Saudi & Egyptian Rulers Shift Support to Syrian Opposition
By rejecting the UN commission’s request for an interview, Syrian president Bashar Assad this week became a disposable liability for the disenchanted Arab rulers who had tried hardest to throw him a lifeline.
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak presented him Sunday, Jan. 8, with a last-chance ultimatum to save himself from the consequences of defying the UN on Lebanon and the inquiry into the Rafiq Hariri assassination.
The matter was pressing enough for Saudi foreign minister Prince Saudi al Faisal to emplane for Damascus early Sunday after a crack-of-dawn conference with the king at 5.30 a.m. Jeddah time. The Saudi minister strode into the Syrian presidential palace with an order to Assad to present himself to the Saudi king forthwith before the onset of the annual hajj at noon.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf sources report the Syrian ruler arrived with one hour to spare. His conversation with the king was even less pleasant than the prince’s morning wake-up call. He was given a bald ultimatum: comply with three conditions or forfeit the solidarity of his Arab co-rulers in Riyadh and Cairo.
1. Give up evasive maneuvers and fully cooperate with the UN commission probing the assassination of Lebanese politician Rafiq Hariri last February.
(The UN commission condemned his rejection of this demand as disrupting the investigation.)
2. Arrest all suspects named by the UN team as accomplices in the crime.
3. Hands off Lebanon: desist from any political, diplomatic or military meddling in Lebanese affairs and withdraw sponsorship from Syrian proteges, whether politicians, parties, or organizations.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources say this stipulation was hard for Assad to swallow because it requires him to pull his patronage from his close ally, Lebanese president Emil Lahoud, with serious repercussions for his own standing at home.
The Saudi monarch made it clear that he and Mubarak were of one mind on this ultimatum. He told the Syrian ruler that the Egyptian president expected him in Sharm el-Sheikh at 4.00 p.m. sharp that same afternoon.
Before confronting Assad that day, Abdullah and Mubarak had laid some careful groundwork.
Haddam organizes Syrian government-in-exile
(As first reported by debkafile – see HOT POINTS-), they put their heads together on Tuesday, Jan. 3, then decided that after breaking all his promises to them, Assad was no longer worthy of their support. From now on, they would back the policies pursued by Washington and Paris on the Lebanese and Syrian questions and furthermore go along with the UN commission’s Hariri probe. But first, they resolved to apply a spot of shock treatment, in the hope that the knowledge his regime was under siege would scare Assad into finally coming round.
Mubarak accordingly flew to Paris Jan. 4, informed President Jacques Chirac of their decision and then called secretly on Syrian ex-vice president Khalim Haddam, the man who called Assad a traitor, at the Georges V Hotel. Haddam’s next visitor was Prince Bandar bin Sultan, supreme coordinator of Saudi intelligence agencies. These visits were intended to put Assad on notice that Riyadh and Cairo were now ranged alongisde Washington and Paris and against him. )
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Paris sources disclose that, encouraged by this supportiveness, Haddam went into action and opened immediate talks with overseas Syrian opposition groups on setting up a government-in-exile, based on a broad coalition of factions fully prepared to replace the Assad dynasty in Damascus.
All these movements were brought to Assad’s knowledge. On the short flight from Jeddah to the Sinai resort Sunday, he must have assessed the danger of Saudi Arabia and Egypt allowing Haddam and his opposition groups to come closer to home and fight his regime from their territory.
When he returned to Damascus from the two confrontations, Assad briefed his insider circle. They were astounded, never having believed that the Saudi and Egyptian rulers would go to such extremes against the president and his family. The only member of Syria’s ruling elite who was not shocked was Assad himself, he still seems to believe he can get away with murder.
Syrian information minister Mahdi Dakhallah, who Monday announced Damascus would reject any interview of the Syrian president Bashar Assad with the UN commission, announced Thursday night he had been misquoted and no final decision had been taken.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly notes that this is the latest twist in the Syrian position vis-a-vis the UN Hariri inquiry – but unlikely to be the last.