In last-minute breaking news from Washington, last week's DEBKA-Net-Weekly 464 disclosed that instead of traveling to Beirut Thursday, October 7, US diplomat Frederic Hof had been abruptly reassigned to Damascus. He arrived that night with strict instructions from President Barack Obama to stay put and make sure President Bashar Assad understood the gravity of the warning he was ordered to convey, namely that the US President would hold him personally responsible if Hizballah were permitted to pursue violence against the state of Lebanon with Iranian or Syrian endorsement and accountable for the consequent impact on relations between the two governments.
Wednesday, Oct. 13, our sources report, Fred Hof was still cooling his heels in Damascus.
The situation is somewhat bizarre.
Damascus is not a city where a foreign official can relax and move about freely or go to public places, including restaurants, without a heavy security escort. This is especially so since the mysterious murder just two months ago of Gen. Yuri Ivanov, deputy head of GRU, the Russian military's overseas intelligence arm (first reported by debkafile's intelligence sources).
Iran's Ministry of Intelligence – MOIS – is still casting about in Damascus for a high-profile Western target in order to settle accounts for the attempted assassination of Saeed Jalili, Chairman of Iran's National Security Council when he visited Damascus last November. This is hardly the right milieu for one of the Obama administration's most senior diplomats in the Middle East like Hof to relax his guard for a moment.
Hof fails to have Ahmadinejad's Lebanon visit called off – or even toned down
Many other menaces lurk in the murky shadows of this city, including assorted al Qaeda networks, some of whom cooperate with Syrian military intelligence, while other fight this branch of the Assad regime from hideouts inside Palestinian refugee camps. Their enclaves are tightly enclosed inside an iron ring of checkpoints and Syrian security guards.
Then, too, Syria also plays host to violent Iraqi Baath Party groups and ex-officers of the Saddam regime who have sworn to avenge their downfall on any American official coming their way.
Amid these perils, Fredric Hof has been forced to do what he can from the safe fastness of the US embassy compound, emerging only for well-guarded secret appointments with Syrian officials.
It is therefore not surprising that he has achieved very little.
One part of his mission was to prevent or at least postpone Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's visit to Lebanon. That was a non-starter. The Iranian president landed in Beirut Wednesday, Oct. 13 and drove straight to the presidential palace at Baabde.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources report that Hof got nowhere when he asked the Syrian officials for Damascus to use its influence with Hizballah to tone down its extravagant public praise for the visitor.
Instead, the US official had to listen to Hizballah Deputy Secretary-General Sheikh Naim Qassem declaring eagerly in Beirut Monday, October 11: "President Ahmedinejad's visit is a total success even before it started. So just imagine how much more much more successful it will be when it takes place."
That was not the end of the Hof's frustrations.
Assad's no to Washington is doubly underlined
The next day, Tuesday, Oct. 12, President Assad used the news conference he held with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyep Recep Erdogan who had dropped in on him for a few hours, for a cold shower on the Hof mission. (See previous article on this visit).
It came in the form of a brief guide to the situation in Lebanon as seen through the eyes of the Syrian president.
"There are divisions in Lebanon which are not new," Assad pointed out. "This has been Lebanon's history for centuries rather than decades. There are a lot of divisions which affect Lebanon's relations with others, in particular with Syria as the only country neighboring Lebanon, given that Israel is an enemy state."
He went on to say: "Let's be clear on this point. We always encourage the Lebanese to be undivided so that relations improve… This relationship is improving right now, but not enough to return to normal relations."
The Syrian president noted that good relations were contingent on no country "conspiring" against the other.
With these remarks, Assad flatly rejected the warning Fred Hof brought him from President Obama – that he would be held responsible for any Hizballah violence in Beirut – by contending that Syria had no influence over anything Hizballah may decide with regard to seizing power in Lebanon.
He argued that Hizballah's actions are not actuated by Damascus, which has only Lebanon's best interests at heart, but by internal and religious disputes of many years' standing.
Anyway, Assad pointed out, why come to us in Damascus when we too are targeted for conspiracies by certain elements in Lebanon?
The US diplomat was left with the certainty that the Syrian president had no intention of making any effort to curb Iranian influence in Lebanon or change Hizballah's plans.
Saudis disenchanted, Iraq up for grabs
This impasse confronts the Obama administration with two serious dilemmas – over and above the perils of internal conflict in Lebanon and a conflagration between Israel and Hizballah:
1. The Saudi royal family treated this week's events in Lebanon as a supreme test of the Obama administration's ability to halt Shiite Iran's march on the Middle East – and found it wanting. For Riyadh, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Persian Gulf sources report, this is a fundamental do-or-die matter. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal made this abundantly clear in his gloomy comments to the Arab League ministerial session in Libya Saturday, Oct. 9:
"We see it [the Arab situation in the Middle East] as stemming from a sense of erosion in the regional role of the Arab system, in its environment and center, compared to the ascending role of some other countries, not to mention continued Israeli defiance…
"This is the correct interpretation; the Arab role has eroded, not only because we are faced with Israel, but also with Iran."
According to our sources, Saudi rulers view America's failure to assert its will in Damascus and Beirut as opening the door to more insufferable developments such as Iraq's ruling regime falling into Tehran's clutches.
2. Hof also tackled the Syrian ruler on the Iraqi issue with as little success as with Lebanon. Our sources report Assad was willing to appease the Obama administration only as far as reinstating Iraq's ambassador to Syria, Ala Hussein al-Jawadi, this week, filling the gap left by the collapse of full diplomatic relations over a year ago. But he cynically welcomed Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki Wednesday, the day Ahmadinejad arrived in Beirut, when he came cap in hand to beg for Tehran's support through its senior ally.
For now, it appears that neither the US nor Iran holds the balance of power in Baghdad.
It is up to the Kurds to decide whether Al-Maliki remains prime minister or makes way for his rival Iyad Alawi. They will certainly not be willing to heed either Ankara or Damascus on this, especially after Erdogan and Assad agreed to join forces to battle the Turkish PKK separatists and the Syrian Kurds sustaining them.
The US emissary therefore has nothing worth his while to stay for in Damascus and can be expected to leave shortly.