Ever so secretly, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is assembling piece by fragile piece for an intricate mosaic that he hopes will provide the floor for a new power edifice in the Middle East. Watched with interest from the White House, the Egyptian ruler has begun collecting contributions from Syria, the Palestinians and Israel, and, hopefully, down the road, from Iran. Success of his endeavor would make the region a much friendlier place for the United States. Failure, he fears, would bring about the untimely withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and significantly weaken America’s status as a superpower.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East and Washington sources report the Egyptian president has ventured beyond the theory set out by his veteran political adviser, Osama al-Baz, and taken initial steps for bringing his ambitious scheme to fruition. He has laid out the contours of secret, far-reaching understandings involving Syrian leader Bashar Assad and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. He believes he has persuaded Syria to pull away from its key role in the regional terror machine by reining in the influx of foreign fighters, al Qaeda terrorists and Hizballah gunmen entering Iraq via Syria, halting the flow of weapons and funds from Damascus to the Iraqi Baath insurgency, and staunching the supply of arms and money from Syria and Lebanon to the Palestinian terrorists.
A key element of the Mubarak blueprint is an end to the long-running feud between the Assad family and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. According to our Palestinian sources, a start was made on this project Tuesday, September 21, when a large Palestinian delegation led by the chairman of the Palestinian legislative council and Arafat loyalist, Rawhi Fattuh, was received in Damascus. It was the first time since the Palestinian leader signed the 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel that the Syrian ruler agreed to welcome a formal Palestinian Authority delegation.
Assad also indicated a willingness to order the Damascus-based leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to stop engineering terrorist attacks inside Israel. Instead, he will do what he can to make them accept Egypt’s proposal of a 12-month ceasefire supervised by American, Egyptian, Jordanian and European observers.
On Thursday, September 23, Assad shut Hamas leader Khaled Mashal and Ramadan Shalah, Islamic Jihad chief, out of Damascus. Mashal anyway divides his time between Qatar and Cairo but he will nevertheless feel the loss of the Syrian capital. Neither welcomes him unconditionally. Qatar denies the Hamas chief a resident’s permit and Cairo stipulates his acceptance of a ceasefire with Israel. Tehran alone attaches no strings to his stay.
Assad also closed both groups' command centers in Damascus and disconnected their telephones. Some personnel have left the Syrian capital; others transferred to Hizballah command centers in Beirut, where they remain under Syria’s eye.
A 12-month ceasefire for starters
Israel has been asked to reciprocate with a 12-month halt on all military action against Palestinian commands and terror bases. During this period too, Sharon will be required to demonstrate whether he is able to execute his disengagement plan and withdraw all military forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank, as well as make good on his promise to the United States to dismantle unauthorized outposts.
Arafat’s goodwill and the cooperation of his security services are the prerequisite for the success of the plan. However, until the moment of writing these lines, the Palestinian leader had still not given the Egyptian president an answer, according to our Palestinian sources.
The next phase after a ceasefire goes into effect entails direct talks between American and Syrian leaders, without Israel, on the future of the Golan Heights – despite the fact that Israel has held the territory since 1967, except for an area restored to Syria.
On this issue, Assad has formulated a three-part proposition for Mubarak to relay to Washington:
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reveals its outline:
1. US and Syrian experts will review all the documents, accords, arguments and events of the Golan case and draft a final settlement outline. 2. This outline will be presented to US and Syrian foreign ministers for approval. 3. Assad will be invited to the White House for a solemn handshake on the agreement. The Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon will later be asked to endorse it.
Mubarak has thus enabled the Syrian ruler to circumvent Sharon’s refusal to engage in peace talks with a ruler who sponsors terrorists.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources, US administration reactions to the Assad proposition are not entirely negative. But a cat’s cradle of quid pro quos must first go back and forth several times. Mubarak, for one, promises to back Assad’s demands in return for the Syrian ruler’s help in getting the Palestinians to sign on to the 12-month ceasefire.
From the sidelines, US officials are keeping track of the Mubarak-Assad interchange without committing themselves to a yes or a no. First, they say, Damascus must demonstrate that it means business by showing goodwill on two urgent issues: to stop providing the guerrillas in Iraq with a logistical base, and to end its military and intelligence meddling in Lebanon.
If Assad makes the running on those two counts, Washington will take a look at his Golan proposition.
