No to US Pullout from Iraq. Yes to Detente with Syria – but not Iran. Yes, to Israeli Concessions

Former US secretary of state James Baker and ex-congressman Lee Hamilton have two writers, one each, working on the final drafts of their long-awaited recommendations on the Iraq crisis.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources reveal their identities as former US ambassador to Syria Edward Djerejian, who runs the Baker Institute in Houston, Texas, and Michael Van Dusen, Deputy Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Though representing the bipartisan nature of the study group, the two share a common expertise. Both are Syria connoisseurs. Djerejian and Van Dusen therefore talk the same language; they can swap their versions of the drafts, make mutual adjustments and, when they disagree on a point, bring it before the Baker-Hamilton duo for arbitration.

The group’s deadline for final presentation to Congress is December 10.

The first draft was read by the President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and top White House advisers, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser Stephen Hadley and two deputies, J.D. Crouch and Elliott Abrams.

The president was not impressed.

When Bush assembled his top political and military advisers at the White House on Nov. 13, Bush, Cheney and several others voiced disappointment at not finding a single new thought or idea which had not been hashed over in their internal discussions on the next directions of the Iraq war. The President did not say much, but he let it be understood that he intends to treat the Baker-Hamilton findings as a domestic political document rather than a set of proposals for practical implementation.


Two extra divisions – or more – for Iraq


Influenced by Bush’s response, the two task group leaders and their writers appear to have made an effort to inject into their final work content with international not to say practical Middle East applications.

Nowhere in the report, therefore, is a recommendation to gradually withdraw US forces from Iraq. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, the group in its latest discussions moved close to adopting Senator John McCain’s proposal to beef up the US army with a National Guard Division of some 20,000 men, which the administration has already decided to accept. (See last week’s DEBKA-Net-Weekly 278).

The group will propose sending another two full divisions, if not more, to Iraq.

The Baker-Hamilton commission is also engaged in a final examination of the proposals made by Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) to divide Iraq into three sectors between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Security will be relegated to the local military forces. The tendency in the group is to reject this idea.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly can disclose here the draft recommendations most likely to survive into the final document:

1. The Nouri al-Maliki government, labeled a failed force, should be replaced. How Washington should achieve this and obtain the requisite parliamentary approval is not defined.

At the same time, Bush’s summit meetings next week in Amman with Arab leaders and Vice President Dick Cheney’s mission to Saudi Arabia appear to bypass the report and respond to the far speedier Middle East tempo and the spiraling figures of the butchery in Iraq. A Bush interview with al-Maliki is therefore of prime importance.

To put it in perspective, Stephen Hadley told reporters Tuesday Nov. 21 not to expect “a big, bold announcement.” He said the meeting will allow a joint commission examining how to speed up the transition from coalition to Iraqi security forces to report to Bush and al Maliki.

“It will also be an opportunity for the president and the prime minister to review the situation in Iraq more generally and talk about the way forward in order to accomplish… a move toward our objectives in an expeditious way.”


Will Gemayel’s murder affect the decision to court Syria?


The security adviser’s explanation for the encounter does not account for the fact that Bush and the Iraqi prime minister last met on July 25 and have held two videoconference conversations since then.

2. Washington is urged to resume diplomatic relations with Syria and pick a prominent, influential Washington figure as ambassador.

Once again, after the assassination on Tuesday, Nov. 212, of the Lebanese minister Pierre Gemayel, the US president sounded as though he was out of step with the Baker-Hamilton report.

He said: “We support the Siniora government and its democracy, and we support the Lebanese people’s efforts to defend their democracy against attempts by Syria, Iran and their allies to foment instability and violence in that important country.”

It is by no means certain that, after the Gemayel assassination and the president’s statement, the Iraqi Study Group will stick to its recommendation of a detente with Damascus. Most DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources believe that it will. Van Dusen and Djerejian believe staunchly that Syria is the key to a solution in Iraq and the Asad regime can only be persuaded to abandon its support for Sunni insurgents and terrorists by direct dialogue.

