The DEBKA-Net-Weekly team marks the end of 2009 by choosing the Syrian President Bashar Assad as the Middle East winner.
He impressed the team by the way he has gone from strength to strength, propelled by sheer brass.
Assad managed to get away with recovering his godfather status in Lebanon, hobnobbing with Tehran and patronizing extremist and terrorist groups, while fostering illusions in the West that he is on the point of mending his ways and therefore worth their while to cultivate.
Week after week, in the last month or two, Assad has entertained a procession of European foreign ministers and US congressmen coming to thank him for not meddling in the Lebanese elections.
Had they bothered to check the intelligence reports on their desks, they would not have made the journey, because Assad shamelessly employed bribes and intimidation to secure the election of enough pro-Syrian lawmakers to keep Beirut in his pocket.
Furthermore, while welcoming US congressmen through the front portico of his palace, he let Iranian, Hizballah and Hamas officials quietly out through the back door, after they hatched plots for pulling the wool over the eyes of his Western visitors.
Assad reserves his red carpet for eminent Iranians, such as Saeed Jalili, Chairman of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, who arrived on Dec. 3 with a large delegation of Iranian nuclear experts.
Conniving to ease Iran's diplomatic woes
Hidden among them, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources reveal, was Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Chairman of Fedat – the Field for the Expansion of Deployment of Advance Technology, which Western intelligence identifies as the latest cover name for the organization running Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
A physics professor and ex-officer of the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps, Fakhrizadeh ought to have been barred from traveling out of the country by UN Security Council sanctions resolutions which also ordered his assets frozen. But Jalili had no difficulty in sneaking him out – any more than Assad had trouble welcoming him in Damascus.
They needed him to work out the strategy for countering the Obama administration's next campaign on the nuclear front, which hinges on exposing incriminating information about the unfinished Syrian plutonium reactor bombed by Israel in September 2007 and the clandestine nuclear partnership between Syria, Iran and North Korea.
Iran's defense minister Brig. Gen. Muhammad Vahidi landed in Damascus six days later.
He too headed a large delegation, this one made up of military and intelligence high-ups.
Friday, Dec. 11, after three days of haggling, in which President Assad took an active part, Vahidi and his Syrian opposite number, Lt. Gen. Ali Mohammed Habib, signed a treaty covering broad military cooperation “against the common enemy.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report that Iran undertook to supply or finance the purchase of weapons systems needed by the Syrian military for attacking Israel and for supporting its Iranian ally in the event of an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities.
Syria is the source of smuggling into Lebanon and Iraq
The red carpet did not end there.
The Syrian president gave the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah permission to send a delegation to Damascus, headed by its secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, to confer with the visiting Iranian defense minister on ways and means for Lebanon (and not just Hizballah) to assist Iran if attacked, by striking out against the US and Israel.
This conference took place Thursday, Dec. 10, exactly two days before Lebanese president Michel Suleiman flew to Washington to meet President Barack Obama.
When they met at the White House Monday, Dec. 14, the US president voiced his concern “about the extensive arms that are smuggled into Lebanon that potentially serve as a threat to Israel.” He went on to warn his Lebanese visitor: “It is in the interests I think of all parties concerned to make sure that enforcement is exerted with respect to such smuggling.”
Obama is fully aware that the two smugglers-in-chief are Syria and Iran. He also knows that there is nothing the Lebanese president can do to stop them. No one but President Assad can. But as recently as early November, the Syrian military completed the transfer of roughly one-third of the Syria's own missile armory (eight hundred surface-to-surface missiles of various types) to Hizballah, shifting the onus for attacking Israel in case of war from Damascus to the Lebanese terrorist organization.
The Lebanese president was not consulted by Damascus or the Hizballah on this handover, despite the danger it brings to his country. He therefore had no answer for his US host.
Updated on the moves taking place in Damascus, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, head of Israel's Military Intelligence, opened a lecture at the National Research Institute in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, December 15, with the dramatic words: “The place where we sit now is within direct range of three missile forces: Iran, Syria and the Hizballah.”
Homage from here, there and around the region
President Assad is just as oblivious to entreaties from Washington and Baghdad to stop the flow of al-Qaeda terrorists and Sunni insurgents into Iraq, where they continue to create bloody havoc.
Monday, December 14, Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, reported he had appealed to Damascus (for the umpteenth time) to control its border. While mentioning a drop in the rate of infiltrations, he noted it was not due to Syrian efforts but to al Qaeda's limitations.
Petraeus stressed that Damascus had arranged safe hideouts for members of the ousted Saddam Hussein regime, including Izzat al-Douri, former vice president of Saddam's revolutionary Baath council.
He had tried to encourage Syria to rein in the Iraqi Baath ahead of parliamentary elections in March, because the campaign of violence they have loosed aims to destabilize the government in Baghdad and regain power.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources report that none of Assad's disruptive actions has had the effect of delaying Obama administration preparations to post a US ambassador in Damascus for the first time in four years.
The candidates short-listed are Jacob Walles, former Consul-General in Jerusalem, and Nabil Khury, an American diplomat of Lebanese extraction.
Assad pulled off four additional diplomatic feats in 2009:
1. After he jumped into the saddle in Beirut, the international community forgot to remember the ongoing UN inquiry into the suspected role of high Syrian officials in the assassination of Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri, in February 2005.
The Syrian ruler believes he has escaped the dark cloud of suspicion hovering around his head over the murder which rocked the Middle East nearly five years ago. For insurance, he leaned hard on Saudi leaders to order Hariri's son, Lebanon's new prime minister Saad Hariri, to visit Damascus for the first time since his father's murder. Hariri's acceptance of the invitation was taken as a guarantee that the hatchet was buried and the Lebanese government in Assad's control.
The bitter murmuring in Christian-Lebanese circles this week that “the son has gone over to his father's murderer” received no play in the Middle East.
The only ruler immune to the Iranian nuclear threat
2. On October 7, Assad registered an even more momentous feat with the arrival in Damascus of another cowed adversary, Saudi King Abdullah, for a three-day royal visit.
After haughtily cold-shouldering the Syrian president for three years, the oil kingdom's ruler bowed to the realization that no headway in any Middle East business, including the Iran problem, is possible without Syria. Assad and his following can now bask in Riyadh's recognition of Damascus' primacy and the vindication of their policies.
3. The Syrian ruler also acquired the staunch friendship of his neighbor, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan, who arrives in Damascus Monday, December 22 for his third visit this year. The fact that Erdogan is leaning on Assad to demonstrate the justice of his new Middle East strategy is confirmation enough of Assad's rise in the region's stakes.
4. Whereas Tehran is in a wrestling match with six world powers over its uranium enrichment operations and the future of its nuclear program, Assad has eluded sanctions and international censure for his own nuclear breaches, even after International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors found in Syria traces of 90% enriched, military grade plutonium, which not even Iran possesses.
With both President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy working hard to coax him into dumping his pact with Iran and opting for detente with Washington and Paris, Bashar ends 2009 sitting pretty and holding all the strategic cards for staying on top.
While Israel and most Arab governments feel threatened by the looming Iranian nuclear threat, with no clear idea how to cope with it, the Syrian president alone is courted by Washington, Paris, Moscow, Ankara and Tehran, while Riyadh, Cairo and Jerusalem can only watch and gnash their teeth.