Israel’s General (Theoretically) Beckons while Washington Cold-Shoulders Damascus

Israel’s chief of staff, Lt.-Gen Moshe Yaalon put his hand in a hornet’s nest when he said in an interview:
The question is will we reach agreement with Syria for the right price. If you ask me if an agreement that is correctly balanced is theoretically possible, I say that mindful of Israel’s military needs, an accord with Syria can be attained which leads to Israel’s withdrawal from Golan. The army is capable of defending Israel’s border wherever they are.
Most quotes left the “theoretically” caveat out of their reports, as the general should have foreseen. They also ignored what he said clearly about the here and now. He noted Syria has missiles that can reach all parts of Israel and chemical capabilities, thus making the point that as long as those threats remained, the strategic plateau was a vital element of Israel’s security.
Israel’s May 2000 withdrawal from its south Lebanon buffer zone, decided by Ehud Barak, a former Israeli chief of staff turned prime minister, has since placed Hizballah missiles within striking distance of the northern outskirts of Greater Tel Aviv and Israel’s urban and industrial heartland in between. Israeli tanks on the Golan, 40 km away from Damascus, have proved since its capture in 1967 to be the most effective deterrent to both threats.
Nothing said in the Yaalon interview departed from the Israeli military concept with regard to the effectiveness of buffer zones against hostile Arab armies. But the general’s timing was badly off. He sounded as though Israel was opening a door to the unpredictable Syrian president Bashar Assad at the very moment that Washington was straining to keep it shut.
Last week, the Syrian political intelligence chief, General Muhammed Nasif invited himself to Washington. On the pretext of a medical check-up at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, he called on old friends at the National Security Council and Central Intelligence Agency and handed in an unofficial communication from President Bashar Assad.
debkafile‘s Washington sources report the message began with a complaint. The Syrian leader senses that when he talks to Washington, he is talking to the wall. He has tried to open up a dialogue through one intermediary after another – Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak, Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi, Saudi princes, Eurocrats – all to no avail.
After listening politely to the Syrian general, his American friends sent him off with kind wishes for his good health, effectively a flea in the ear, in response to the same three-point program a procession of European and Arab high-ups had submitted to secretary of state Colin Powell in an effort to pry open the White House door to the Syrian president. What Assad proposed was:
A. A rendezvous between Powell and Syrian foreign minister Farouk a Shara somewhere in Europe.
B. After the secretary is convinced of the seriousness of Syria’s intentions and its willingness to meet the Americans partway, he will convey these tidings to the Bush administration.
C. The White House will accept this and delegate Powell or another senior US official to travel to Damascus to close a deal.
What deal? Like the emissaries before him, General Nasif referred his American interlocutors to Assad or a-Shara for more information. Nothing doing, said his friends in Washington. Forget about talks before Syria takes some tangible step on the ground to satisfy American demands.
The charge sheet against Assad was further substantiated last week by the capture for the first time of a senior Hizballah “special operations” (terror) unit in one of the US-Sadrist militia battle zones in southern Iraq. Munah al-Abdullah was caught on his way to one of the Sunni Triangle towns, Fallujah or Samarra, where Baathist insurgents and al Qaeda fighters are concentrated most heavily.
As first revealed in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 169, the interrogation of al-Abdullah led to two discoveries:
1. His mission was to persuade Sunni guerrillas to open up a second front against US forces so as to ease America’s military stranglehold on Moqtada Sadr’s militia in Najef.
Here was proof that the Damascus-sponsored Lebanese terrorist group was up to its ears in the planning and execution of the war against US forces in Iraq.
2. The Hizballah officer arrived in Iraq three months ago through Damascus.
This gave the game away on two counts:
First, Sadr’s Mehdi Army armed revolt was planned well in advance of its eruption this month and the Lebanese Shiite terror group was deeply involved.
Second, Syria still holds the door wide open for Hizballah, Arab and al Qaeda fighters to enter Iraq and join the war against US forces.
Furthermore, the captured Hizballah officer, a key man in the organization’s core apparatus, must have spent some days in the Syrian capital waiting for his crossing into Iraq to be arranged. Neither his arrival, nor his departure could have taken place without the knowledge of Syrian security and intelligence services or word to the presidential palace.
Had Assad been serious about breaking the ice with Washington, simply arresting al-Abdullah in Damascus to prevent him reaching Iraq at a time when the US military faced heavy going there would have bought him some credibility in Washington for showing good will.
However, American doors stay shut to dialogue because the Syrian ruler’s actions tell a completely different story from the messages he keeps on sending – and not only in the instance of the Hizballah officer in Iraq. His close military and intelligence ties with Tehran are another big black mark, as are his hosting and support of Palestinian terrorist groups.
Now, a fresh maneuver involving Arafat is afoot.
In the last week, a special emissary from Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters on the West Bank has arrived in Damascus, according to debkafile‘s Palestinian sources. Muhammed Ismail, a member of Arafat’s circle, was chosen for the mission because he happens to be one of the last surviving members of the Palestinian Baath, an almost dead branch of the Iraqi party that was headed by Saddam Hussein and still rules Syria. The Baath, which started out as a secular, socialist party dedicated to pan-Arab unity and nationalism, came to power in Baghdad and Damascus in 1963. For many years, a deep rift divided them.
Since the Iraqi party, the largest in the Arab world, was ousted, some of the Syrian Baathists are casting an eye on the lead role of the pan-Arab Baath and domination of the Lebanese, Jordanian and Palestinian parties. This course is opposed as a high-risk adventure by some of the party faithful in Damascus. The continuing debate surfaced on August 11 in a demand voiced by the Syrian Baath journal to strip the pan-Arab Baath leadership of authority and reduce it to an advisory body. This statement appeared to be meant as a prod to Assad to make up his mind on the issue.
Arafat’s emissary was another prod, this one in the opposite direction.
It came in the form of an offer to swing round the Jordanian Baath, one of the most important in the Arab world, away from its support of the Iraqi side of the doctrinal dispute to the Syrian side. Arafat claims considerable influence in the Jordanian party because its membership is largely Palestinian. Its recognition of the Syrian Baath’s primacy would boost Assad’s authority as pan-Arab Baath leader and also strengthen his influence in Jordanian politics.
Arafat asked the Syrian ruler to grant him two wishes for his service: an invitation to Damascus which Assad has consistently withheld, following the example of his father who despised Arafat, and a “more equitable” distribution of Syrian largesse to Palestinian terrorist organizations in funds, weapons and explosives, meaning Fatah would receive equal shares with the Hamas and Jihad Islami.
The Syrian leader has not yet replied to Arafat’s proposition.
General Yaalon’s interview dropped jarringly amid Washington’s dismissal of Assad’s diplomatic initiatives as a load of theoretical claptrap – as long as, in practice, he actively backs three dangerous terrorist movements – Iraqi, Palestinian and Hizballah. However inadvertently, the impression the chief of staff conveyed was that Israel is amenable to concessions to the Syrian ruler without reference to his role as senior sponsor of terrorists, at exactly the same time as Washington slammed the door in his face.

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