Assad Tells Palestinian Radicals to Shun Arafat

Informed Arab circles, including high Saudi and Egyptian officials, are wondering what lies behind an order the Syrian president Bashar Assad has just issued to the radical Damascus-based Palestinian “Fronts” to break off all operational ties with Yasser Arafat. debkafile‘s Middle East sources say the directive applies to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front from the Liberation of Palestine; the Hamas and Jihad Islami, both of whom maintain headquarters in the Syrian capital, turned their backs on Arafat some time ago. The Palestinian leader finds himself ostracized, therefore, not only by the Americans and Israelis, but also by Syria and its Palestinian proteges.
Furthermore, a fifth Palestinian group operating out of Damascus, Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front fro the Liberation of Palestinian -General Command, has fallen totally under Iran’s thumb. According to our sources, the PFLP-GC has of late been reduced to no more than one of the Hizballah’s operational arms that defers to Tehran rather than Damascus.
debkafile‘s intelligence and counter-terror sources report signs that the Palestinian leader is already suffering from the freeze. For example, meetings he scheduled for his staff officers and Tanzim and al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades operatives with their opposite numbers in the “Fronts” have been called off abruptly. Moreover, Arafat’s attempts to invite local leaders of the “Fronts” to his office in Ramallah are being spurned.
Assad’s rationale is not entirely clear. debkafile‘s sources put forward some alternative explanations:
A. Tensed for the approaching US attack on Baghdad, he may estimate that the Saddam regime’s overthrow will lead to Arafat’s downfall and is preparing to take advantage of the upheaval of war to wrest control of the Palestinian camp.
B. It may emanate from the secret exchanges he is conducting with the United States in the run-up to the US offensive against Iraq.
debkafile‘s military sources reveal that those undercover exchanges have led him to consent to American electronic warfare and intelligence units taking up positions in the northern sector of the Syrian-Iraqi frontier opposite Iraq’s Western Desert, where the Americans suspect Saddam maintains some of his missile and special forces units. The Syrian ruler hopes that this intelligence collaboration with the Americans will be his insurance against a US or Israel strike against Syrian targets in Lebanon or Palestinian targets in Syria, namely, the radical Palestinian groups’ command centers in Damascus.
C. His motivation may be more complicated. Our military and intelligence sources have discovered that Arafat’s personal envoy to Baghdad, Azam al Ahmad, recently conferred with Saddam and senior Iraqi officials on the Palestinian role in the coming US-Iraqi war. They agreed that an exceptional tide of Palestinian turbulence, including suicide attacks, must be whipped up in Jordan and Israel. Assad would want to be sure that the Palestinian groups centered in Damascus would not be included in the mayhem engineered by Saddam and Arafat, lest he be exposed against his will to an untimely military clash with the United States or Israel. He therefore told them to stay clear of Arafat.

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