“If tomorrow Assad were to shut down Damascus international airport to planes flying al Qaeda operatives in from Iran, Saudi policy in the Gulf, Middle East and Indian subcontinent would fall flat.”
That was how a Middle Eastern intelligence source defined for DEBKA-Net-Weekly the key role Syrian president Bashar Assad now plays in the alliance Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Abdullah has been assembling and nurturing since last August. That alliance binds Damascus, Tehran and Baghdad, as well as Syria, the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah and the Palestinians, into an anti-American regional bloc (as first reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly No. 46 on January 25, 2002).
The same source added: “Imagine Assad telling the Iranians they must stop transferring arms and men to Hizballah through Damascus and must get out of the bases in the Lebanese Beqaa Valley, where they train Hizballah and al Qaeda fighters. What would happen? Tehran’s entire Middle East strategy would cave in.”
Not only Saudi Arabia and Iran, Iraq too would be in big trouble if the Syrian president halted the flow of illegal Iraqi oil exports through Syria’s Mediterranean ports or, still worse, closed those ports to the arms Iraq is buying on international markets. Saddam would then find himself ill prepared for the anticipated American military offensive against him.
Put more simply, if Assad kept the keys to Damascus international airport in his pocket and left them there, he could save US president George W. Bush from the most vexed headaches of his anti-terror campaign in the Middle East.
But, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s experts, the young Syrian president adores his linchpin role. In order to remain king of the mountain, he is even prepared to go along with his family’s oldest nemesis, Yasser Arafat. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who visited Damascus last week, was surprised by Assad’s cockiness and his flat refusal to work with Egypt and Jordan – and by implication with the United States — on the Palestinian issue. The Americans do not scare me, he reportedly boasted in anticipation of President Bush’s Middle East speech.
The Syrian president believes he has it made. Wooed by every Arab leader, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and ala Qaeda pour more than $1.2 billion a year into his coffers. As for US disapproval, he is confident that not all is lost. After all, he has a prize to dangle for Washington: Since Damascus airport became the main hub for peripatetic al Qaeda, the information his intelligence service can garner is unparalleled anywhere in the world.
Assad’s head is not completely in the air. He often seeks the advice of General Ali Aslan, an old crony of his father’s, the late president Hafez Assad, on matters of intelligence and terrorism.
This month, the general advised him to throw the Americans a bone of information on a terrorist plot to hit a US target in the Middle East. The target, which the Americans are keeping secret, was evacuated and an ambush set for the assailants, who were captured and are now being interrogated.
But the interrogation begun several days ago has raised a number of troubling questions. Were the attackers really al Qaeda fighters, or decoys lured by Syria to execute the hit in order to make the information Damascus laid before the Americans credible?
The exercise was a success for the Syrians, who gained points on the public opinion and diplomatic fronts. US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and assistant secretary of state William Burns had to acknowledge grudgingly that information from Damascus had saved American lives.
The Syrians then launched themselves into another such exercise. They claim to be holding the man who is believed to have recruited Mohammed Atta, one of the ringleaders of the September 11 attacks in the United States. He is Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a German of Syrian descent. Damascus claims his interrogation could finally lay bare the command structure behind the hijacking attacks. They even complain that the Americans are hindering the investigation and getting in the way of Syria’s secret services.
But the truth, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, is that the Syrians have not allowed Americans investigators direct access to Zammar. They only agreed to their officers putting to him questions provided by the Americans and jotting down the prisoner’s answers to hand back to them. So no American agent has seen the prisoner and no one has been able to establish his real identity or even confirm that the Syrians handed over the genuine questions and answers. There is another conundrum: Why is this particular al Qaeda operative in Syrian detention when hundreds more stroll the streets of Damascus at liberty?
The same doubts apply to Zammar’s role as Atta’s recruiter and his knowledge of the 9/11 conspiracy.
It was clear from the cold words President Bush addressed to Bashar Assad in his June 26 speech that Washington was not buying the Syrian ruses. He said bitingly that Assad had to decide once and for all whether he fought terror or supported it. First of all, he must shut down without delay all terrorist headquarters and offices based in Damascus and stop backing the Hizballah.
Suddenly, Bashar Assad found himself in the same frigid place as Yasser Arafat.
Sources in the Middle East, among them DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s experts, now believe a US assault on Syria may possibly come about before an offensive against Iraq. Assad may feel he is at the top of the Middle East heap, but an American attack can easily turn his position of strength round to become his greatest vulnerability. All Bush has to do is to shut down Damascus international airport to achieve immediate and excellent results for his Middle East military campaign against terror.