Some months ago, the US government gave Syria and its client state, Lebanon, until June 2002 to unstitch their close ties with, and patronage of, terrorists or face retribution, either from the United States or an ally, in the framework of the US-led war on global terror.
This ultimatum has been ignored.
Certainly, Syrian president Bashar Assad, acting on a political agenda set by Saudi Arabia, is thumbing his nose at Washington successfully enough to take its seat on the UN Security Council unchallenged.
Syria has openly flouted US demands to cut off its military and intelligence links with Hizballah, the Lebanese guerrilla group classified by the State Department as a terrorist organization; it has done nothing to choke off the flow of Iranian arms reaching Hizballah through Syria’s military airfields, or moved to close the group’s accounts in Syrian banks through which transfers totaling an estimated $200-300 m are made every year. Least of all, has the Assad regime shut down the Damascus headquarters of such virulent Palestinian and Islamic terrorist groups as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. These groups and their leaders remain as free as birds to operate in and out of the Syrian capital.
Nonetheless, the United States topped its original ultimatum to President Assad with three fresh demands:
1. He must stop al Qaeda’s use of Damascus international airport for the safe transit of operatives on their way to Gulf and other Middle East destinations, Balkan ports in Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia and Macedonia, and the Central Asian countries of interest to the terror network, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
US authorities charged that these peripatetic al Qaeda operatives travel on Saudi passports newly issued in Riyadh and new identities provided by the Pakistan embassy in Damascus. They offered to hand Syria the names the CIA and FBI have collected of these roving terrorists, if that is what it takes for Damascus to shut them out.
2. He must deny landing permission in Syria and Lebanon to Lebanese-Iranian terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, one of the top operations officers of Osama bin Laden and his partner, Iman al-Zawahri, the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
3. He must shut down forthwith the Mediterranean ports made available to Iraq for unloading hundreds of tons of weapons delivered every week from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Croatia and Bosnia. The arms are either purchased there, or transshipped through those countries to disguise their sources of supply in West Europe.
Washington had separate demands of the Lebanese government:
1. To disarm Hizballah, impound its weapons and hand them over to the United States.
2. To dismantle Hizballah’s operational bodies and paramilitary functions, forcing it to transform itself into a non-violent political-religious grouping.
3. To ban all terrorist groups based in Lebanon, especially the Palestinian militias.
4. To enact banking laws prohibiting Lebanese banks from serving Islamic institutions in the Muslim world as their most convenient channel for underwriting al Qaeda and receiving operating funds for its terror campaigns.
Whereas Syrian banks serve Hizballah, Lebanese institutions thrive on al Qaeda business, processing an estimated $600-800 m a year. Roughly one-third of the monies passing through the two banking systems budgets terrorist activity.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources report that Syria and Lebanon have deliberately ignored all those demands. Indeed, the Syrian ruler, who sets the pace for Lebanon, has intensified his commitment to Islamic, anti-Israel terrorist groups, lending them his support in completely new ways.
His brief interruption of the Iranian airlift to Hizballah was misleading; instead, Syrian military airfields have reopened to a much-inflated airborne influx from Tehran of all sorts of weapons systems and ammunition for the Lebanese Shiite group.
Furthermore, from mid-April, the Syrian ruler ordered his army chiefs to furnish the Lebanese guerrillas with heavy weapons – 220mm Katyusha rockets, heavy artillery and ammunition – as well as chemical warheads for the group’s short-range missiles. On May 21 or 22, the presidential palace gave Hizballah leaders a green light – plus Syrian logistical and military support – for its operatives to carry out terror operations inside Israel, concurrently with Palestinian terror attacks.
According to our intelligence sources, between seven and eight Hizballah cells have been planted across the border. In the Gaza Strip, they operate in conjunction with “popular resistance committees”, Islamic groups and Muhamed Dahlan’s security apparatus; in the West Bank and among Israeli Arabs, they are partnered by the Jihad Islami and the Israeli Islamic Movement under the overall command of West Bank general intelligence and al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades chief Col. Tawfiq Tirawi.
Syria approved continuing Hizballah infiltrations into Palestinian and Israeli areas, as well as the disposition of thousands of its missiles in battle array along the Lebanon-Israeli border, from Mount Hermon in the east to the Mediterranean in the west.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources say that Assad further underlined his support for the Lebanese group’s war against Israel by pledging a Syrian air force and anti-aircraft umbrella against a potential Israeli air, sea or ground reprisal.
Lastly, Syrian Military Intelligence instructed Syria’s protege, Ahmed Jibril, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, to send Gaza Strip Palestinians a supply of motorized parachutes and gliders made in Spain, Italy and Germany to facilitate incursions across into Israel for mega-terror operations. The vehicles were delivered in disassembled parts in the second half of May by a Lebanese vessel that stole through Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza ports.
