For two weeks, Syrian President Bashar Assad has been asking to visit the Egyptian president at the Sinai resort of Sharm el Sheikh and congratulate him on his recovery from a serious operation in Germany. But Hosni Mubarak refuses to see him.
No one in Damascus is talking any longer about the three-way Arab summit which it was hoped would take place between Assad, Mubarak and another visitor, the Saudi King Abdullah.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East Sources report that Mubarak has refused to receive the Syrian ruler because of his behavior in two key areas:
His unlimited support for the Lebanese terrorist group Hizballah, wielded ruthlessly with Iran's concurrence to exert Syrian dominion over Lebanon.
Cairo has a score to settle with Hizballah. On Wednesday, April 28, Egypt's supreme state security court convened on President Mubarak's orders and sentenced 26 members of a Hizballah network captured in November 2008 to prison sentences ranging from six months to 15 years for conspiring to terrorize Suez Canal towns and shipping and Sinai tourist resorts. Its four ringleaders escaped and were given life sentences in absentia.
This terrorist ring acted in conjunction with the Palestinian Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip, thus supporting Cairo's strong suspicion that the Syrian ruler, who plays host to Hamas headquarters in Damascus, was in on the Hizballah terrorist plot against Egypt.
- Mubarak is also furious over Assad's systematic torpedoing of every Egyptian initiative to bury the hatchet between the feuding Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions and the way he steps in to sabotage every initiative for restarting Palestinian peace talks with Israel.
Easy consolation in Russian president's coming Damascus visit
To drive his insult home, Mubarak welcomed Sudanese President Omar al Bashir at his winter palace in Sinai on Wednesday and has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to see him next Monday, May 3.
The only leader he refuses to receive is Bashar Assad.
But Assad at 45 has plenty of patience. Our sources in Washington and Moscow report that he means to even the score with the Egyptian ruler in only two weeks: on May 11, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev arrives in Damascus for a three-day state visit, making Syria the first Middle East capital to be so honored.
Assad will then have his chance to show the entire region, including Cairo and Tehran, how important he is and how indispensable his leadership to the region.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources report that the Obama administration, which has just found out about the Russian president's gesture, finds it hard to account for Moscow's sudden interest in Damascus.
Some say that President Barack Obama and secretary of state Hillary Clinton are only feigning surprise to cover the failure of their policy of reconciliation with the Syrian leader.
A new Russian-Syrian arms deal in the offing
Medvedev, these US sources say, is putting on his own act, which is pretty complicated too. Moscow wants to use Syria as a fig leaf for its deepening crisis with Tehran after the Russian president promised Obama to back tough sanctions against Iran. This promise was accompanied by Moscow's secret assurance to hold back from activating Iran's first nuclear reactor at Bushehr – in breach of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's pledge earlier this month to have the reactor up and running by August.
The Russian president needs to demonstrate that he is not in Washington's pocket on Iran – hence his show of friendship toward Damascus. In fact, Washington expects Medvedev to go so far to underline his non-aligned position as to use his visit to announce a new Russian-Syrian arms transaction that may even include items withheld from Tehran to date.
This announcement, by cutting through the US-Syrian crisis over Damascus' buildup of advanced missiles and rockets for Hizballah, aims to bring Moscow influence and respect in the Middle East and Muslim world.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources say that Medvedev will also take the opportunity to visit the two large Russian naval bases under construction at Syria's Mediterranean ports of Latakia and Tartous. Joined by Assad, he may well announce plans to expand these bases and augment Russian military presence in Syria.
Sponsorship of terror brings Assad generous dollar returns
So far, the Syrian ruler has neatly outmaneuvered every Obama administration gambit for luring him into the fold. He has sidestepped every effort to persuade him to break away from his strategic bonds with Iran – and in fact strengthened them. And, far from pulling his meddling fingers out of Lebanon, he has succeeded in turning his most adamant Lebanese foes into obedient servants; even the pro-Western prime minister Sa'ad Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt are now at his beck and call.
Hariri is even on the point of knuckling under to Assad's demand for Beirut to withdraw participation from the UN commission probing the 2005 assassination of his own father, the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, in which the Assad regime is the prime suspect. The investigation would then collapse.
Instead of weighing in behind a moderate US-Arab Middle East bloc, as Washington had hoped, the Syrian ruler has managed to pull Turkey into the camp he co-heads with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, thereby fortifying the extremist, terror-sponsoring axis of the eastern Mediterranean. They are next eying Iraq as a future candidate.
And on the Assad clan's and his regime's military and intelligence prime activity, the business of sponsoring terrorist networks, there is no let-up. This growth industry has netted Bashar Assad a pretty penny year by year since he assumed the Syrian presidency in 2001. In addition to providing sanctuary for terrorist organizations of every stripe, Syria's security and military branches are responsible for seeing their cells and operational networks safely on their way, armed with weapons and cash, to one Middle East flashpoint after another.
The organizations which enjoy Assad's favors include al Qaeda and other Muslim extremists, Iraqi Baath insurgents and an array of Palestinian rejectionists dedicated to violence.
While acting in the sacred name of "resistance" and "liberation", the Assad regime makes sure the fees for its services are deposited punctually in various bank accounts in Syria or the Persian Gulf before their bombers and gunmen are seen off.
With all that he gets away with in Washington and elsewhere, Assad has no trouble living with the Egyptian president's cold shoulder for now.