of them Palestinian. Mortar shells and sniper fire against IDF positions and civilians accompanied the missiles.
Asked when the Israeli army would take action to curb Gaza-based Palestinian terror, Halutz was evasive: Our patience will not last forever. We will act at a time of our choosing. We are responsible for our citizens’ safety. He then added: We must think of the long term.
Halutz’s words did not reassure the inhabitants of Gaza, such as Ganei Tal, that they would be fully protected when they exited their homes in August; or that the Israeli town of Sderot would be safe from Palestinian missiles when it is left behind outside the Gaza Strip.
Much bombast is also being poured out by compliant media to show how the powers-that-be are far advanced in arrangements for the coming pull-back of Israeli communities from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank. However, Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, head of the national security council, who ought to know what is going on, has exposed the true state of affairs, which is that nothing is ready – as debkafile revealed some weeks ago. This impression he recorded in a classified letter to the relevant directors general of government ministries:
With less than three months to go before the withdrawal, he writes, every aspect of preparedness for the disengagement process is hazy …It is not clear (to me at least) what the reality is, or the distinction between the real problems and those thrown up by publicity, as generated by media spin.
“Although I have stressed the need to differentiate between the two, the second element must not be belittled. It shapes public and political consciousness. The appearance of havoc undermines the government’s strength and encourages initiatives that go against its decisions (postponement of the evacuation, for instance).
The security adviser has not heard if a deadline has been set for negotiations with the evacuees, what incentives they have been offered to come to terms and what legal bars are holding up solutions.
Eiland ends his letter by saying: “I have approached the director-general of the prime minister’s office with a request to urgently convene the “select forum” to assess the general situation. This airing is vital…”
In other words, the head of Israel’s national security council, who was entrusted by the prime minister with drafting an outline for the disengagement project covering evacuation and operations, has no idea what preparations are in train and which are not, because of what he calls “haze.” He is more than ready to dump the mess in someone else’s lap.
The future evacuees’ refusal to cooperate with the authorities is automatically blamed; it is their fault that the government’s relocation plans are stalled. They reply that even those willing to leave quietly and accept alternatives have run into an official brick wall; no such alternatives have been prepared.
debkafile finds the cause of Eiland’s haze in a quite different quarter – or rather two: Egypt’s flat refusal to make good on its undertaking to participate in the process and Palestinian denial of cooperation.
Cairo has reneged on the security role Egyptian leaders undertook to play in the Gaza Strip, including the relief of Israeli forces guarding the Philadelphi border strip to make a complete pullback possible. Instead of leveling with the public, the Sharon government is trying to make this glitch disappear.
As for the Palestinians, Mahmoud Abbas is totally passive. Since undergoing heart surgery a week ago, he is sunk in the philosophical contemplation of human destiny while uncharacteristically praying five times a day.
His representatives listen to questions – but have no answers. They contribute nothing to urgent discussions on coordinating the withdrawal, whether or not to demolish abandoned houses, who will take over the greenhouses, how to prevent the operation taking place under Palestinian fire, a proposed rail link for Palestinians to commute between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, who will take over evacuated territory.
Sharon is not admitting that he has lost the two projected mainstays of his disengagement plan. But without them he is stymied.