The Syrian ruler’s amenability – and therefore the entire Mubarak-al-Baz edifice – hinges largely, as President George W. Bush‘s strategic planners know full well, on Tehran. But formidable issues stand in the way of bringing Iran into the equation and need to be solved first, its nuclear weapons program, its support for Iraqi rebels and insurgents and the safe haven and bases granted to al Qaeda leaders. Without Iran aboard, the Egyptian strategists know they are skating on thin ice, but are not ready to give up. They trust in the Cairo-Damascus axis for providing a secret pipeline through which Washington and Tehran will reach understandings on these issues.
An optimistic omen was found by the Egyptians in the still formative stage of the Cairo-Damascus-Washington interchange: Syria quietly informed the European Union that, after holding out for years, it was finally prepared to sign a commitment to dismantle all its chemical and biological weapons systems and discontinue the manufacture of long-range ground-to-ground missiles, for the sake of a trade and development pact with the community.
No disentangling Syria’s WMD from Iran
This concession will in the long run bear on Iran’s relations with Washington. Some of Syria’s missile and weapons of mass destruction projects are run in conjunction with Iran's security authorities and with Islamic Republic funding. Iranian officers and weapons experts assist in Syrian weapons development and in operating assembly lines.
In debt in more ways than one to Iran, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian sources report that Assad consulted Tehran before approaching the EU, explaining that US sanctions had placed him in dire straits. To survive, he must have European largesse. But his gesture to the Europeans may also be seen as a pitch to squeeze Tehran: he was telling the Iranians that if they wanted Syria to defy the European stipulation to discontinue its missile and WMD programs, they must match EU benefits euro for euro.
But Iranian leaders kept their hands in their pockets and assented to Syria entering into secret negotiations with Brussels, on the assumption that Assad by meeting European terms would open the way for dialogue between Tehran and the European bloc and eventually with Washington.
The Bush administration is also sending mixed signals.
On the one hand, it has taken a tough line with Syria, imposing economic sanctions, strongly criticizing its political and military involvement in Lebanon and supporting Security Council Resolution 1559 calling for a Syrian pullout of its 17,000 troops from that country. At the same time, Washington is not averse to a European-Syrian agreement that would go far towards softening the sanctions blow.
On Lebanon too, the US administration does not object to an unwritten understanding that would keep Syrian troops in the country to monitor and control Hizballah and Palestinian militias, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. America would then hold a weapon over Assad’s head in case he stepped out of the limits of their agreements.
While still a spectator of Mubarak’s efforts rather than a participant, Washington is on the lookout for possible gains on the Iranian front too.
While pushing hard for the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and the Europeans to make Iran give up its uranium enrichment production or face tough UN Security Council sanctions after the November deadline, the Americans by not opposing the Mubarak-Assad dialogue are at the same time beckoning to Iran to use its role in the Syrian weapons industry to demonstrate flexibility for a deal on its own nuclear program. Letting Syria give up its WMD industry is taken cautiously as a positive cue from Tehran that the dispute with Washington over its nuclear weapons program is not completely unsolvable.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly lists the most significant recent moves revolving around Syria:
The United States and Syria have agreed to cooperate on security patrols along the Syrian-Iraqi border. (This agreement is reported in detail in a separate article.)
Al Qaeda’s infrastructure and operatives have been given their marching orders from Damascus, though not from Syria.
Small and token steps have been taken against the 3,500-4,000 Iraqi Baath leaders granted asylum in Syria. (More about this in a separate item.)
Consent to dismantle weapons of mass destruction programs with Iran’s consent.
Support for Egyptian efforts to make over the Palestinian Authority and reform its intelligence and security services.
Pressure on Hamas and Islamic Jihad to join the Egyptian initiative.
Step towards reconciliation with Yasser Arafat.
Adapting to the Mubarak diplomatic initiative with the intention of using it to reach fruitful dialogue with the US administration and the Sharon government.
The ultimate quid pro quo
Well seasoned in the evanescent nature of Middle East peacemaking and diplomacy, Mubarak and al Baz have set a precise timeline for the ripening of their multilateral project: one week exactly before the November 2 presidential election in America – not a day sooner or later.
They reason that the guerrilla, terrorist war will peak then in Iraq. With this heavy cloud over his campaign, Bush will be badly in need of a ray of light. The announcement of a 12-month ceasefire in the Israel-Palestinian conflict after four years of warfare could lift his chances immeasurably at the twelfth hour.
The Egyptians also figure that a week will not be long enough for the ceasefire to break down, a predictable outcome given the track record of truces in this region. But by the time its does, Bush will be home and dry. He will also owe Mubarak big.
What will the Egyptian president expect as his reward? Our sources suspect he will not be satisfied with anything less than White House backing for his son, Jimmy Mubarak’s appointment to succeed him as president of Egypt.