The Syrian president, as disclosed now by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism sources, has opened his frontier with Iraq to the entry of al Qaeda Kurdish, Yemeni, Pakistani and even Chechen fighters, allowing them to use Syria as transit-point before moving on clandestinely to other destinations. These men, on the run from Afghanistan for Pakistan, are allowed passage through Iran before heading on to northern Iraq for their crossing into Syria. Some stay there; others head to Lebanon or the Balkans.
American leaders were perplexed by Assad’s defiance, not completely understanding what drives him to back terrorists so wholeheartedly. After he allowed Mughniyeh free passage through Damascus airport en route for Lebanon and the Gulf Emirates, Washington decided to find out where the Syrian president was finding the financial and political clout to give him the confidence to stand up to a world superpower. A Syrian delegation was accordingly invited for an informal visit to discuss Middle East trends at the James Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Texas, which is headed by Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Damascus and Israel. Its real purpose was to sound the Syrian visitors out on the question, but the American hosts came up empty.
Another attempt was made by William Burns, US assistant secretary of state for the Near East, when he called on top Syrian officials in Damascus last week. He too was baffled by the evidence of Assad’s determined support for the Hizballah and Palestinian terrorist groups. Burns was surprised to find that the Syrian president had thrown all his weight behind Yasser Arafat, despite past antagonisms, and was egging him on to a harder line against Israel and US pressure to back away from violence.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington, a recent combined CIA-military intelligence-national security council analysis concluded that the Syrian president was faithfully adhering to the path of fostering mutual interests with Iraq and Iran that he charted for himself shortly after he came to power two years ago. This was turning out to be much more than what the Americans first assumed was a self-serving device to replenish Syria’s empty coffers in Damascus with its cut from the multi-million dollar flow through Syria of illegal Iraqi oil sales to Europe. The wake-up call for Washington came early last year, when Syrian-Iraqi military agreements were signed and reflected Damascus’s deep commitment to a comprehensive strategic alliance.
By mid-2001, US analysts had concluded that the Syrian ruler was one of a foursome at the helm of a new radical, anti-American political-economic-military grouping, joining Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
They realized that he derives the courage to disregard the US ultimatum from the quiet political and financial largesse coming his way from Riyadh. To all intents and purposes, the Saudi rulers keep their hands clean of abetting Islamic terrorists; instead, they pay the Syrian leader to perform this function on their behalf.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report US analysts as deducing, therefore, that Assad is acting as Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s proxy, pushing his Saudi patron’s real agenda in the Middle East while the crown prince shows Washington a blameless facade.
Three examples support this finding:
A. The Syrian ruler’s partisanship for Yasser Arafat cannot be explained unless it is at Riyadh’s behest, given the historic antipathy evinced for the Palestinian leader by the Assad clan and the Alawite sect of Islam which it represents in Damascus. Because of this dislike, Bashar like his father and predecessor as president, consistently refused to invite the Palestinian leader to Damascus. Yet he is backing Arafat to the hilt on behalf of the Saudis.
B. In dealing with the moderate Arab rulers, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah, the Syrian president is given clear guidelines from Crown Prince Abdullah. Here too, while the Saudis overtly line up with the Washington-oriented anti-radical line in the Arab world, they use Assad to make sure it always falls flat.
C. Providing Damascus as a way station for al Qaeda terrorists and letting Lebanese banks serve as the network’s repository for funds are additional ways in which Syria takes the heat off the Saudi royal family. The princes labor under two kinds of pressure: powerful Saudi interests, including religious bodies, urge them to support al Qaeda and preserves its ties with the terror network, in defiance of Washington’s demands. Damascus gives Abdullah his back door solution for keeping both off his back.
Lebanon’s government is bound to follow Syria’s lead. President Anton Lahoud and Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri have quietly informed Washington that they dare not challenge Damascus as long as it gets away with disregarding US demands. Not only in Beirut, but around the Middle East and among terror chiefs, US president George W. Bush is being closely watched to see if he presses home his ultimatum to Syria and Lebanon as regards harboring terrorists. His final response will have a far-reaching impact on the global war on terror and the region’s crises.
Washington may opt for a way out of the impasse by allowing Israel to counter a mega-terror attack with a hard-hitting assault against Syria and Lebanon as co-patrons of this attack. (See article in the last DEBKA-Net-Weekly Issue No. 62 on Mega-Terror). Israeli would thus act on its own behalf while also punishing Syria and Lebanon for defying the Bush ultimatum. In the event of a large-scale strategic terror strike, Israel would in any case have no recourse but to retaliate by destroying Syria’s industrial and strategic installations in Lebanon and Syria, as well as wiping out Hizballah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards bases in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley.
Israel’s role in America’s plans to discipline Assad for his barefaced patronage of terrorists will certainly figure in the Sharon-Bush talks in Washington next Monday, June 10.