Alarm bells began ringing in Washington and Jerusalem over the information, first revealed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly, that Syrian President Bashar Assad will be on a secret trip to Tehran next week, shortly after the onset of Israeli-Palestinian talks in Washington. It will be followed by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's two-day state visit to Beirut on Sept. 10 during the Jewish New Year holiday.
Obama administration and Israeli officials were wondering what business was so urgent for the Syrian ruler that his talks with top Iranian leaders in Tehran had to take place right after Ramadan and could not wait another week.
It is suspected that Damascus and Tehran are on the verge of actions momentous enough to require supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's ultimate say-so.
One would be a timeline for embarking on the next Middle East war. In this regard, American and Israeli sources cite the visit to Damascus on Aug. 20-21 paid by Revolutionary Guards commander Ali Jafari, who rarely leaves home soil.
Soon after his departure, Syria and Hizballah signed a military cooperation pact (details of which are disclosed exclusively in the opening item of this issue.)
In informal contacts this week, Syrian intelligence informants tried selling the Americans the proposition that the new pact, actually distanced Hizballah from Iran because by deepening his mutual military ties with Damascus, its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, made himself more independent of Tehran than ever before.
This argument was dismissed by our intelligence and Iranian sources, who strongly doubt that Nasrallah is capable of acting independently of Iran.
The Assad-Nasrallah scheme for a new Iraqi government
Another urgent piece of business on the Syrian president's plate might well be the fast-moving crisis in Baghdad in which the hands of Damascus and Hizballah are actively meddling.
How did this come about?
On Wednesday, Sept. 1, US Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen presided over a military ceremony in Baghdad marking the end of America's combat involvement in the war.
It was hard to tell what they were thinking when the military band struck up with the American national anthem as a sign of farewell after seven years of harsh warfare and 4,000 US military dead.
Did they appreciate exactly what they were leaving behind in Iraq? Or what would become of the 50,000 troops remaining there until the end of 2011?
For they must have known that the situation in Baghdad was slipping out of US control and looked like being determined in the days – and possibly months – to come by two non-Americans, whose names had never cropped up in the seven years of hostilities.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Baghdad sources name the two individuals as Brig. Gen. Mohammed Nassif, special adviser to the Syrian president, and Hizballah's secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah.
Maliki is reinstated with the backing of radical Sadr
Our sources report that Americans and Saudis alike were astounded to discover earlier this week that Assad and Nasrallah had seized the moment and sprung on them a nasty surprise. They had fashioned an Iraqi government, which had been stalled for six months, with the outgoing Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in the saddle – for the time being at least. (This is necessary qualifier for any political moves in Iraq.)
The gambit was orchestrated from start to finish by the Syrian Brig. Gen. Nassif.
He persuaded Maliki to reach out to the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, his most bitter rival of many years, and invite him to join a coalition government.
As a Syrian military intelligence veteran, Nassif knew that many members of Sadr's militia had received their first training in guerilla warfare from Hizballah's chief of security, the late Imad Moughniyeh.
(In September 2003, DEBKA-Net-Weekly began exclusively tracking Moughniyeh's arrival in Iraq and his organization of Sadr's military and intelligence networks in the South Iraqi towns of Nasseriya, Najaf, Karbala and Baghdad. In May 2004, our sources reported Moughniyeh's departure from Iraq.)
The Syrian general accordingly asked Nasrallah to use his undercover connections with Sadr and urge him to accept Maliki's offer.
At the end of last week, the initiative paid off. Maliki and Sadr came to terms on a new Iraqi government and the distribution of government portfolios. The 40 seats Sadr's Free Shiite Independents won in the new Iraqi parliament bulked out Maliki's State of Law Party 89 mandates (which came in second in the Iraqi election). Together they command a majority.
Assad uses a shady spook, lawless terrorists, Shiite radical to scuttle US-Saudi scheme
This Syrian-Hizballah coup in Baghdad was found to have derailed the overall plan charted by the Obama administration and the Saudi King Abdullah to lure Assad over to their side in the Middle East balance of power against the radical-terrorist camp in Iraq, after collapsing in Lebanon.
(DEBKA-Net-Weekly covered this plan and its demise from Issue 455 of July 30: New US-Saudi Strategy for the Middle East: Assad Offered High Status in Beirut and Baghdad for Dumping Tehran and Hizballah)
What happened was that the Syrian president, instead of fitting in with the US-Saudi scheme, turned the tables on them with the help of Hizballah and Muqtada Sadr.
For Washington, the success of Assad's move – however transient – would be a nightmare.
Biden, Gates and Mullen sat there wooden-faced as a shady Syrian spook, repository of some of the region's most unsavory secrets, together with the notoriously warlike Lebanese Hizballah, listed universally as lawless terrorists, managed to overturn American hopes for Iraq and plant the flag of extremism and instability in Baghdad.
For Riyadh it was a dream turned ominous:
After sinking a billion dollars in the Iraqi election to rid Baghdad of a Shiite-dominated regime, the Saudis find their next-door neighbor ruled by Shiite extremists, Riyadh's influence ousted by an open door to Tehran.
To be sure of pulling off his scheme for Iraq, Assad needs to have Iran behind him all the way. In the view of some Middle East sources, it was this errand that may have caused him to hurry over to Tehran next week.
However, as every regional politician knows, Iraq being Iraq, no one can afford to count their chickens in Baghdad before they are fully hatched.