Syrian president Bashar Assad’s latest policy turnabout appeared to signal a new maturity and moderation. But, hopes in this direction proved to be premature.
Just two months ago, Assad obstinately withstood US demands to change his radical ways and drop his terrorist friends. He was asked to sever Syria’s tangled web of military and economic connections with the Iran-backed extremist Shiite Hizballah group, drop his ties with the group’s fire-eating leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, crack down on the Damascus headquarters of the Palestinian hardline Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and also suspend his close relations with Iraq – especially their oil and military links.
Then Assad began showing signs of a change of heart.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Beirut and the Middle East sources reported that the Syrian president started out by purging several officers in Syrian military intelligence in Damascus and Beirut, then began in cautious stages to distance himself from Nasrallah. This was only ten months after Nasrallah was honored with the keynote address at the annual event in memory of Bashar’s father and predecessor, President Hafez Assad.
Caution has always been an Assad family trait and Bashar took care not to sever all his ties with Hizballah. What he did do was to swap one Shiite extremist crony for another, his new friend being Sheikh Sobhi Tufeili, whose power center is located in Baalbek in the central Lebanon Mountains. Tufeili has his own small private Shi’ite militia – no more than 5,000 men. His clout and revenue derive from control of the drug smuggling routes linking the Beqaa Valley poppy fields and heroin production sites to outlets scattered along Lebanon’s Mediterranean shore.
Tufeili and Nasrallah do not get along. Nasrallah complains that the Hizballah is not receiving its fair cut of the dope traffic proceeds, because the maverick Shi’ite in Baalbek is holding it back.
At first, these shifts encouraged Washington to look forward to success in its efforts to prod Assad into the pro-American camp for the global war on terror. But the letdown was not long in coming. When Tufeili applied pressure for his close friend, the Iranian-Lebanese-Palestinian terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, to be allowed to return to Lebanon via Damascus, the Syrian president did not respond. However, he must have turned a blind eye, because sources close to counter-terror agencies in Lebanon tell DEBKA-Net-Weekly that Mughniyeh turned up last week at a Hizballah base in the Beqaa Valley.
This means that two senior al Qaeda commanders – Mughniyeh and Osama bin Laden’s top operations officer and close associate, Abu Zubaideh – are both in Lebanon, a country fully under Syrian domination. Yet Assad is not bothered.
Their presence in a country in which the United States maintains a wide range of intelligence assets, including the Drug Enforcement Agency, begs the question why they have not been targeted, together with the hundreds of the al Qaeda fighters who have set up base in Lebanon.
Israel counter terror experts are certain that the presence of those two terror masterminds so close to its borders and in close proximity to their Palestinian allies has led to a serious escalation in the current warfare against Israeli targets. Their fingerprints are detected in some of the deadliest terror attacks plaguing Israel since mid-February.
(See HOT POINTS – March 13: Al Qaeda-Hizballah Terror Team Hits Galilee)
In his talks with Assad, US vice president Dick Cheney is expected to try and assess how far the Syrian leader is prepared to go in cutting his ties with Nasrallah and clamping down on his operations. Cheney will also want to know why Mughniyeh and Abu Zubaideh, both high on the FBI’s most wanted list of 22 after the September 11 attacks, are allowed to roam free in Syrian-controlled sectors of Lebanon.
The US vice president will want answers as to when Assad proposes to cut the flow of smuggled Iraqi oil to the Mediterranean port of Banias in northern Syria – oil sales being one of Baghdad’s main sources of foreign currency revenue.
Cheney will warn the Syrian ruler, as he has other Middle East leaders, that time is running out, and remind him that the US ultimatum for action to suppress the Hizballah and its backers expires in June. Washington, Assad will be told, is not fooled by Syria proffering aid for America’s anti-terror war. Indeed, only last week, the Pentagon cited Syria as one of the countries against which the United States might use nuclear weapons to counter a terrorist threat.
The US vice president may also offer a carrot: millions of investment dollars for Syria from the Bush administration, in return for full cooperation. The Bush administration will also be willing to orchestrate closer Syrian-Turkish military ties as a counterweight to Turkey’s military alliance with Israel, a relationship that worries Damascus greatly.