In a surprise move, Syrian president Bashar Assad has appointed a Syrian general of Palestinian origin to the prestigious and important post of Syrian Air Force commander. Hazem al-Hadara will replace outgoing Air Force commander, General Ali Mahmoud.
The move has raised eyebrows among military men in Washington and Jerusalem who agree Hadara may have been the best man for the job but the appointment of a Palestinian to such a powerful position in the Syrian military is loaded with unusual political and symbolic significance.
“Although no one is making a gift of the Syrian air force to Yasser Arafat, the appointment will be a real morale booster for the Palestinians,” one senior Israeli officer said.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources allow that Assad may be signaling that he is serious about cooperating with Washington and Cairo to achieve a Palestinian solution. On the other hand, the young Syrian leader may have merely been throwing a bone to gain the goodwill of his own Palestinian population, as well as the Palestinians of Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, and even Israeli Arabs.
Also worth noting is that new air force chief’s brother, General Mohammed Tarez al-Hadara, commands the Damascus-based Hittin division of the Palestine Liberation Army. On paper, the division takes its orders from the overall commander of Palestinian forces, Yasser Arafat. In practice, it is under the thumb of the Syrian general staff. The two Hadara brothers, both in their 40’s, belong to a Palestinian family that fled the Galilee town of Safed during the 1948 Arab-Israel War and settled near Damascus.
According to our sources, the new air force chief will also command Syria’s missile units, including the country’s arsenal of chemical warheads, as well as its national air defenses. It is still unclear whether he will also command Air Force intelligence, the dominant intelligence organ in today’s Syria whose remit and skills far exceed pure aerial reconnaissance.
Bashar Assad has continued his father’s practice of consigning the protection of the regime and the personal safety of president and family, senior Syrian Baath members and top military brass to air force intelligence. This unusual intelligence arm also maintains Syria’s undercover ties with foreign intelligence services, whether national agencies or those operated by terrorist organizations. Syrian Air Force intelligence runs its own hit squads, which operate mainly in Syria, the Arab world, the Gulf, north Africa and Western Europe.
It is hard to imagine the Syrian ruler committing this powerful weapon of rule to his Palestinian Air force chief.