Mubarak Carries Dire US Warning to Assad
On Monday, November 10, Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz said that as long as Syria provides bases for Palestinian terrorists for attacks in Israel, his government reserves the right of self-defense. He is reported to have said this to US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld during their two-hour discussion in Washington which also ranged over the upgrading of bilateral intelligence exchanges and the Iranian threat to the region.
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Last month, Syria made its position clear when spokesmen in Damascus warned Israel of a second warfront opening up on the Golan Heights by means of “Syrian citizens mounting attacks on Israeli settlements.”
debkafile‘s Washington sources evaluate Mofaz’s warning as the opening shot of a campaign to persuade Vice President Richard Cheney and presidential security adviser Condoleezza Rice, whom he is scheduled to meet in the course of his Washington trip, that the Bush administration needs to take a tougher line with Syrian president Hafez Assad, whether or not Damascus sponsors Palestinian terrorism.
Our sources stress that this round of Israeli and Syrian rhetoric is aimed more at influencing the debate dividing the Bush administration on how to handle Damascus than winding up border tensions – although sudden eruptions of violence cannot be ruled out.
On November 7, DEBKA-Net-Weekly ran the following behind-the-scenes account of moves behind the Washington debate, which is summarized here for the benefit of debkafile viewers:
On November 3, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak paid a short visit to Damascus for an urgent conversation with Bashar Assad. With him was his senior adviser, Osama el-Baz.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and Middle Eastern sources reveal that Mubarak carried a message of unprecedented harshness from Washington. Nothing like it had been conveyed to any regional leader since Saddam Hussein was put on notice of the fate awaiting him if the Americans invaded Iraq. Bashar was warned that his actions in Iraq and Palestine may expose Syria to the peril of becoming the “Cambodia” of the Iraq War – a reference to the secret 1973 air blitz the Nixon administration loosed against Cambodia and Laos.
When the Syrian president made no reply, Mubarak cautioned him not to expect Egypt or anyone else in the Arab world to come to his aid, any more than a savior rushed to help Saddam Hussein or the Palestinians. Assad remarked that many of the guerrillas and terrorists entering Iraq came from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but Mubarak pointed out that at least half still come in from Syria.
The Egyptian leader then criticized Assad for the free rein he grants Hizballah, allowing the Lebanese extremists to publish their newspapers in Syria and their clerics to teach in Syrian religious schools. He also rebuked the Syrian ruler for letting opposition factions of his own regime run off with national policy.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, Mubarak referred to the foreign ministry’s powerful head of foreign relations Buthaina Shaaban. In the early stages of the Iraq War, Washington had judged Shaaban pro-American and counted on her moderating influence on Assad’s regime. But as time goes by, she is becoming increasingly militant and issuing statements that may or may not be closely coordinated with the president or his close advisers.
The day after Mubarak’s visit to Damascus, Shaaban sent her spokeswoman Bushra Kanafani to be interviewed by the Damascus correspondent of the Saudi newspaper Sharq al-Awsat. Kanafani delivered a scathing attack on the United States and Israel. The Americans, she said, must withdraw their forces from Iraq; they are to blame for the rise of terrorism. “The problem is the United States,” Kanafani said, “not Syria.”
Implicitly rejecting the strong US warning Mubarak delivered to Assad, she said, “When America entered Iraq there was no terrorism problem. Now there is the problem of terrorism and of al Qaeda.” The Syrian official went on to declare, “America must be more objective. …the matter has changed from one of weapons of mass destruction and toppling a regime to a new one of terrorism.”
The spokeswoman’s freedom to publicly dismiss Mubarak’s comments and Washington’s warnings in the London-based Saudi newspaper underscored the justice of the Egyptian president’s advice to Assad to curb the extremists lest they weaken his hold on power and begin dictating presidential policy.
But in one respect, the younger Assad resembles his father. In their conversation, instead of addressing Mubarak’s arguments point by point, he launched into a long-winded, rambling discourse on the historical roots of the Bush family’s hostility toward the Iraqi government with asides on the Israeli-Arab conflict.
A visibly impatient Mubarak cut him off saying it was time to break for the Ramadan evening meal.
While Mubarak and Assad talked tete a tete, Osama al Baz conducted a stiff exchange with hard-line Syrian foreign minister Farouk a-Shara, reprimanding him for failing in his duty to fully brief and advise the Syrian president for fear of losing his job to the rising star Buthaina Shaaban. “Your passivity is costing the president and Syria dear,” said the veteran Egyptian diplomat.
The normally cold and reserved Assad is described by Egyptian sources as being in high good humor at the evening meal. He even cracked jokes, which made his guests wonder.
On the flight back to Cairo, Mubarak asked his advisers to account for the Syrian president’s uncharacteristic gaiety.
Al Baz replied by briefing his boss on an event that took place shortly before his own visit to Damascus. On Sunday, November 1, Syria convened an urgent foreign ministers’ conference of Iraq’s neighbors to discuss the guerrilla war against coalition forces. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, Iran and Turkey were invited. After some of the foreign ministers protested, Hoshar Zebari, the foreign minister of the provisional Iraqi governing council, was asked to join the gathering. Offended at the manner of his invitation, he declined to attend.
No one present understood why they had been called until Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al Faisal rose to speak. According toDEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, the prince took them all by surprise with an unusual proposal. He suggested the creation of a special Iraqi intelligence agency to pool all the incoming data on Iraq received by the governments represented. This agency would study and analyze the data and submit recommendations
to the participating governments.
After a moment of awkward silence, it dawned on the ministers that the Saudis were seeking to compensate for their lamentable lack of intelligence on Iraq by their proposed pool.
Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul broke the impasse by saying bluntly that, with all due respect to the dignitaries present Ankara had no wish to share intelligence with either Iran or Syria.
Al Baz offered Mubarak the view that the Syrian president was prevailed upon to bring the foreign ministers together in Damascus as an urgent favor to Riyadh. But the event had shown the Syrian leader his own strength in the inter-Arab arena. Furthermore, according to the Egyptian president’s adviser, the Bush administration had more than one string to its Syrian bow. One was the threatening stance embodied in Mubarak’s mission to Damascus, but Assad had also received cheering signals that some mitigation of punishment was in the works.
As soon as he returned to his office in Cairo, Mubarak got in touch with US Vice President Richard Cheney with a full report on his conversation with Assad.
A few days later, Israel’s defense minister landed in Washington.