A new Syrian-language television station called MFN begins broadcasting next Saturday, February 14. Its programs are produced by young members of Syrian-American families of conservative-Republic orientation, who are enthusiastic fans of President George W. Bush’s vision of a democratic Middle East.
For President Bashar Assad, the new station is a bad omen. He is mindful of the impact the broadcasts of an American Iraqi television station had on Baghdad and Iraqi troops just before the US invasion. He also sees the transcripts of the programs beamed to Tehran by Los Angeles-based Farsi language stations. With a sense of his back to a wall, he has sought out a new ally to help him stand up to the pressure building up against him in Washington on the scores of his aid to pro-Saddam guerrillas, his refusal to hand over the deposed dictator’s bank deposits, his sponsorship of anti-Israel terrorist groups and his continued dominance in Lebanon.
And the list grows longer all the time.
Thursday, February 12, US secretary of state Colin Powell announced the administration was weighing sanctions against Damascus – not only for its support for terrorists, but also for failing to pull its troops out of Lebanon and give up its missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Beirut report that Assad has struck up an alliance with his family’s sworn enemy in Lebanon, the Maronite Catholic Patriarch of Lebanon, Cardinal Nasrallah Butrus Sfeir. These are the terms of their deal:
Although the incumbent president Emil Lahoud is a Christian, the patriarch cannot stand him and wants his tenure shortened. Syria is therefore pushing for a constitutional amendment in the Lebanese parliament that would limit the presidential tenure to a single six-year term instead of the present two four-year terms. Lahoud, who starts his second term this year, would be forced to retire in two years time.
Assad and the patriarch agreed to support Rafiq Hariri as prime minister. While the Muslim politician of Saudi-Palestinian descent is acceptable to the Christian community, Assad cannot abide him, so he will be making a concession on this point.
Another law amendment would remove quota limitations for Christian parliamentary representation and rezone Beirut and other parts of the country into the three electoral divisions current before 2000.
The Christian Phalange party’s security chief, Samir Geagea will be freed after 15 years in a Lebanese jail under the control of Syrian intelligence.
The Lebanese prosecution must close all its criminal files against the former Lebanese president Michel Aoun who lives in Syrian-imposed exile in Paris. This would be regarded as a gesture of national reconciliation between the Maronite and Muslim communities and Syria, a step that would also be a concession to Washington which has been seeking his repatriation for some time.
The Syrian ruler promised Cardinal Sfeir to continue to shrink the Syrian troop presence in Lebanon leaving only very small units in the Beqaa Valley. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report the Syrian general staff’s plan to collect the units departing Lebanon into a new division, the 4th Syrian armed division, to be permanently stationed in southern Syria on the Jordanian and Israeli frontiers.
Finally, as a public symbol marking the end of the historic feud between Damascus and the Maronites of Lebanon, the patriarch will be formally invited for a ceremonial visit at which a cornerstone will be set for a new church in Syria dedicated to the founder of the sect, Mar Maron.
Our sources name Lebanese lawmaker Nasser Kandil Barqaqi as the live wire facilitating the reconciliation between the presidential palace in Damascus and the Maronite patriarchate in Beirut.
Why is the Syrian ruler prepared to go to such lengths to avoid engaging Washington directly? A partial reply came from Jordan’s King Abdullah, after he met Assad Tuesday, February 10, on the Yarmuk River border between their countries to inaugurate a new dam. On his way back to Amman, the king told his companions that he found Assad confused, distraught and uncertain which way to turn in his quarrel with Washington. The next day, Israel’s opposition leader Shimon Peres visited the royal palace in Amman. Abdullah understood that his Israeli visitor was anxious to hear his impressions of the Syrian ruler for relaying to prime minister Ariel Sharon.
“Tell Sharon,” said the king to Peres, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, “that Assad is keen on negotiations with Israel and very serious. But if he wants my advice, I would tell him that there is no hurry to take Assad up on his feelers. Better to let him wait.”