After the Syrian Ruler Shunts Washington Aside as Peace Broker

For George Mitchell, Sunday, July 26 was one of the busiest days of his career and one of the worst in the eight months since his appointment by president Barack Obama as US special envoy to the Middle East.

In the morning, he spent three hours with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Their conversation was supposed to represent a major breakthrough toward an epic thaw in US Syrian relations after years of discord.

That afternoon, he sat down in Tel Aviv with the Israel defense minister Ehud Barak.

As night fell, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak summoned him to an unscheduled meeting in Cairo.

In one photo-op after another, Mitchell was seen smiling calmly, a testament to his consummate diplomatic skill and cool head, because that morning he suffered a major rebuff which meant months of painstaking effort had gone to waste

It was then, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources disclose, that Assad mentioned casually at the end of their conversation that he no longer wanted the United States to mediate between Syria and Israel and preferred Turkey to continue its role as go-between in their indirect peace talks.

In fact, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was welcome to act in the same capacity with the Binyamin Netanyahu administration as he did for most of 2008 when Ehud Olmert was Israeli prime minister, said Assad offhandedly. Later, when the situation was ripe, “you Americans” may come in for the final rounds of talks with the Israelis.

Sources close to Mitchell report that the American diplomat was struck dumb by Assad's complete and unforeseen turnabout, too shocked to respond. The Syrian ruler's insistence that his change of mind was temporary only convinced the US envoy of his capriciousness.


Assad preserves its fallback ties with Tehran and Moscow


During his trips to Tel Aviv and Cairo that day, Mitchell betrayed no sign that he had received bad news either to Barak or Mubarak. They only discovered what had happened a few days ago from intelligence sources.

For the White House, it spelled the collapse of a major plank of its Middle East strategy which hinged on the Syrian ruler's oft-repeated wish for the US take play a central role in the peace track as the only force able to make Israel cede the Golan. This role was to be part and parcel of a new, warmer relationship between Washington and Damascus.

Assad's abrupt reversal meant that the bottom has fallen out of the Obama administration's drive for fast-forward progress towards peace accords between Israel, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians before year's end.

According to our Middle East sources, Assad said to Mitchell: “You have to understand that I can't agree to America coming into the talks when President Obama says he is renewing sanctions against Syria, and some of the targets mentioned in official American statements are members of my family.”

Assad clearly realized he held a trump card for getting rid of US sanctions against him and decided to play it by slowing down the tempo of his cooperation with Washington.

Hectic consultations in Washington after Mitchell's news percolated sought to decipher Assad's motives and came up with three:


1.      The Syrian ruler cannot bring himself to conduct direct talks with Israeli leaders. The Turkish channel is a convenient cop-out. It will also give him time to make Washington call off its sanctions and come up with attractive incentives for persuading him to sit down at the same table with Americans and Israelis.
Assad sees no obstacle to his plan in the poor relations between Israel and Turkey because he is sure this impediment can be overcome by American arm-twisting in Jerusalem.
But since the Netanyahu government insists on direct talks or nothing, it looks like being nothing.

2.      Assad is signaling Tehran that by putting the brakes on detente with Washington he can avoid making the American dream of his estrangement from Iran come true.
Erdogan is a friend of Iran and so bringing him back into the equation is a guarantee of the Syrian ruler's good faith with Tehran.
The bottom line here for Washington analysts is that Assad prizes his bonds with Tehran above any others.

3.      The same goes for Syria's ties with Russia. Assad's message to Mitchell also informed Moscow that he is no hurry to fall into American arms whatever the US media may report. Erdogan is pressing ahead with closer relations with Moscow too. Therefore, the Syrian ruler is telling both Moscow and Tehran that he is holding onto the option of falling back on a strong Moscow-Ankara-Tehran alliance.


Obama's three-page letter to Assad


Notwithstanding those three conclusions, DEBKA-Net-Weekly Washington's sources report that in high-level US consultations, in some of which President Obama took part, it was decided that an effort to salvage the Syrian component of America's Middle East strategy was worth pursuing.

The logic behind the decision to lean harder on Damascus to cooperate with Washington was that:  a) The overt suspension of US engagement with Damascus would be seen as the complete breakdown of the Obama administration's Middle East policies, and b) Assad will eventually come around to seeing he has no option but to accept direct America intervention as honest broker in a cycle of peace accords binding Israel with Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinians.

Last week, President Obama took the extraordinary step of writing a personal, three-page letter to President Assad. It was placatory in tone, said sources familiar with its contents, and explained that US sanctions are not directed at the Syrian president's family, but at Syrian figures close to them who are misleading them about their connections with Iraqi terror organizations and radical Muslim Saudi elements linked to al-Qaeda.

Obama stressed that detaching these persons from their connections with terrorists would produce a rapid and dramatic improvement in US-Syrian relations.

The President also stressed his desire to visit Damascus in the coming two months.

After the letter was sent off, Washington made the grim discovery that Assad had scheduled an early two-day visit to Tehran to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his re-election and discuss his next steps with Iran's leaders.

The discovery was made after an American military-political delegation arrived in Damascus Wednesday Aug. 12 to assess Syrian steps to curb the infiltration into Iraq of insurgents and terrorists whom Washington accuses Damascus of hosting.


Syria expels a terror minnow – leaves the big fish untouched


One of the main goals of the Obama administration's rapprochement bid with Syria was security cooperation, to which end Washington supported the resumption of Syrian-Israeli peace talks and announced a US ambassador would be reinstalled in the Syrian capital after a four-year absence.

“Progress on the Syrian-Israeli negotiating track is tied to improving Syria's ties with the United States,” a senior diplomat said.

A U.S. State Department official confirmed that the Americans “presented the Syrians with names of the main facilitators of insurgents they want captured.”

The delegation, the second since June, was headed by a general from the U.S. Central Command. It also included Frederick Hoff, an official from the office of the Secretary of Defense and State Department, who has been employed in bridging the territorial disputes between Israel and Syria which contributed to the breakdown of previous peace talks.

The delegation was informed that Syria had this year expelled Mohammad Younis, a leading figure in the outlawed Iraqi Baath Party, who is wanted by the US-backed Iraqi government but is of low value militarily.

But DEBKA-Net-Weekly military and counter-terrorism sources say that Assad is up to the old trick he played in the days of George W. Bush: Younis, a minnow of the terrorist organizations working out of Syria, was thrown out, but the big fish carry on undisturbed.

His expulsion demonstrates that Assad, despite optimistic American rhetoric, is not prepared to lay a hand on the top terrorist figures operating out of his country, or touch their accounts in Syrian banks for that matter.

Expulsion in any case would not satisfy Washington, especially when Damascus refuses to reveal his destination. No one, least of all the US military command in Iraq, has any doubt that Younis was exiled to one of the Middle East countries from which he can continue operations from the point he was interrupted.

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