Following the anti-American trail blazed by his late father, Hafez Assad, Syrian president Bashar Assad administered to US secretary of state Colin Powell the most stinging snub he received from an Arab leader during his ten days in the Middle East. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, professing to be indisposed two hours before Powell was due to land in Cairo, used a standard diplomatic practice for his brush-off.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Beirut report that Assad kept Powell on tenterhooks until his plane actually touched down in Damascus – before agreeing to receive his American visitor at the presidential palace.
US officials and Arab officials who asked Assad to receive Powell, report he was livid with rage over the explosion – in which he believes the US had a hand – at Syria’s underground facility for the manufacture of Scud missiles, liquid and solid rocket engine fuel and chemical warheads, near the northern town of Homs. The factory was attacked on March 24 by a mysterious commando unit that vanished without a trace after its work was done.
(Read full story in the Hot Points section of DEBKA-Net-Weekly Issue 56, April 12).
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources say the Syrians suspect the facility was destroyed after the United States or Israel discovered that some of its “products” were being transferred to the Iraqi army or kept in storage for Baghdad, under a secret pact between Assad and Saddam Hussein. Syria appears to have become Iraq’s principal supplier of Scud missiles and rocket fuel. The Syrian president is convinced that Israel, the United States or even Britain, are determined separately or jointly to put an end to the Iraqi-Syrian strategic partnership.
So it came as no surprise when, one by one, Assad rebuffed all of his American visitor’s demands, which were:
A. To order Hizballah to stop its cross-border missile attacks from Lebanon into Israel.
B. To rescind his permission to the Lebanese Shiite Group to fire into the Israeli-held Golan Heights.
C. To stop the Iranian airlift of weapons and military equipment to Hizballah.
D. To ban the passage of al Qaeda terrorists in the Middle East and Gulf through Damascus international airport as a transit point to Lebanon and Mediterranean countries.
E. To stop supporting hard-line Palestinian terrorist organizations, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command led by Ahmed Jibril.
However, Powell’s most insistent demand was for Assad to close Syrian seaports to ships carrying missiles, missile parts and components for tanks and planes destined for Iraq. Assad rejected that demand outright too.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources say that Powell ended the interview with an American ultimatum: If Assad did nothing and Hizbollah fire on Israel persisted, the United States would not lift a finger to stop Israel from striking at Syrian military locations in Lebanon and Syria proper.