American policy-makers led by US Vice President Dick Cheney and CIA director George Tenet are bitterly disappointed in Bashar Assad. As a young leader, he was considered inexperienced, indecisive and malleable. Instead he has turned out to be so radical as to turn their plans, and the Middle East internal balance, upside down.
They also feel cheated. A few months before the death of his father Hafez in June 2000, the US promised to lend its weight in placing young Bashar in the president’s palace in return for the dying president’s pledge that the young ruler would enter peace negotiations with Israel. The Americans went so far as to send to Damascus a team of political and intelligence experts to tutor the young ruler in inter-Arab and international politics. In January, the team found itself cold-shouldered and replaced by other advisers. By March they were unemployed and found themselves displaced, after a series of power struggles in the presidential palace, by the Syrian chief of staff, General Aly Aslan, who is today, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources, the man closest to Bashar’s ear.
Aslan’s history is interesting. His standing as closest confidant to the late Hafez Assad dated back to the time when they served together in the Syrian air force. When Hafez became president, he named Aslan head of air force intelligence and commander of the special air force unit entrusted with special operations in the country and abroad for protecting the Assad regime. He was also Assad senior’s finger in the international terrorist pie of the seventies and eighties. That role earned Syria rogue status in Washington.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Syrian sources, General Aslan came forward in January with a long-term plan for buttressing Bashar Assad’s regime, fortifying Syria’s presence in Lebanon and solidifying Assad as a power in the Arab arena.
To reach the top of the Arab tree, the general advised him to jump aboard the radical Arab train and pull away from moderate Egypt and Jordan who signed peace with Israel. Aslan urged Bashar to adopt an independent, belligerent stance, even at the risk of a limited military clash with Israel, as his rite of passage to the standing of pan-Arab leader. He reminded Bashar that his father had attained eminence as a senior Arab statesman only by lining up in the Cold War with Moscow rather than Washington, thus preserving at all times his leeway for maneuver and bargaining.
Young Assad’s first step must therefore be to forge a strategic cooperation pact with the Lebanese Hizballah militant guerrilla group as the road to instant support from Tehran. His next step must be to resuscitate the old Eastern Front of anti- peace Arab states, including Iraq. This would bring the Saudis running to offset Iranian and Iraqi influence in Damascus.
Once he had gained Baghdad’s military and diplomatic backing and the Hizballah on his side to secure his hold on the Lebanese government, he could start maneuvering his way upward.
The young Syrian president followed Aslan’s blueprint and it has brought him dramatic rewards. Bashar became the Hizballah’s most important ally and armorer, selling the Shia group hundreds of long-range rocket launchers, guns and mortars and enabling them to deploy a dense military and artillery curtain the full length of the Lebanese-Israel frontier, from the Mediterranean in the west to Mt. Hermon in the northeast. They have acquired the capability to pose a painful threat to all of northern Israel, from the safety of promised Syrian air cover.
This boost forces Israel to divert armored divisions to its northern frontier and depletes its strength against Palestinians attacks in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Jordan Rift Valley.
Syrian army intelligence has also placed at the Hizballah’s disposal undercover Syrian “Baath” party cells in the West Bank. They open the door of the Palestinian Authority to terrorist cells, as a forward springboard for strikes in Israel.
While building up the Hizballah, Assad cultivated his ties with Baghdad. Aslan was the secret go-between for a series of military and economic accords, under which Syria and Iraq reciprocate in opening up their land and air space in order to extend one another’s strategic depth. Assad agreed to six Iraqi armored divisions being deployed just inside the Iraqi side of their frontier, mostly concentrated at the meeting of Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian frontiers. The commands of Iraqi and Syrian armored divisions, air force and air defenses carried out joint maneuvers. Iraqi intelligence and air defense commands liaison officers have established a presence in Damascus.
Assad has also gained financially by permitting Iraq to move its oil to market through the newly reopened Iraqi-Syrian oil pipeline to the Mediterranean and giving Saddam the means for smuggling oil out in breach of UN sanctions by re-opening the Baghdad-Mosul-Aleppo railroad. From Aleppo, Syrian pipelines carry the contraband oil to the Syrian port of Latakia. Assad also left US secretary of state Colin Powell without a definite answer when he demanded that Syria discontinue its cooperation with Baghdad – or at least stop helping Saddam smuggle out Iraqi oil. Assad agreed to this last request, but without a timetable to halt the flow, which is now up to 250,000 barrels of crude a day.
Wednesday, March 14, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdulllah II, visited Assad in Damascus in the hope of toning down his extremist stance and averting a rupture in the Arab world. Their pleas fell on deaf ears and, as the Arab summit approaches, the young, untried tyro in Damascus is managing to hold all the seasoned veterans in suspense.
Will he or will he not go all the way and sign a military and diplomatic pact with Yasser Arafat? His commitment would lend substance to the anti-peace, extremist Arab front and elevate the Baghdad-Hizballah-Gaza axis to a formidable bloc, in a position to steer the Arab rulers into radicalizing the next chapter of the Middle East conflict.