Before the anti-Syrian pot boiled over in Beirut this week, two Arab governments sent high-ranking emissaries to Damascus with friendly advice for Syrian president Bashar Assad to avoid a showdown with the United States. Both were rebuffed. The Syrian ruler had determined to defy demands from Washington, France and the spreading anti-Syrian protest in Lebanon and stand his ground. If need be, he would fight to keep Lebanon.
In a last-ditch quest for Arab support, Assad nipped over to Riyadh on Thursday March 3, in the hope that the Saudis would join Iran in lining up behind him or at least help call off Americans pursuit. They were still talking when we filed this issue.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly discovered that Tehran decided to give its Syrian ally a helping hand in Riyadh. Less than a week ago, the cluster of three al Qaeda camps near Kermanshah, in western Iran near the Iraqi border, was raided for the first time. The operation was carried out by Iranian special forces under the command of spiritual ruler Ali Khamenei. Several senior Saudi al Qaeda operatives were removed and placed in a special wing of the military prison in north Tehran. Tehran rarely tells anyone about these operations. This time, ahead of Assad’s Riyadh visit, the Iranians presented the Saudis with a full account with the names of the men in custody, hoping this gesture would predispose the princes in Assad’s favor.
Riyadh has spurned all Washington’s requests for a rundown on the Kermanshah incident.
The last Arab leader to try and deter Assad from trying Washington too far was Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East intelligence sources reveal it was close to midnight Sunday, February 27, when Ahmed al-Gaffaddam, Libyan security chief and Gaddafi’s own point man in the tide-turning secret talks with the West that restored Libya to the international fold, arrived in Damascus. This was the night before the mass demonstrations in Beirut that toppled Omar Karami‘s pro-Syrian government.
Gaddafaddam, who is also Gaddafi’s cousin, urged Assad to abandon his confrontation with President George W. Bush and the United States forthwith. While impressed by the messenger’s high credentials, Assad did not think much of the message. His mind had already been made up against giving any ground.
Gaddafaddam’s diplomatic feats made history. He led lengthy negotiations with the United States and Britain over compensation for the families of the 270 victims who died in the 1988 Pan Am flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. He was the live wire in the clandestine talks in 2003 and early last year between the White House and Gaddafi’s desert tent on the terms of Libya’s handover of its weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear arms.
The Assad dynasty’s survival is at stake
He was not without notoriety too. Back in the 1970s, Gaddafi’s cousin was a key figure in ex-CIA agent Edwin P. Wilson’s shipment of weapons of terrorism to Libya and in the Irangate scandal. But he faced a harder nut to crack in Damascus.
Of no avail were Gaddafaddam’s account of Gaddafi’s rationale for giving into Washington and surrendering Libya’s nuclear arsenal; Libya and its president had grasped they were no match for the United States, he explained, and would be crushed if they held out in the same way as Saddam Hussein.
“If you want the Assad dynasty to survive,” Gaddafaddam told the Syrian leader. “Pull your troops and intelligence out of Lebanon, stop the flow of guerrilla fighters into Iraq and hand over all the Iraqi Baathists you are harboring to the Iraqi government or the Americans.”
Gaddafaddam went on with injunctions to the Syrian president to sever his ties with al Qaeda, Hizballah, the Palestinian rejectionist Fronts and the uncompromising Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Pointing at the Libyan precedent, he urged the dismantling of Syria’s military production facilities for missiles and chemical and biological weapons.
In a word, get rid of all the obstacles to improved relations with the United States.
After listening patiently, Assad asked just one question: “And if I do this, what happens to Syria?”
According to our sources, Gaddafaddam replied: “Syria will have a place in the new Middle East centrist bloc led by Egypt and Libya. You will then be free to start developing your country’s economy.”
Assad promised to think about Libya’s advice and send an early reply. But
Gaddafaddam was not taken in. He reported to Gaddafi that the Syrian ruler was not likely to change course. This conclusion was also relayed to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak who was not surprised. Last week, he sent his own emissary, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, with aides to Damascus. They later told their Syrian counterparts:
“We tried to help you but we give up. Your president is too obstinate.”
