Assad Buries Hatchet with Arafat, Woos Washington via Ankara

The Syrian leadership, in an urgent session on Sunday, January 11, resolved on two fresh initiatives after failing to make head or tail of Israel’s wordy and inconsistent responses to Bashar Assad’s feelers for the resumption of the peace talks that broke down four years ago. The first such feeler was broached in a New York Times interview last month. Since then, different Israeli government and military officials have been tacking and weaving between outright rejection and wary affirmatives. The Damascus meeting decided to seize the diplomatic high ground provided by Israel’s apparently negative response and move forward in two seemingly opposite directions: in the first instance, a charm campaign to throw off Washington’s heavy pressure and its implied threat of military action against Syrian targets both on its soil and in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley; in the second, to bury the twenty-one-year old hatchet between the Assad regime and Yasser Arafat.
This week Damascus moved forward on both these fronts:
A. A special presidential envoy is expected in Ankara with a personal message from Assad to President George W. Bush for delivery by Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan who is due in Washington in the coming days. The Turkish prime minister thus becomes senior mediator between Washington and Damascus, a role that was sought by and eluded Greek leaders when Bush visited Athens earlier this month. Assad hopes an offer to Bush to sponsor the resumption of the Syrian-Israel dialogue will lift the weight of Washington’s hand on his collar with regard to his backing for the anti-American campaign in Iraq and for anti-Israel terrorists in Damascus and Lebanon.
The letter to Bush still lacks the final touch of a Syrian concession on at least one bone of contention, whether on the Iraqi, Lebanese or Israeli tracks.
B. The breach between the house of Assad and Arafat dates to the days of Bashar’s father Hafez. In 1983, Arafat and his PLO leadership were sent packing from Beirut and spent ten years in Tunisian exile. Palestinians were strictly confined to refugee camps in the south. Continuing the feud, Assad junior has consistently refused to welcome the Palestinian leader in Damascus.
In an exclusive report, debkafile‘s Palestinian and Beirut sources disclose that the Syrians have now embarked on two reconciliatory steps:
1. For the first time in 21 years, Arafat’s mainstream Fatah has been permitted by Lebanon’s overlord in Damascus to open up a base in the Lebanese capital.
2. Arafat’s close confidant and emissary Hani al-Hassan, a member of Fatah’s central committee, has been received in Beirut to open a dialogue with pro-Syrian elements and Syrian military intelligence officers in Lebanon. debkafile‘s Palestinian sources say al-Hassan has just returned to Ramallah to make his report to Arafat. He will return to Beirut early next week to continue the interchange.
Syria’s initial exchanges with Arafat’s representative have already had an unsettling effect in Lebanon and the Palestinian rejectionist organizations which enjoy Syrian patronage. The Lebanese people have not forgiven the pivotal role played by Arafat’s legions in its 15-year long civil war. The return of a Palestinian official presence in Beirut revives the bad blood. The fact that al-Hassan was allowed to set foot in Beirut marks the Lebanese government’s impotence in the face of the will of Damascus. As for the PLO hard-liners, they fear the Assad-Arafat rapprochement will cost them the favored status they enjoy in Damascus which derives from traditional Syrian backing for the anti-Arafat rejectionist movement. After decades of deferring to the Assad regime, they now fear its betrayal.
What is Assad really up to?
In Jerusalem, Israel’s military intelligence chief, major-general Aharon Zeevi, addressed the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defense committee on Tuesday, January 13, on another rift building up between Damascus, on one side, and the Hizballah and Iran, on the other. Zeevi held this fracture up as evidence that Assad’s avowed wish to start talks with Israel is on the level.
Not everyone in the Israeli military and security establishment agrees with him.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and defense minister Shaul Mofaz are particularly skeptical – to the point that a crisis of confidence is developing between Mofaz and his intelligence chief.
Last week, officials close to Mofaz leaked reports to the Israeli media alleging that Syrian planes that delivered humanitarian aid to earthquake-struck Iran carried Iranian arms shipments for the Hizballah on their return flight. The information was accurate, but it neglected to mention – unlike a special report by debkafile‘s military sources – that the entire “airlift” consisted of only two Syrian transports.
These discrepancies do not resolve the real question of whether Assad has truly decided to sever his terrorist alliance with Iran and Hizballah and cozy up to the Palestinians instead. The Americans are not convinced that this is so.
Washington has been in touch with Assad for the past several weeks, using visiting US congressmen and senators as intermediaries. After studying their reports, the White House has come to believe that Assad’s talk of peace moves and apparent cooling towards Iran and Hizballah are stratagems to throw off US demands that he withdraw from anti-American activities in Iraq and the Iraqi-Syrian frontier. For the Bush administration, severance of the collaboration between Syria and the Sunni triangle in Iraq matters, whereas whether Assad and Arafat bury the hatchet or not is of little interest.
Indeed, the creation of a new Damascus-Ramallah axis may well be seen in Washington as an act of defiance rather than a pacific gesture. Assad may well be in the process of cutting down his involvement in one terrorist track – the Hizballah and radical Palestinian groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, even possibly shutting down their Damascus headquarters – in order to rebuild them on an alternative track – with Arafat. Syria would thus bow to pressure from Washington and Jerusalem in order to challenge them in another sector, demonstrating that he can do without Iran’s political and financial support because he has added the Palestinian mainstream faction to his Palestinian stable.
Assad may therefore be in the process of remaking himself as leading champion of the Palestinian cause. This would make him a key player in any practical attempt to forge an Israel-Palestinian peace.
The Syrian president is thus shoring up his Lebanese-Palestinian stake. The response from Jerusalem remains hesitant and uncertain leaving it to Washington to lead the way.

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