The words spilling out of Washington after the Sept. 12 terror attack on the US embassy in Damascus (without American casualties) may portend a softening in icebound US-Syrian relations – although nowhere near a thaw.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said: “The Syrian forces did their job and they were professional about it. Now, the next step is for Syria to play a constructive role in the war on terror.”
The Syrian embassy in Washington responded stiffly though not dismissively: US Middle East policy “fueled extremism, terrorism and anti-US sentiment. The US should… start looking at the root causes of terrorism and broker a comprehensive peace in the Middle East,” a spokesman said.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was politely reserved: “I think the Syrians reacted to this attack in a way that helped secure our people and we very much appreciate that.”
But a senior state department official who asked not to be named told Reuters that he does not see any thawing of relations despite the foiled attack on the embassy.
Still, while clearly trading barbs, the US and Syrian governments sound as though they are dangling diplomatic bait for the other side to pick up.
Three premises back up this impression:
1. From the data accumulated thus far, it is impossible to determine definitively whether or not the terrorist attack on the US embassy in Damascus was the work of al Qaeda’s Syrian operational wing Jund al Shama or mocked up by Syrian intelligence to generate conditions acceptable to Damascus – and possibly Washington – for dialogue.
2. For weeks, President Bashar Asad has been scattering broad hints through various intermediaries that he is willing to distance himself from Hizballah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah – and even loosen his close ties with Tehran.
Will he (Asad) or won’t he break away from Hizballah and Tehran?
3. Asad is also working to prise Hamas leader Mussa Abu Marzuk away from Khaled Meshaal to help extricate the movement’s man in Gaza, Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniya, from Meshaal’s uncompromising toils and let him join Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas in a national unity government.
Abbas – supported by Asad – hopes a coalition between his own Fatah and the radical Hamas will end the international boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian government.
Meshaal is dead set against any crack in Hamas’s radical stance against Israel and is plotting Haniya’s removal.
But after bitter experience of the Syrian ruler’s fickle and unstable nature, Washington is eying these turns of events with extreme caution, uncertain whether it betokens a genuine about-turn or is stage-managed by Tehran as a trap.
After studying these purported turnarounds this week, senior Bush administration officials came to the following conclusions.
First conclusion: Some clues imply the attack on the US embassy was a put-up job.
Intelligence reports reaching Washington expose three similar faked operations in the last three months, one staged near the US embassy, all of them rigged to demonstrate to Western and Syrian opinion that the Assad regime, far from sponsoring terrorists as alleged, was fighting terror.
Counter-terror experts ask a niggling question: How did two bomb cars, one a minivan with a massive freight of pipe bombs and gas canisters, get past all the security checkpoints enclosing the embassy district of Damascus? Located in this neighborhood are not only most of the foreign embassies, but also the private residences of the heads of the Syrian regime.
Equally suspicious, Syria has rebuffed all US requests for a look in on the investigation of the attack, for an examination of the bodies of the assailants which Syrian forces claim to have killed, or obtain information on their identities. The Americans see no reason why this information is withheld if four of the assailants were Syrian nationals as officials in Damascus claim. Requests to examine the firearms the terrorists used and the explosives in the minivan which they failed to detonate were likewise refused.
No slowdown of supplies to Hizballah from and via Syria
These blanks would seem to support the premise of a faked attack staged to bring a grateful Washington running cap in hand to the Syrian president. All the same, the administration, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources, is not satisfied with the trumped-up terrorist attack theory.
Second conclusion: Damascus’ intimations of a slowdown in its relations with the Hizballah and Tehran are also challenged by contra-indications.
Asad’s close personal friendship with Nasrallah goes back five years at least to the early days of his presidency. It has been the bedrock of Damascus-Hizballah strategic collaboration.
But Asad was caught by surprise by a key development of the Lebanon war: a decision in Tehran to transfer the military command from Nasrallah to Imad Mughniyeh. This shadowy Hizballah operative represents the link between the Iranian administration and al Qaeda and also connects Hizballah with the three Revolutionary Guards generals who, from their forward command post on the Syrian side of the Lebanese border, masterminded the Hizballah war and were kept in charge of subsequent diplomatic decisions.
Mughniyeh who enjoys the trust of Iran’s leaders never had any truck with Asad and his people in Damascus.
The Syrian president was thus sidelined in the Lebanon war by his two closest allies.
Since then, he has been asking himself if putting all his eggs in his intimate relationship with Hizballah and Iran is not too risky.
Again, the evidence about Asad’s possible change of heart points both ways: Washington has not seen any scaling down of Iran’s military presence in Syria or any slowing-down of arms supplies transferred by and through Syria to Hizballah, in complete disregard of the arms embargo ordered by UN Security Council resolution 1701.
Third conclusion: The only unarguable change in Syrian policy touches on the Palestinian issue.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s exclusive Middle East sources find a genuine switch reflected in two Syrian initiatives: Backing for the formation of a Palestinian unity government based on a Hamas-Fatah coalition, is one. The second is more complicated but of greater lasting significance: the co-option of Hamas to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the supreme Palestinian international organ, the chairmanship of which Abbas inherited from Yasser Arafat.
This plan would reward hardliner Khaled Meshaal with the vice-chairmanship of the supreme body. Areas of government would then be shared between the government and the PLO.
The former would be in charge of domestic affairs, internal security, economy, water, electricity, education and transport, whereas the latter would handle strategic matters like foreign affairs, diplomatic negotiations and military policy.
This division of powers would place Meshaal alongside Abu Mazen at the center of any peace negotiations with Israel as holder of veto power over their outcome.
By the interlinked steps of a national unity government and Meshaal’s elevation to the PLO’s top rank, Hamas would circumvent its isolation as a terrorist organization.
The Damascus-based Meshaal, who is viewed as a super terrorist in Washington and Europe, would be co-opted to the diplomatic contacts Palestinian representatives maintain with the United States, the European Union and Israel.
The unity government program does not offer to end violence as demanded by the Middle East Quartet, but a long-term “hudna” – or the informal cessation of terrorist acts. By the same token, Meshaal’s participation in the diplomatic process and resolutions is not tantamount to recognizing Israel’s existence, but it does represent the movement’s transition from a terrorist organization to a political movement – in emulation of Hizballah’s dual role in Lebanon.
This eventuality is not lost on Washington, as the White House spokesman intimated after the Damascus embassy attack: “Stop harboring terrorist groups,” he said. “Stop being an agent in fomenting terror and work with us to fight against terror as Libya has done.”
These words embody an invitation to Bashar Asad to follow the footsteps Muammer Qaddafi took in 2003 and 2004, when he severed ties with terrorist movements and handed the dismantled installations producing weapons of mass destruction including nuclear plant to the Americans.
What the Syrian president stands to gain from this turnabout is an end to his isolation and international recognition of his regime.
Some circles in Washington perceive the above developments in a negative light as nothing but a crafty Syrian-Iranian conspiracy, an intelligence-generated scam, to gull the United States into countenancing a putsch by the radical Hamas to take over the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Palestinian Authority.
On the way to this goal, Hamas would secure acceptance by the international community led by the US, without renouncing terrorism or recognizing Israel.
The Bush administration appears ready to place a toe in the murky waters opened up by Syria’s ambivalent signals, but is too suspicious of the dangers lurking there to jump right in. US policy planners are unable to determine one way or another whether the Asad regime or Hamas has been overtaken by a genuine, profound change of heart as indicated. The file is still open on the authorship of the embassy attack, whether by al Qaeda or even by an al Qaeda cell penetrated by Syrian intelligence.