Their talks with Assad were acerbic. Suleiman carried a demand from President Mubarak for the Syrians to stop pretending, at least in private meetings, that their military intelligence service was innocent of complicity in Hariri’s assassination, when US and French intelligence had solid incriminating evidence. Their investigators had found in addition to the explosive-packed tunnel dug under the ill-fated Hariri convoy’s route, a 400-meter long gas pipe circling the luxury hotels of the Corniche. The piped gas was designed to intensify the blast and create a fireball that raced down surrounding roads to incinerate Hariri’s vehicle should it escape the first blast.
Eviction from Lebanon would galvanize Syrian opposition
Suleiman did not have to point out that a trap so elaborate could never have been assembled in the Lebanese capital without the knowledge and connivance of Syrian and Lebanese military intelligence.
But Assad decided to string the Egyptians along before rejecting them. He agreed to go on Syrian and Lebanese television Thursday, February 24 and announce a decision to pull all his troops and secret services out of Lebanon immediately. The pullout was to have started the day before the speech
Neither promise was kept. Instead, Syrian vice foreign minister Walid al-Moualem went on the air with evasions and in Lebanon, Syrian forces were told to maintain a high state of preparedness, leaves were cancelled and tank crews and technicians told to keep their weapons loaded and stand ready to move at short notice.
Mubarak, realizing he had been cheated, angrily ordered Suleiman to give up meeting the Syrian president.
Still ahead of the Beirut blowout –
1. A national emergency team comprised of three trusted Syrian generals, Assaf Shawqat, Ghazi Kenaan and Mohammed al-Khouly, advised their president that a worsening of the Lebanese crisis would force Syria to pull its military and intelligence forces out of the Lebanon. The end of Syria’s domination of Lebanon, they said, would have a knock-on effect on Syria itself, where the opposition across the political spectrum was lurking in wait for their chance to overturn the Assad regime.
Aleppo-based liberals and intellectuals, Muslim Brotherhood followers, ethnic Druses, Kurds, Ismailis and Christians could hardly believe they were witnessing the disintegration of an Arab regime under sheer people power and the union of diverse ethnic and religious minorities. The Lebanon upheaval is seen by the Syrian opposition as the cue for an offensive to oust the Assad regime.
2. Losing Lebanon would also cut Assad off from the Hizballah and cost him his tactical management role on behalf of Iran in relation to the Lebanese terror group. Damascus would forfeit much of its standing and value as Iran’s military and strategic partner.
3. Damascus would be laid open to Israeli armored attack through Lebanon with the Hizballah connection gone as a deterrent.
4. After the huge bomb blast that killed Hariri and 18 others, some 250,000 to 350,000 of the 1.2 million-1.4 million Syrian workers in Lebanon decided to run for home without waiting to collect their paychecks. They and their families are now destitute.
5. Washington and Paris are working together in unique amity for the sole purpose of driving Assad to the wall and his troops out of Lebanon. Syrian intelligence handed him disturbing accounts of deputy assistant secretary of State David Satterfield‘s mission to Beirut this week and his meetings with Lebanese political leaders.
According to Syrian agents, Americans are pouring money into Lebanon to sustain the momentum of the pro-democracy rallies for weeks on the same lines as the Orange Revolution that brought Viktor Yushchenko to power in Kiev. The funds are channeled through Lebanese-American organizations and other aid groups. The organizers plan a huge tent city for central Beirut across from the parliament building. They will disperse only when the pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud steps down.
Suddenly, Beirut flew out of control
Satterfield’s efforts to hold the vacillating Lebanese Maronite Christian Archbishop Nasrallah Sfeir firm behind the Independence Intifada (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 194, February 18) finally worked. A personal White House invitation from Bush appears to have done the trick.
