Celebrates End of Isolation with a Security Purge

Syrian ruler Bashar Assad may well puff out his chest and glory in the warmest international popularity he has enjoyed since taking power in 2000. For two weeks, US and Saudi dignitaries have been beating a path to his door. His adversary Saudi King Abdullah and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak have honored him with a summit conference.

Western intelligence circles in the Gulf confirm that Washington worked hard through its own diplomatic channels to push Assad into responding affirmatively to Saudi attentions with the object of generating a momentum for leaving Iran trailing behind and alone.

For now, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources say, Bashar Assad's political and personal power is at its peak, surpassing even that of his omnipotent, dictatorial father, the late Hafez Assad, whom he succeeded as president. A pariah in the Arab world just a year ago, the Syrian ruler is now riding high.

Jeffrey Feltman, acting secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs and Dan Shapiro of the National Security Council were the public faces of the Obama administration's dealings with the Assad regime. But two secret American emissaries worked behind the scenes on matters of substance.

Our sources name them as Fredric C. Hof, CEO of AALC, Ltd., an international business consulting firm based in Arlington, Virginia, and Theodor Katuf, an American businessman of Syrian descent.

Hof was the director of field operations for the 2001 Sharm El-Sheikh (Mitchell) Fact-Finding Committee. He is reputed to enjoy excellent, ramified personal connections in Beirut and Damascus.

Washington is eyeing him for the post of US ambassador in Damascus.

In the first week of March, Hof published an extensive paper Mapping Peace between Syria and Israel on behalf of the United States Institution of Peace.


Mega-tycoon Makhlouf clan elevated; brother-in-law Shawqat dropped


Katuf brought to his mission his close ties with the Syrian mega-tycoons, the Makhlouf clan.

Its most prominent member, Rami Makhlouf, amassed a fortune in partnership with Assad's brother-in-law, the Syrian intelligence chief Gen. Asif Shawqat, between 2004 and 2007, by smuggling arms to the Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda gangs fighting the Americans in Iraq.

Interestingly, the extensive purges Assad executed at the top of his security and intelligence agencies promoted not only his personal loyalists but also Makhlouf hangers-on. Obama's advisers took due note of this change as a signal that the Syrian president had decided to cooperate with the policies the new US administration was developing in the Middle East and Gulf.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terror sources disclose that in reshuffling his security apparatus, Assad did not neglect setting a score on home ground with his former favorite, Gen. Shawqat.

Whereas the Makhlouf faction was promoted, Shawqat's loyalists were dropped. He was also stripped of authority for the president's personal security and compounds and told not to exceed his intelligence functions. Last week, Shawqat lost more ground when scores of high-ranking Syrian intelligence officers arrested on corruption charges all turned out to be his followers.

So, too, was Muhammad Mansoura, dismissed as chief of General Intelligence and replaced by Gen. Hassan Asfoura.


Assad's purge spree is just starting


The newly appointed director of internal security, Gen. Ali Mamaluk, is revealed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources as Assad's lead emissary in the successful undercover exchanges with Saudi officials.

He was trusted to represent the president in the pivotal face-to-face talks with the head of Saudi General Intelligence, Prince Muqrin Abdul Aziz.

Those talks mapped out the stages of the evolving rapprochement between Damascus and Riyadh – and indirectly between Damascus and Washington – a process which sprang from the secret Obama-Saudi pact first outlined by DEBKA-Net-Weekly 285 of February 20.

Shawqat's wife, Assad's sister Bushara, one of the richest and most powerful figures in Damascus, has been concerned enough about his downfall to keep on ringing men of influence in the Syrian capital and complaining about the way her brother is treating her husband.

He is not the only member of the clan to fall out of favor with the ruler.

His younger brother, Maher Assad, commander of the presidential guard, finds himself sidelined and rumored to be on his way out.

Our intelligence experts report that Assad has only just got started on his purges of the army and security services. They will gather momentum with the approach of summer. On July 1, he plans to “pension off” hundreds of officers and replace them with his adherents.

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