A European Union delegation paid an unpublicized visit to Damascus this week for quiet talks on the future of a controversial trade accord and a free trade zone between Syria and Europe. The visitors found Syrian leaders completely at a loss over how to rebuild their economy after forfeiting their stake in Lebanon.
Addressing Assad, the delegation leader, Belgian MP Veronique de Keyser, made two precise points:
- Quitting Lebanon was vital, but not enough. Europe attaches equal importance to Syria abiding by the second clause of the mooted trade accord which calls for active respect for human rights. Until the Syrian president meets that demand, the treaty will not be signed.
- You will find it more beneficial to “do [political] business with us before the Americans arrive,” said the Belgian lawmaker.
The Europeans have thus launched a race to beat the Americans for pickings in Syria whether or not Bashar Assad survives the shock of transition.
To make Point A clear, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources report that Mme de Keyser set up a meeting with Syrian opposition leaders including a daughter of the Syrian MP Maamoun Homsi and the brother of MP Riyadh Seif – two independent lawmakers who were jailed for daring to speak out against the Assad regime. Assad never once referred to this incident. But after talking to the European delegates, he permitted opposition leaders for the first time in 30 years to hold a news conference on human rights. Their first demand was the release of the two independent parliamentarians.
Just ahead of the EU mission to Damascus, our sources in Brussels report the appearance of a report entitled US-Syria, the Barter Agreement and the Old Regime. Or the Blood of Hariri.”
It was presented as a private research project signed by Dr. Naama Al Hatib, member of a Syrian opposition circle in the Belgian capital and Nizar Nayuf, an exiled Syrian journalist. (In 2003, two years after DEBKA, Nayouf published a detailed account with maps of the transfer of Iraqi WMD by members of the Assad regime to Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley and parts of Syria).
Europeans diagnose US master plan for Syria
The Syrian exiles’ report was in fact published on behalf of the unknown “National Council for Truth, Justice and Conciliation in Syria” and financed by the European Union.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources leafed through the 72-page paper and found American and European policies on Syria covered in astonishing detail, as well first-rate intelligence data on most members of the Syrian regime and their personal involvement in the Iraq guerrilla war against the Americans.
Our sources give the report high marks for accuracy.
Among its other revelations, the Europeans are said to evaluate Washington’s policy objectives as being a series of cooperation accords with a group called “The Mandarins” who are the business tycoons close to Assad and the real masters of the national economy.
The most prominent mandarin is Rami Mahlouf, son of General Adnan Mahlouf, successor to Bashar’s uncle Rifat Assad as commander of the national guard. Our sources have learned of Rifat’s return home after more than 20 years in exile in a very bad state of health. Some say he is at death’s door.
Mahlouf Jr.’s main partner is Firas Tlas, son of former defense minister, current deputy prime minister General Mustafa Tlas.
The Europeans believe that Washington is pinning its hopes on Mahlouf and Tlas persuading the president to go along with the Bush administration instead of fighting it. If this does not work out, the Americans are expected to resort to major Syrian opposition factions like the Muslim Brotherhood and the local communist party for shaping an alternative to the Syrian Baath government.
The report goes on to name the Syrian leaders which Europe thinks should be removed (without saying how) for the sake of building a new Syrian economy.
Europe‘s own hit list
1. Vice president Khalim Haddam, defined here as the linchpin of the Syrian political and logistic structure that supports the Sunni guerrilla war in Iraq against US forces and the Baghdad government. They call him the “grey shadow of the Sunni insurgency.” It was Haddam who persuaded Sunni Muslims to boycott Iraq’s elections on January 30 and it is he who financially supports the Iraqi Council of Scholars, Iraq’s supreme Sunni religious authority.
2. Foreign minister Farouk Shara, described as the diplomatic face of Syrian intelligence, is blamed for getting Assad into hot water with the Americans.
3. Head of the national security bureau General Mohammed Said Bakhtian is believed to be in charge of logistics for the Sunni terrorist structure in Iraq. He hails from the Tadmor region of Syria and it is therefore not surprising to find many Syrian natives of that region fighting with Iraqi insurgents.
4. Interior minister Ghazi Kenaan who has recently adopted a pro-American posture is credited with secretly arranging the transfer of the Saddam regime’s funds to Lebanon and making them available as a war chest for the Iraqi guerrilla war.
5. Director of the political division at the interior ministry General Mohammed Mansoura is the senior politruk responsible for instilling Baathist doctrine by means of secret agents acting as “thought police.”
6. Assad’s cousin General Asaf Shawqat, who acts as chief of military intelligence and commander of Unit 293 which carries out field security for the Syrian army. The mark against him is his fierce enmity for Bashar’s young brother Maher Assad whom the Europeans fancy as the coming ruler in Damascus.
Whose young lions?
7. Retired General Hisham Bakhtiyar known as the Old Man. He is head of the general intelligence administration and middleman between the Syrian leadership and Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
8. Head of Intelligence Unit 251, the internal security unit of Syrian general intelligence Bahajat Suleiman. While posing as a reform champion, he turns in to the authorities any reformists he discovers. Another of his functions is to make use of Republican Guard resources to smuggle fighting men and money into Iraq.
9. Chief of the presidential guard General Zoheima Shelouche. He is described in the report as one of the foremost architects of the Damascus-Baghdad military and financial axis during the Saddam Hussein era. From 1997 up until the death of former president Hafez Assad, his villa on an isolated hilltop east of Damascus on the highway to Iraq was used for undercover bilateral business transactions between the Assad and Saddam regimes.
Conspicuous by their omission from the axe list in the Brussels report, as noted by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources, are the top brass in command of units providing the backbone of the Alawi-dominated regime in Damascus. These units are Divisions 1, 2, 7 and 9 as well as strategic reserve Division 3.
The inference from this omission is that the European Union may be contemplating a military coup against the Assad regime in Damascus to be led by the chief of staff, General Ali Habib. He too rates no mention in the European list of recommended dismissals.
The inference from the entire report is that Washington and Brussels alike consider doing away with Bashar Assad at some point – each with the help of its own young lions and according to its own script.