6. The Chirac government, co-sponsor with the United States of U.N. resolution 1559 calling on Syria to quit Lebanon, has contributed to the efforts to isolate Damascus by severing high-level relations with the presidential palace and government. From now on, contacts will be conducted by low-ranking French officials.
Still, Assad was not put off his stride. After putting up friendly Arab backs in Cairo and Tripoli, he was confident he was still in control of events in Lebanon. Under no circumstances, he told his underlings, may opposition protesters march from Hariri’s tomb in Martyrs Square to the Lebanese parliament a mile away. Lebanese troops must shoot any demonstrators trying to cross the red line. According to his script, Lahoud would announce Karami’s resignation in the early hours of Tuesday, March 1, and thereupon set up a military government manned by senior officers from pro-Syrian branches of the Lebanese armed forces.
“We must do exactly as King Hussein did in Jordan in Black September 1970,” Assad said, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources.
He did not elaborate, but he clearly meant the military to emulate the bloody Jordanian crackdown Hussein unleashed 35 years go against Palestinian refugee camps and militias to put down an attempted Palestinian coup.
But little did Assad know at the time that his best laid plans were about to go very, very wrong on Lebanon’s historic Monday, February 28. Indeed the Beirut pressure cooker bursting with defiance exploded in his face. Lebanese opposition officials poised for head-to-head with Karami’s puppet government were supported by a sea of flag-waving demonstrators packing Martyrs Square. The army and Lebanese security forces stood aside instead of tackling surging protesters. Their momentum swept Karami and his government out of power in a way that defeated the Assad scenario.
All that was left for president Lahoud to do was to declare a caretaker government and hold tight to his seat. The triumphant masses in the streets and squares below would have given short shrift to any attempt Monday night to set up a military or tame technocrat-based administration.
Assad’s entire Lebanese political strategy had collapsed, but his military strategy remained intact. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and military sources, the Syrian ruler, looking beyond the climate of protest governing Lebanon, has formulated long-term plans to apply military power to bolster Syria’s military grip on Lebanon. He is thinking in terms of Syrian guerrilla warfare in Lebanon on similar lines to the Iraq insurgency and other options.
Syrian military movements in Lebanon
Assad ordered his generals to brace for a possible US air or missile offensive against Syrian military and strategic targets in Lebanon and Syria.
Most urgently, he has acted to strengthen his military cooperation with Iran’s Islamic regime, including policy coordination in Iraq (as reported in last week’s DEBKA-Net-Weekly 195.)
The following steps point to the direction Assad has adopted:
1. Tehran-Damascus military flights have been stepped up from one or two a day to between six and eight.
2. Some of the planes ferry supplies and fresh troops for the Iranian intelligence and electronic warfare units recently deployed in Syria and Lebanon. Others fly in types of ammunition for the Hizballah or transport Iranian Revolutionary Guards instructors, experts in close-quarters combat. The instructors are taken directly to Syrian army training bases for integration in the unit’s training staff. Syrian soldiers have been switched from scheduled courses to subjects imparted by Iranian instructors.
3. On Assad’s orders, the Syrian army is relocating complete headquarters staffs and units from installations near major cities to outlying places in central and northern Syria. Several sensitive command centers linked to the air force and Syrian intelligence have been transferred to three new locations: Jebel Druze in the south near the Iraqi frontier, the northern desert near the town of al-Kamishli – not far from the Iraqi border, and the Aleppo district in the north, across from Turkey.
Several command centers in Damascus, Latakia and Tartus have been buried in underground emergency bunkers. Sensitive Syrian military industries, especially the illicit ones which the Libyans advised Assad to give up, have also been banished underground. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources and experts say some of these precautions recall Saddam Hussein’s action in the summer of 2002 when he saw the inevitability of a US invasion. Syrian and Iranian military movements in the last two weeks, followed by the beefing up of Syrian units on the hills overlooking Beirut reported Thursday, March 3, denote preparations by Assad, with hoped for Iranian support, to fight for Lebanon in the face of dire warnings from Washington and Paris, whether of increased sanctions or military action.