Assad slams the door on Obama and on talks with Israel
Syrian president Bashar Assad like the leopard has not changed his spots. After Washington opened the door wide to reconciliation, lavishing goodwill gestures and a procession of emissaries over several months, Assad has abruptly slammed it shut.
Wednesday, Aug. 12, he announced he was off to Tehran next week to congratulate his good friend Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his reelection as president and further cement their ties.
He left behind him a trail of dashed hopes in Washington. The Obama administration had made a serious bid to detach Assad from his strategic bonds with Iran and make him the keystone for the president’s comprehensive Middle East program.
Assad first knocked this plan on the head on July 26 in a long conversation he had with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell in Damascus, debkafile‘s Middle East sources disclose. It was then that the Syrian ruler turned round and rejected an American role in the next stage of his peace talks with Israel in favor of Turkey. He said he preferred to revert to the indirect format he had followed with Binyamin Netanyahu’s successor, Ehud Olmert, up until the end of 2008, using the good offices of Turkish prime minister Tayyep Recip Erdogan. The US would be allowed to step in during the final stages.
Mitchell was completely taken aback by Assad’s reversal. In Washington it was taken as a death knell for President Obama’s plans for Middle East peacemaking and the outright rejection of peace talks with Israel, in view of its poor relations with Ankara. All the same, it was decided to keep the setback quiet and keep going on the path of engagement with the Syrian regime.
But Assad had other plans.
Wednesday, Aug. 12, an American military delegation arrived in Damascus led by Frederick Hoff, head of the Syrian desk on the Mitchell team, and Maj. Gen. Michael Moeller of the US Central Command.
Its arrival was intended to symbolize a new high point in US-Syrian rapprochement and a final test of Assad’s real intentions.
This time, the government-controlled Syria media which until then had meticulously noted every sign of progress in the relationship, completely ignored the presence of the high-ranking delegation.
It was Hoff’s task to lay before the Syrian leaders the rich diplomatic incentives offered Damascus in return for a breakthrough in relations with the United States.
Gen. Moeller was there to apply the stick. debkafile‘s exclusive sources reveal the three questions he put to the Syrian ruler:
1. Is Damascus willing to assist the United States’ effort in Iraq by holding down the rising tide of Sunni violence? The general produced intelligence data exposing a swelling influx of terrorists, arms and explosives from Syria into Iraq.
2. Is Syria ready to meet its obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1701 (which ended the 2006 Lebanon War) by sealing its border to the smuggling of arms to the Lebanese Hizballah?
3. Will Damascus accept responsibility for halting arms smuggling to the Palestinian Hamas in the Gaza Strip?
Instead of providing answers, Assad prevaricated and, while the US delegation was still standing by, his office announced that the Syrian ruler would travel to Tehran next week for a two-day trip in the course of which he would congratulate Ahmadinejad on his re-election and discuss the strengthening of ties between the two countries.
The next day, Thursday, the visit was officially announced in Tehran.
In two days, the Syrian ruler delivered two resounding snubs to the US president.