The UN senior investigator of the Hariri assassination Detlev Mehlis is not the only one preparing for his retirement from the case. Syrian president Bashar Assad has big plans too.
He is in the process of secret exchanges with the Bush administration, the reshuffle of his government to increase his grip on affairs, and investing in a charm campaign among his own folks in Syria’s minority Alawi sect, his clan’s power base.
Exchanges with Washington
DEBKA-net-Weekly’s sources in Washington and Berlin report that, this week a barrage of urgent messages flew between the Syrian and American capitals through Saudi and European diplomats. They offered a Syrian deal to call off the Mehlis report incriminating Syria in the Hariri murder and the threat of UN sanctions.
What the Syrian president appeared to be proposing sounded magnanimous at first reading. He was willing to join the American war against Iraq’s Sunni guerrillas, seal the Syrian-Iraqi border against the incursions of foreign fighters, and rein in the Hizballah.
A second look, however, revealed the ifs and buts. T he disarmament of the Hizballah was not on offer. Neither did Assad’s proposition make any reference to al Qaeda or Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
He was willing to comply with American demands to shut down the radical Palestinian Hamas and Jihad Islami headquarters in Damascus.
But the Americans refused to play, after being conned by the Syrian president time and time again. Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, upon arriving in Berlin for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel, asked German officials to pass the word to Damascus that the Bush administration has no interest in further Syrian communications. Washington’s reply was “Nothing doing!” to any deal the Syrian president might propose. Word of this was relayed through intelligence channels to Riyadh.
To emphasize the point, large-scale US forces were ordered Wednesday night, Dec. 7, to seal the Iraqi-Syrian border, while additional forces massed in the environs of the northern city of Mosul and the al Qaim border regions. They were poised to pounce on al Qaeda and Iraqi guerrilla forces on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border.
The message to Damascus was clear: Rather than deal, the Americans were quite willing to resume their incursions into Syria in pursuit of hostile elements.
President Assad is preparing to fire prime minister Naji Otari and appoint a new government.
He has not yet picked the next prime minister but DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources reveal that he has resolved on two key changes.
One is to sack veteran foreign minister Farouk a Shara; the second is to promote General Assef Shawqat, his brother-in-law and military intelligence supremo to interior minister. Assad awarded a failed mark to a-Shara in the handling of the Hariri crisis because he neglected to provide the Assad regime with a shield against international and inter-Arab opprobrium.
The post of interior minister is particularly sensitive as it means filling in the gap left by the suicide (or murder) of General Khazi Kenaan on Oct. 14, at the peak of the UN investigative pressure on Assad and his aides.
This post is the bulwark of the Assad clan and the ruling caste of Damascus against domestic and foreign threats. Kenaan was the scion of one of the most respected Alawite families and trusted by the Assads. There is no one in sight whom they are ready to trust in the same way. Therefore, the president has fallen back on his own brother-in-law for this key job.
In addition to shoring up his regime, Assad hopes this move will act as –
A bold gesture of defiance towards the UN investigation and its conclusions.
Intimidation of the Lebanese government and the allies of America and France in Beirut. General Shawqat is notoriously ruthless and tough.
A deterrent for minorities, especially the Kurds in the north, against raising their heads against the government.
A gesture to the Alawite community that their security and stability repose in steady, strong hands.
A charm campaign among his own Alawites
Run on the same lines as an election campaign, especially briefed senior officials will take the heads of prominent families aside for confidences on what is going on with the Hariri investigation, the Security Council, Iraq, and the US-French steps against Damascus. The general tenor of these intimate conversations will be that hostile foreign elements are aiming not merely to harm the president in person, but the Syrian nation and its independence. They will speak of an alien plot to break Syria up into warring communities like Iraq and drive the Alawites from power. The fact that Assad needs to invest such efforts in his home base is a measure of his low standing.