Assad Hemmed in, Sends Hizballah to Lash out against Israel

Syrian president Bashar Assad is a very worried man. In a typical reflex action, he sent his Hizballah proxy to shoot up an Israeli military tractor, killing one Israeli soldier and injuring another, on the very day, January 19, that a group of Syrian opposition leaders based overseas held its first known public get-together in Brussels.
debkafile‘s sources report the group last met five months ago in Washington. Its new venue in Europe recalls the pattern of conduct followed by overseas Iraqi resistance groups prior to the Iraq war. Just as any such meeting Washington would have had to be sanctioned by the powers-that-be, so too Monday’s gathering in Brussels could not have taken place without the approval of European Union leaders and the Belgian government. The Bashar regime finds itself increasingly isolated. Europe is clearly lining up with the United States on the Syrian problem. As one of Damascus’s main trading partners, Europe is capable of squeezing the Assad regime economically even more than America.
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debkafile sees two reasons for this particular European alignment:
A. France and Germany in particular are seizing the opportunity of collaborating with the United States in an effort to mend their feud over Iraq. That is not to say they go along with the Bush administration’s Iraq policy – only that as pragmatists they accept the reality of the Middle East being the focus of US global strategy and key plank of the US president’s re-election campaign. Therefore, anyone failing to pitch in will be left out in the cold.
B. Iraq is undergoing tidal changes, which are relevant to the Syrian question in two ways:
1. The Americans are pulling ahead in the war against the pro-Saddam guerrillas. Despite the massive suicide car bomb attack Sunday, January 18, at the gates of the US-led coalition compound in Baghdad, in which 24 Iraqis died and 120 were injured, the number of anti-US strikes has dropped by some 70 percent since Saddam Hussein’s capture on December 14. The daily count of 50 attacks has dwindled to an average of 15. debkafile‘s military sources report that American commanders are bracing for the next wave of assaults expected to surge in the spring and early summer when the Bush re-election campaign is at its peak.
But meanwhile, Bashar Assad is in deep trouble, forced to realize he may have picked a loser. Having backed the pro-Saddam guerrilla war in Iraq with infusions of fighting strength, funds and weapons, his entire Middle East posture is now in question. It was based on the proposition that as long as the Americans were kept on the run in Iraq, they would leave him alone on such thorny issues as weapons of mass destruction – his own and the ones he hid away for Saddam Hussein, his domination of Lebanon and his support for the Hizballah and Palestinian terrorism. The other side of the proposition was just as simple: any decline in the anti-American guerrilla offensive would leave Syria shorn of its Iraqi lever against Washington and expose Assad to extreme heat. This is exactly what happened.
2. In the wake of the Iraq war, Syria finds itself severely hemmed in on all sides. In northern Iraq, whatever it may call itself, a self-ruling Kurdish state is rising with its own armed forces. Although part of the Iraqi federation, it will be out of bounds to Iraqi federal troops.
(Evolution of the Kurdish enterprise has been traced exhaustively in recent issues of DEBKA-Net-Weekly.)
President Assad regards a fully autonomous Kurdish entity a strategic threat to Syria’s territorial integrity – particularly in view of the secret military and intelligence relations between the two Iraqi Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Mustafa Barzani and Israel. This concern has driven Damascus in recent weeks to woo Iran and Turkey in search of partners to resist the Kurdish momentum in Iraq.
Viewing the Syrian ruler’s plight, European leaders have grasped that there is nothing to be gained by continuing to champion this Middle East leader.
Another recent development is directly pertinent to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
For decades, many Europeans and some Israelis espoused the cause of an independent Palestinian state. But because the Palestinians under Yasser Arafat’s leadership opted for a violent campaign to achieve their ends, a path emulated by Bashar Assad, the Palestinians will lose out; Kurdistan will rise to statehood in 2004 – not Palestine.
A small group of moderate Arab leaders – Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and Jordan’s King Abdullah – have suddenly woken up to Syria’s plight and are scrambling to mount a rescue operation. They are resorting to the rusty device of cooking up a new peace initiative to bring Syria and Israel together. Their initiative is still at its outset. So far, it bears a strong resemblance to the gimmicky Saudi peace plan of 2000 that quickly melted away in the heat of the Palestinian campaign of suicidal violence.
On Monday, January 19 too, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon threw cold water on the Syrian ruler’s attempts to pick his way out of the minefield by suggesting peace talks. Let Assad first address the demands coming at him from the rest of the world, he said, before sitting down for talks with Israel. Sharon then turned aside to warn Israeli political figures urging him to take the Syrian feelers seriously that negotiations would entail relinquishing the Golan Heights, a step too unpopular for any Israeli politician to risk.
Assad knows he is cornered. The Syrian opposition leader, an American lawyer of Syrian descent called Farid Ghadiri, aired the substance of the decisions taken at the Brussels gathering before European media. He called on the Syrian people to rise up against the Assad regime and fight for democracy without waiting like the Iraqis for outside forces to do the job for them. Syrians, he said, are capable of carrying out their own revolution.
This is the first time since the Assad dynasty seized power in Damascus in 1974 that anyone has urged Syrians to overthrow their government so bluntly.
The Syrian president’s response was typical. All of a sudden his peace talk evaporated and made way for an order to the Hizballah to start shooting across the Lebanese-Israel frontier. Hence the anti-tank missile that hit an Israeli military tractor clearing bombs near Moshav Zarit, killing one Israel soldier and injuring another, and sending this usually calm border into a fresh spiral of of tension.
Assad appeared to be calculating that the tactic of violence which failed him against the Americans in Iraq, might just work against the Israelis.

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