Confident that the next US president after George W. Bush will seek him out for diplomatic engagement, as well as forcing Israel to part with the Golan, the Syrian president Bashar Assad has assembled a dream team of handpicked negotiators and is holding them ready.
His point man, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources reveal, is Dr. Ahmad Tamir Taqi, a cardiologist and personal friend whom Assad met in London when he was studying to be an optician. Dr. Taqi was an intern at the Harley Street London consultancy of the cardiologist Dr. Fawaz Akhraz – who happens to be the father of Asma, then his fiancee, later his First Lady.
It is the first time, our sources note, that the Syrian president has filled a sensitive senior post with an outsider, a non-member of any of the ruling military, intelligence or political cliques.
Taqi was an unusual choice for another reason. Until last year, he was a member of the Syrian Communist Party. The comrades expelled him because he was too friendly with the president. Assad compensated him with the title of personal adviser to the prime minister, a sinecure which went with a generous salary, cars and other perks.
A few weeks later, in August 2007, Assad created for his good friend a small but well-funded research institute in Damascus called the Oriental Institute for Strategic Studies.
The doctor was called in for his first high-powered consultation at the presidential palace right after Israel’s raid of the Syrian nuclear reactor on Sept. 6, 2007. A decision was needed urgently on Syria’s response.
That was Dr. Taqi’s first taste of life at the top of the Damascus tree, but not the last. Assad has since taken to summoning him to the palace for advice almost every day.
Two months ago, the Syrian ruler’s good friend began paying visits to Ankara, where he was received by Turkish prime minister Recip Tayyep Eedogan and president Abdullah Gul. Wearing his academic hat as head of the Damascus institute, he also held semi-secret meetings with ex-Israeli academics who had settled in the United States and held American citizenship.
Since then, the peripatetic Syrian physician has attracted the notice of political and intelligence insiders in Washington and the Middle East. They have concluded that Assad has entrusted him with establishing a special team of negotiators under the president’s personal control and carrying out the networking necessary to have them ready for when the day comes for talks with the United States and Israel.
For “peace talks with Israel” – read “dialogue with Washington”
In recent weeks, Assad gave Dr. Taqi two team members.
Gen. Izz- e-Din Idris, one of the old guard of army officers who served Hafez Assad, was called back from retirement. Our intelligence sources report that he turned up out of the blue on the 40th day of mourning for Hizballah’s military chief Imad Mughniyeh with a message from the president for the US and Arab intelligence agents based in Damascus and Beirut. Hizballah had threatened to punish Israel after the mourning period was over. The message conveyed by Gen. Idris was that Assad had decided not to retaliate for the Mughniyeh’s death or let Hizballah wreak revenge either.
Those agents were not sure whether this long-absent veteran could be trusted. Cautious inquiries showed him to be on the level and newly ensconced close to Assad and Dr. Taqi.
The third member of Assad’s dream team was another Syrian, Dr. Amer Salem, who until six months ago held a senior position at Microsoft. He is considered well connected in computer- and electronics-related business circles in the United States. The president chose him to cultivate American diplomatic and intelligence contacts.
Americans and other Westerners who have met Dr. Taqi were impressed by this genial, friendly and soft-talking man in his fifties. They say he chooses his words carefully and is skilled in presenting his boss’s positions faithfully yet in terms that fall pleasantly on Western ears.
Assad’s choice as senior negotiator is moreover a Christian, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, and has never been involved with Iran, Hizballah, the Palestinians or any Lebanese political group.
His published articles and speeches never discuss Syria attacking Israel or anyone else. But the theme running through them – a foretaste of the arguments he will present as the president’s senior negotiator – is that for Syria to take the extreme step of splitting up with Iran, much more is needed than Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan. Damascus would hold out for ironclad American guarantees for Syria’s security, economic development and favored status in many spheres.
According to Taqi, Syria is less troubled by Israel than by the situation in Iraq, which Assad considers a strategic threat to the survival of his regime. The Syrian ruler is fonding of talking about his aspirations for peace and dialogue with Israel, but what he is really after is an open line to Washington.