Sharon Strikes Blow for His Disengagement Plan in Damascus
Before deporting him to Lebanon in 1991, the late Yitzhak Rabin called Ezz-Eldin Sheikh al-Khalil “the snake’s head,” singling him out as the terror master who raised and handled Hamas’ most accomplished terror operatives, Adnan al Hool and Mohammed Deif. Yasser Arafat used to claim in the early days of the current Palestinian confrontation with Israel that it was not he who pulled the strings of terror but Sheikh al-Khalil from Jordan.
Until Sunday, September 25, few Israelis had heard of him as, lacking political ambitions, he kept to the shadows of anonymity and stealth. For two years, the snake’s head wielded authority as supreme commander of Hamas’s terrorist and suicide operations against Israel, outranked only by Khalid Mashal. Al Khalil preferred to issue his orders on the move rather than out of the Damascus command center, traveling around restlessly between Sanaa, Aden, Tehran Abu Dhabi and Khartoum, and occasionally Cairo. The intelligence for locating and waylaying this slippery target must therefore have been of superior quality. Al Khalil was tracked as he left his home in the largely Palestinian Zahraa district of Damascus by watchers who knew which of his three cars he would step into and the number of his mobile phone. By answering the phone when it rang, he gave the signal to detonate the explosives already planted in his car.
Syrian president Bashar Assad was left red-faced in more ways than one. According to official leaks in Damascus in the past week, he had expelled all Hamas commanders from his capital and closed their command centers and disconnected their telephones. So how come al-Khalil was caught outside his home in Damascus? And how was an alien entity able to operate under the noses of Syrian intelligence in a Syrian city where terrorists had always been safe?
Saturday September 25, a few hours before the assassination, debkafile‘s Washington sources report that a Pentagon official invited a group of Arab correspondents for a briefing. He advised not to swallow Syrian tales of talks in progress with the US administration and the Assad regime’s willingness to expel Hamas from Damascus and turn over a new leaf on its stance on terrorism in Iraq and Israel. These tales were unfounded, he stressed. The United States is standing by and waiting to see if Syria stands up to the test of deeds instead of words.
The short hours from the Pentagon briefing until Sunday morning served for the setting up of the first targeted assassination of a Palestinian terrorist leader in Damascus.
For Israel, the timing was apt, politically, operationally and strategically, considering its rationale.
The motivation behind al Khalil’s liquidation was related as much by the need to respond to new regional initiatives before they surfaced as to the stepped up Palestinian terrorism campaign. Two weeks ago, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon vowed to fight terrorists “wherever they are.” The strike in the Syrian capital carries two messages:
1. Sharon no longer confines himself to the Gaza Strip and West Bank in fighting to crush the escalating terror offensive launched against his disengagement plan. Henceforth, Arab capitals, and even Iran, where terrorist operations are orchestrated and funded and terrorists harbored, will be accessible. A wrenching struggle has begun between Sharon’s defense of his plan and the Palestinian determination to regain the whip hand in the conflict. Yasser Arafat and the Hamas have mustered every resource and ally to this effort.
Prime minister Sharon was also warning the spreading opposition at home that his plan will go through – if not by winning over national elected institutions, then by prevailing in the undercover test of strength between Israel intelligence and clandestine Palestinian, Arab and Islamic forces.
3. A demonstration that Syria is vulnerable to precision assault, whether as sponsor of terrorism against Israel or as a logistical base for Iraqi insurgency. Because the Israeli prime minister keeps his cards close to his chest very few Israelis outside his close circle know about the new Middle East moves afoot. To keep their minds distracted and the media occupied, his office produces a scarecrow a day: compensation programs for settlers, constant sniping from his party, purported threats on his life, interminable debates over whether or not his critics are guilty of incitement or merely exercising their right to free expression.
In the meantime, Sharon keeps one hand free for warding off the potentially detrimental initiatives floating around the region.
President Hosni Mubarak may sound as though he doing his best to further the Gaza Strip evacuation next year; in fact he is working hand in glove with Assad to promote the Syrian game plan secretly presented him in Damascus on September 15. Mubarak was there to petition the Syrian leader to support a 12-month Palestinian-Israel ceasefire which would apply to the Damascus- and Beirut-based Hamas, Jihad Islami and Popular Front. He was surprised to hear that Assad had a plan of his own. That was also the first time word of an Assad plan had reached Sharon.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly 174 disclosed its terms. Briefly, Assad agrees to foist a ceasefire on the terror groups under his protection in return for Cairo persuading the Americans to join Syria in negotiations on the future of the Golan Heights and invite the Syrian president to the White House upon their conclusion. Israel will be kept out of the deal until the signing stage. That way Assad seeks to outsmart Sharon’s refusal to negotiate and force him to cede the Golan as part and parcel of his plan to evacuate the Gaza Strip and its settlements.
Mubarak relayed Assad’s plan to Washington. US officials responded by setting the Syrian leader two urgent tests for him to pass before they address his plan: the cessation of Syria’s logistical backing for the Sunni guerilla war in Iraq and the removal of his grip on Lebanon. His performance is to be judged separately on both issues, each independent of the other.
Most immediately, Assad must make sure that his military cooperation with US commanders -for sealing the Syrian-Iraqi border against smuggled terrorist fighters, arms, explosives and money – is a success. If it works, it will contribute substantially to winding down the guerrilla war against the Americans and the Allawi government by gradually starving them of fighting strength, weapons, explosives and money.
A fresh American stick was also brandished over his head. US generals were disclosed by the latest Newsweek as working on plans for large-scale offensives against the Iraqi insurgents and also Syria.
The Israeli prime minister, believing his disengagement plan was the only game in town, was dismayed by the discovery of the Egyptian-Syrian ploy. He was faced with the prospect of a process conducted behind Israel’s back landing it in a situation whereby evacuation of the Gaza Strip would lead to a demand to add the Golan Heights to the deal. Sharon and his military strategists decided it was time to take the initiative and nip the process in the bud.
The assassination of Khalil in Damascus served warning to Mubarak and Assad that Israel did not see itself as a passive pushover in their schemes. It had a strong hand to play and had located itself at the center of the playing field.
The Palestinians are likewise shunning any passive role.
According to debkafile‘s sources, the Syrian leader offered to throw into his deal with Mubarak a promise to end the historic feud with Arafat in order to bring the Palestinian leader into the Cairo-Damascus fold.
However, Arafat is not about to wait around for Assad or Mubarak – and above all Sharon – to cast him into a part they have chosen for him. He has therefore resorted to his favorite weapon, ordering his people and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to go ahead right away with their projected military campaign to bloody Sharon’s unilateral disengagement. The last week or two has accordingly seen a surge in ambushes against IDF positions, precise mortar targeting of Gush Katif homes, suicide bombings on Jerusalem’s French Hill, and daily Qassam missile attacks on the towns of western Negev. And that is just the beginning. Palestinian warfare and terrorist attacks are on a rising spiral. Before Sharon’s arm reach into Damascus, Arafat had begun punishing the Jewish settlers of the Gaza Strip.