This week, Syrian president Bashar Assad embarked on a series of reshuffles and purges. He decided to get rid of the advisers who recommended opening an indirect diplomatic track with Israel through Turkey, as a key to unlocking Washington’s closed doors. He acted after two-and a-half months of talks with Israel had still not produced a breakthrough to the sort of dialogue which the Bush administration is conducting with Tehran.
In fact this week, Washington’s doors were finally slammed in his face.
It happened Tuesday, July 23. An official Syrian delegation headed by Ahmad Samir al-Taki, a senior regime adviser, had been informed the day before that it would be received by the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Welch.
But the next day, the state department spokesman suddenly announced without explanation: “My understanding at that time was that they (the Syrians) had requested it, that we had looked at the meeting, and we were going to meet them. Today, conditions have changed and we’re not going to be meeting with them.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources report that the decision to cancel the date with Welch was taken by President George W. Bush in person.
The backlash hit Damascus on July 28, when Assad purged the heads of two opposite camps at the top of his regime: The most extreme opponent to engagement with Israel in the president’s inner circle, Buthaina Shaaban, was relieved of the post of minister of expatriates, and foreign minister Walid Mualem, the most ardent proponent of Syrian-US rapprochement propelled by peace talks with Israel, was put on notice that he too would be fired.
Brother-in-law and brother restored
Shaaban’s ire was directed less at improving relations with Washington and more at the indirect talks with Israel, which she felt severely damaged the president’s standing in the Middle East and Muslim world.
Assad did not heed Shaaban’s advice, although she has for years been close enough to him to rank as Syria’s alternative foreign minister and act as his most vocal foreign policy spokeswoman in Europe and the Arab world.
Upon removal from the cabinet, Shaaban was designated presidential adviser for political and media affairs, which is more a sinecure than a real job.
Our Middle East sources report that Assad informed Syria’s former UN ambassador Faisal al-Mekdad that he was getting the post of foreign minister in place of Mualem.
Then, in a highly secretive step, Assad appointed his brother-in-law, the military intelligence chief Gen. Asif Shawqat head of the National Security Council.
Washington and Middle East intelligence sources are highly intrigued by this appointment, speculating whether this means Shawqat has been sacked as director of military intelligence or given an extra job, which would signal his reinstatement in Assad’s close presidential circle after long months of being out of favor.
The same sources have noticed the rising star of Bashar Assad’s younger brother General Ali Maher, commander of the presidential guard (Division 469), which is responsible for the security of the presidential family and strategic centers in the country.