Damascus Has Little to Offer US War on Terror

The US State Department still lists Syria as a sponsor of terror for the support and hospitality it extends to radical Palestinian groups, including Islamic Jhad and Hamas, and for backing the Lebanese Hizballah. Damascus has refused outright to take measures against those organizations. Yet senior Americans frequenting Damascus this month are full of praise for Syria’s cooperation in the war against terror.
One of Bashar Assad’s most influential guests last week was the former US assistant secretary of state Edward Djerejian, at present director of one of the powerhouses behind the Bush administration, the Baker Institute for Public Police at RiceUniversity, HoustonTexas. Djerejian went on later to Israel. But before leaving Damascus, he said: “I think there is some very serious interaction between the United States and Damascus after September 11, in terms of what can be done between the two countries to cooperate in the campaign against global terrorism. I think that cooperation is continuing as we speak.”
Two congressional delegations had talks earlier this month with Assad and two more are expected this week, one led by Representative Saxby Chambliss, chairman of the House subcommittee on terrorism and homeland security, and the other by House Democrat leader Richard Gephardt.
Three weeks after Syria took its seat at the UN Security Council, Damascus is covered in stars and stripes to an extent undreamed off in the last 28 years. In the unwelcoming Middle East landscape, in which Saudi Arabia is openly demanding the departure of US troops from its soil – inconceivable before September 11 – Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is in a huff over US military operations against terror, and Iran and Iraq are vying over who can do more for Yasser Arafat’s terror machine, Damascus looks like a bright spot, and the Americans are basking in its warm ambience.
Some circles in Washington and the Middle East are talking about a new alignment forming in the Arab-Muslim world: a pro-American bloc comprising Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Oman, Kuwait and possibly Bahrain and Qatar, that will range itself against the anti-US bloc of Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinians and possibly Egypt, which is vacillating at the moment. Syria would be assigned a key role.
This new alignment sounds like pie in the sky, much like Washington’s high expectations of Assad. The Syrian ruler is viewed in the region as a weakling, unqualified for any senior political or military role in any bloc. Above all, he is far from equal to reining in the Hizballah and the Damascus-based radical Islamic groups.
A year ago, Syria had some leverage in his dealings with the Lebanese Shiite group. Now thatIran’s arms route to the Shiite group circumvents Syria, Assad has lost any say he had. – especially since the Syrian army’s main source of revenue comes from the Hizballah-controlled opium fields in the LebaneseBekaaValley.
Assad’s American visitors are making a point of noting Syria’s offer to Washington of intelligence on the fundamentalist Muslim terrorist labyrinth, including al Qaeda and its operational arm, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
They explain how Syria came by its stock of intelligence. In 1982, Bashar’s father, President Hafez Assad, after liquidating the Muslim Brotherhood peril by razing the sect’s quarters in the town of Hama and killing somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000 rebels, vowed never to allow fundamentalism to raise its head in Syria again. He ordered Syrian intelligence services to closely shadow fundamentalist Islamic activities around the world, an operation that his son has kept going.
America’s hopes of precious intelligence on terrorists hinge therefore on events dating from the last quarter of the last century and are, in the view of debkafile‘s intelligence sources and experts, unrealistic and could turn out like its relationship with Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence, ISI. Regardless of what president Pervez Musharref may say or do, the ISI has throughout the Afghan War granted logistic aid, to elements associated with the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Washington could find itself hit by a similar boomerang from Syrian intelligence, whose intelligence-gathering and operationally capabilities are in any case far inferior to the far larger and more efficient Pakistani service.
Syria’s primary intelligence sources are the Palestinian terror groups based in Damascus, including the Hamas and Jihad Islami, and its military intelligence presence in Lebanon alongside the Hizballah. But Syrian military intelligence has no ability to force its will on either of those bodies, or penetrate their poltical and financial support structures. Syrian intelligence has little to offer the Americans on the three terrorist bodies operating in Syria, Lebanon and other parts of the Arab world, which most concern Washington: the intelligence arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Imad Mughniyeh’s terror-cum- intelligence group and Sheik Hassan Nasralllah’s Hizballah. Syrian intelligence’s sphere of action is moreover geographically limited. By contrast, the Iranians, Imad Mughniyeh and the Hizballah are capable of simultaneous operations in the Persian Gulf, the eastern Mediterranean and large parts of Europe, Africa and Latin America, less so in North America. Syrian intelligence has no access to any of these places.
For that matter it is often dependent on the good will and financial handouts from those target groups.
Therefore, the Syria’s usefulness to America’s war on global terror should not be overrated, any more than the word of its willingness to open the door to negotiations with Israel be taken seriously.

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