3. The group takes the opposite line on Iran, contrary to widely published purported leaks from its work. The Bush administration is urged to set aside any hope of UN Security Council sanctions to punish Tehran for its defiance on uranium enrichment. Instead it must push harder on the undercover sanctions already underway against Iran’s economy, financial system, industry and banking. Washington is urged to exercise all its leverage on its allies – economic, military and industrial – to impose a total economic embargo against Iran that will destabilize parts of its national economy and force it into stagnation.


Iran‘s Achilles heel: insufficient oil refining capacity


The most fruitful course indicated is to hit the Islamic Republic oil industry in its Achilles heel, its limited capacity for refining oil and processing its by-products.

Iran is forced to cover 50% of its domestic needs by imports, on which its armed forces and Revolutionary Guards, the backbone of the Islamic government, are dependent. Even a partial stoppage would cause the Iranian economy grave damage.

4. The Baker-Hamilton group recommends an international conference on Iraq attended by leaders from Europe, Russia, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and the main Muslim nations.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources report that this conference would spend more time on the Palestinian-Israeli issue than on Iraq. The group’s leaders claim that this is a sine qua non for the Arab leaders. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab participants will demand “progress on the Israel-Palestinian track” before letting the conference get down to brass tacks on Iraq.

To lay the groundwork for the conference, therefore, Washington will have to give the international community free rein to squeeze Israel for far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians (and also Syria). This would require a diametric reversal of George Bush’s previous warm attitude towards “our friend and ally” Israel, possibly even a reversion to the iciness displayed towards the Shamir government in the early 1990s by his father, whom James Baker served as secretary of state.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington informants disclose that another figure from the past has moved onto center-stage. He is Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George Bush Sr (and mentioned in two other articles in this issue), who wields strong influence over the compilers of the final version of the Iraqi report.

His mindset was revealed in an interview he gave the Turkish Daily News of Nov. 9, 2006 when he visited Ankara as chairman of the American-Turkish Friendship League.

Question: You were opposed to the invasion of Iraq. Do you feel vindicated now that we see chaos there? How do you see the situation as it is today and what do you see for the future?


Scowcroft: Israel is in bad shape right now


Scowcroft: No, I don’t have any feeling of satisfaction. Regardless of how we got there, we are there, and it is a difficult situation. Far more difficult than the administration expected. And it will be increasingly hard to stay in because it has become an unusually important issue in domestic US politics.

But I think we have to stay and try and manage the situation to get some kind of a resolution where we can have an Iraq that is relatively stable.

Our sources reveal that this sentiment is incorporated in the final recommendations of the Iraq Study Group.

Scowcroft went on to say: “I think we need to embed Iraq in a larger regional solution, and that to me goes back to the Palestinian issue. I think this would put us back on the offensive psychologically and even make Iraq easier to manage.

He then linked this viewpoint to the notion of an international conference, saying: “But I don’t think this will start with some kind of a conference because everyone will come with their preset speeches and everything will freeze again. But I think that there will be some quiet consultations in the region. I believe the Arab states in the region are eager for such a conversation. Israel may not be eager, but Israel is in bad shape right now.”

Scowcroft was therefore the first American strategic thinker willing to say out loud what DEBKA-Net-Weekly has been reporting since early August, that George Bush and his key advisers have diagnosed Israel as being “in bad shape right now.”

Never considered a friend of Israel, Scowcroft’s attitude fits well into the main thrust of the Baker-Hamilton report.

This thrust has not been lost on some of Washington’s most influential figures. Both Baker and Hamilton received messages this week from Senator John McCain, a leading candidate for chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Lantos of California and the Democratic Senator David Obey from Wisconsin.

The main burden of those messages was that if the Iraqi Study Group takes its anti-Israel line too far, it will not win bipartisan endorsement.

5. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources report that the United States has been holding quiet talks with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, without Israel’s knowledge, on ways for the Palestinians to be integrated in the Bush administration’s revised Middle East strategy.

These talks tie in with the trip hardline Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal finally made to Cairo this week, which Abbas and Egyptian officials hope will clear the way for the creation of a Palestinian unity government and the end of the Western embargo.

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