Impatient for Assad to Go, Washington Made Much of Routine Syrian Scud Test

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Last week, Syrian test-fired one elderly Scud B (200km range) and two Scud D (700km range) missiles, capable of delivering air-burst chemical weapons. Syria’s missiles are routinely tested every summer. This time, Damascus took particular care to aim the missiles southwest, so as not to mistakenly hit US forces operating in the al Qaim province on the Iraqi side of its border. The Scud B broke up and shed debris over Turkey
All the same, The New York Times and the US State Department, confirming the Israeli report of the test, made a big fuss. The State Department spokesman scolded the Assad regime, calling the test “one more example of Syria being out of step with what’s going on in the rest of the region.” He said the US had long accused Syria of seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction and the ability to deliver them, while Iraq and Lebanon were focused on political and economic development.
Syria too leveled a charge that went unnoticed: Israel, said Damascus, was holding its largest military exercise ever on the Golan Heights, with the participation of commando, armored and air force units. According to Damascus, the drill was staged right on the Israel-Syrian border for the purpose of challenging the Syrian army and threatening Damascus.
debkafile‘s military and Middle East sources report that a strong sense of trouble brewing pervades ruling circles in Damascus, as the Syrian Baath prepares for its 10th convention Monday, June 6, a gathering of major moment for the stability and future of the Assad regime.
As the date approaches a stack of problems is piling up on the Syrian ruler, the price of keeping a clandestine finger in the Lebanon pie – even after the exit of his troops and of sticking to his ties with the Iraqi Baath:
1. debkafile‘s counter-terror sources confirm that Syrian army intelligence agents hired contact killers to assassinate the prominent anti-Syria Lebanese journalist Samir Qaseer last Thursday, June 2, by booby-trapping his car. (Washington is pressing for the UN Hariri murder inquiry to include also this latest assassination.). Moreover, three senior Syrian military intelligence officers reappeared in northern Lebanon last week to put their oar into the general election. They ordered candidates to go to Damascus for heart-to-heart talks with their former Syrian boss General Rustum Ghazel.
2. The Baath convention looks like becoming a battleground for delegates’ accusations and counter-accusations over the responsibility for Syria’s debacle in Lebanon. Assad is expected to use this dispute and the political reform slogan as an opening for sacking two- thirds of the top level of the Baath party’s ruling institutions, including, according to rumors in Damascus, vice president Khalim Haddam. He is also believed to be planning to replace prime minister Naji al Oteri with a non-party technocrat, finance minister Mohammed Hussein.
3. Syria’s entire leadership is on edge over the looming return home aboard his private plane of the president’s black sheep uncle Rif’at Assad from 16 years in exile. As vice president, Rifat was caught plotting a coup against his brother, Bashar’s father, president Hafez Assad, while he was recovering from a heart attack.
4. The certainty has gained ground in Middle East capitals that US president George W. Bush has decided to wash his hands of Assad once and for all. Washington will not act directly to remove him; but neither will it refrain from indirect moves that contribute to his downfall. This conviction is reportedly the spur for Rif’at’s decision to be on hand to retain the Assad clan’s hand on the reins of power should they slip from his nephew’s grasp.
Last month, aware of the ground shaking under his feet, Assad performed an epic about-face – or at least gave the appearance of turning over a new leaf.
He ordered his army to pitch in with support for “Operation Matador”, the important U.S. assault against insurgents along the Iraqi-Syrian border, thereby tipping the scales in favor of the American forces. This was revealed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources in an exclusive report from Iraq on May 20. Thanks to Syrian cooperation, American troops were for the first time able to come up from behind Iraqi and Arab insurgents and al Qaeda gunmen, including followers of Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. From launching pads on Syrian soil, units of the 2nd Marine Division, 2nd Marine Expeditionary drove into Iraq and executed a west-to-east sweep of terrorist bases (as you will see on the special map accompanying this article).
The US operation was two-pronged: one arm drew a 15 square-mile square around a patch of al Jazira Desert in the al Qaim region. It was delimited by the Syrian frontier town of al-Hary and the Euphrates River, the area around the Iraqi town of Ar Rabit, on the northern bank of the river, and the Iraqi cities of Khutaylah, Sadah and Karabilah on the southern bank.
Simultaneously, the second American arm drove southeast for a systematic purge of insurgent lairs along the centuries-old smuggling route from the Syrian border. They cut through a corridor more than 200-mile (320-km) long, winding from the Syrian border town of Abu Kemal, crossing through the Syrian Desert and ending near the Shiite shrine town of Karbala in central Iraq. Numerous Arab and al Qaeda sanctuaries and launching-pads were mopped up along the route.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, Syria deployed an armored brigade between Abu Kamal and the Syrian banks of the Euphrates to cover the US Marine operation around and inside Al Hary. The brigade was under orders to shield the Marines from insurgent attack on the Syrian side of the border and to cut the guerillas’ links via the Euphrates to their comrades on the Iraqi side of the border.
The dense reeds, bushes and vegetation provide cover on the river banks for armed ambushes and hideouts. Syrian forces undertook to cut off the guerrillas’ escape route back into Syria while the Marines hammered these riverside lairs.
The Syrian military umbrella left the Marine Force and the Army’s 814th Multi-Role Bridge Company free to construct a pontoon bridge across the Euphrates and cross safely into Iraq. US forces and Syrian troops then formed a defensive perimeter around the area.
Upon reaching the northern bank, the Marines began their offensive in Iraq, coming at the guerrillas from the rear and forcing them to flee toward western Syria – where they were stopped. Finding themselves running into the arms of Syrian troops, they turned south and took the smugglers’ corridor bound for Karbala. Here they were trapped by the second prong of the US clean-up operation. Those who could, fled east. Most reached Iraqi towns and villages along both banks of the Euphrates at points north of Ramadi and Fallujah in the Sunni Triangle.
It was during Operation Matador that al Qaeda’s Iraq commander Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was injured.
But while helping the American military fight Iraqi insurgents, Assad did not neglect his commitment to the Iraq ex-Baathists running the insurgent campaign from Syria. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, Washington was tipped off that Syrian military intelligence chief Asaf Shawqat had been instructed to get together Syrian-based Iraqi Baath chiefs for a secret conclave in Homs in advance of Operation Matador. Among them were the masterminds the guerrilla war in Iraq and personal representatives of Iraqi ex-vice president Izzat Ibrahim, the most senior Baath official still at large on America’s most-wanted list. He is also believed commander-in-chief of the Iraqi insurgency at large. There, too, were former Iraqi army and intelligence officers now employed in the recruitment, training and dispatch of guerrillas into the homeland. Other chairs were filled by the moneymen who manage the Baath funds that underwrite the insurgency and run Saddam Hussein’s straw companies.
Shawqat’s initiative was taken in Washington as clear evidence that Assad knows exactly where every Iraqi ex-official involved in the guerrilla war is located and what he is up to.
Officials at the US state department and national security council were convinced that Shawqat’s task was to explain to the Iraqis why Assad was obliged to cooperate with the Americans, to forewarn the guerilla leaders of the coming US offensive and to confer together on how to sabotage it?
That piece of double-dealing was the last straw. The Bush administration finally lost patience with Bashar Assad and decided his time was up.

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