Syria Calls up Reserves, Fears US-Israeli Military Pincer
Monday, October 13, the New York Times revealed that the first Israeli air raid inside Syria in three decades had altered “a crucial convention of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” The raid took place Sunday October 5 over Ain Sahab, 15 km northeast of Damascus, the day after a savage Palestinian suicide attack in Haifa claimed 20 Israeli lives. The paper quotes western diplomats and Arab analysts as predicting that “the Sharon administration now plans to treat the Syrian regime in Damascus much as it has treated the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat: subjected to military attack, “… cut off and ultimately isolated.”
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According to one Damascus source, Syria is meeting this threat by secretly calling up 300,000 reservists to beef up its standing army of roughly the same number. This figure, in the view of debkafile‘s military sources, is implausibly high. A large call-up was certainly staged after the Israeli raid. But in Syrian terms, 50,000 men would be the more realistic figure, plus standby orders to tens of thousands more.
In general, the attempt to depict Syria as another of Ariel Sharon’s victims fails to take account of the “victim’s” proactive role in the Iraq war in support of Saddam Hussein. It ranges from the asylum granted Iraqi political and military elite to the smuggling of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction out of the country several weeks before the war in March and after it began. In between, Bashar Assad has deployed thousands of Syrian combatants in Iraq as well as Hizballah, Palestinians and any other Arabs willing to fight American troops in Iraq.
debkafile‘s military sources report that by now Syrian combatants often outnumber Iraqi guerrillas in such embattled towns as Baghdad, Balad, Falluja, Ramadi, Baquba and the environs of the northern town of Mosul.
Until recently, Syria could bank on immunity from American military retribution, mainly because the Bush administration was reluctant to apply force against a second problematic Arab country after Iraq. In mid-April, George W. Bush actually called off an American military operation against Syrian military targets when US special forces were already poised ready for action across the Iraqi-Syrian border. Instead, he dispatched secretary of state Colin Powell to Damascus with a 10-point ultimatum. President Assad half-heartedly complied with only a small part. The US secretary declared at the time he would never forget how the Syrian president lied to him when he promised in mid-2002 to halt the flow of illegal Iraqi oil exports through Syrian ports. Nonetheless, Washington continued to engage the Syrian government in quiet diplomacy and oral rebukes.
Getting away with flouting Washington’s key demands encouraged the Syrians to believe they could keep going – even when the White House lifted its objections to sanctions under Syrian Accountability act legislation currently before Congress.
Damascus was only persuaded that the rules had changed by the Israeli air raid against a Palestinian site inside Syria, which the Assad regime believes could never have taken place without Washington’s consent. The Assad regime took it as a last American warning through a third party and the potential precursor of a two-pronged military threat posed turn, turnabout, by the Americans and the Israelis.
The Bush administration began to lose patience with Syria last month when US special forces -operating in the Sunni Triangle of central Iraq and among the Iraqi-Syrian tribes facilitating the smuggling of men and arms through the al Qaim border district – discovered vast sums of cash being pumped from Syrian banks to the anti-American guerrilla forces killing American troops day after day. This was followed by the uncovering of the “Syrian spy ring” at Guantanamo Bay. Caught wrong-footed, Damascus responded with its routine fulsome promises and half- if not quarter-measures.
As DEBKA-Net-Weekly revealed in issue 127 on September 26, high sources at the Radwa presidential palace were on the telephone to the White House with magnanimous offers of assistance for American efforts in the Middle East, especially Iraq. The offers came in two forms:
A. The disclosure of $700 million of Saddam Hussein’s money on deposit in banks in Damascus and Aleppo – mostly Aleppo. (Until now, Damascus flatly denied Aleppo banks were being used by the deposed Iraq president and his supporters as their main conduit for bankrolling the Iraqi guerrilla campaign against US forces.) The Syrians were willing to transfer Saddam’s hidden stash to Baghdad for the use of the Iraqi Governing Council – a policy about-turn of 180 degrees. It meant that Damascus was offering to be the first Arab government to recognize the American occupation of Iraq and the US-appointed provisional government.
B. Syrian special security and military intelligence teams to operate alongside US forces in northern and central Iraq on two missions: 1. Aid in sealing the Iraqi-Syrian border against the passage of Islamic guerrilla fighters into Iraq. (Until now, the Syrians pretended to have deployed three brigades of special forces for this purpose but in reality ordered them to facilitate the transit in collaboration with the Syrian-Iraqi tribes of the border regions) 2. Positioning in the central Sunni Triangle to assist American forces in their hunt for Saddam Hussein.
On the face of it, this offer is astonishingly forthcoming. No other Middle East or Muslim party has so far offered to help nail Saddam – excepting Turkey, and then only recently. Yet, according to our sources in Washington, the White House gave it a cool reception, curtly promising to respond after due consideration.
Damascus believes the Israeli air raid was the first half of the American response while the other half came in the form of Washington-sourced media reports alleging that Saddam’s deposits in Syrian banks were closer to $3 bn than $700 million. Those reports are taken to indicate that the Americans are onto the Syrian game of concealing the full scope of Saddam’s fortune – either for safekeeping in case the deposed Iraqi ruler ever returns or for themselves as a parting “bonus” for the services they rendered him.
But beyond the disposition of funds and despite Syria’s bountiful offers, Washington strongly suspects Assad means to continue his double game which consists of a paltry measure of cooperation with US forces in Iraq coupled with all-out collaboration with Saddam’s loyalist forces.
For Bashar Assad’s latest proposals to win serious attention in Washington and military restraint on the part of Israel, Damascus would have to come through on six principal issues:
1. To deliver the Syrian intelligence controller running the “Syrian spy ring” at Guantanamo Bay led by army chaplain Capt. James Yousef Yee and air force translator Ahmad Al-Halabi.
2. To round up all the suspects in this affair and produce them for unrestricted interrogation by US investigators.
3. To name the end-recipient of the intelligence stolen by members of the spy ring, whether Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda or any other foreign intelligence services. Washington will not be fobbed off with anything short of Syria coming completely clean on this.
4. A commitment to stop harboring al Qaeda and other Islamic and Arab terrorist organizations.
5. A promise to cut off aid to Saddam Hussein’s supporters in all its forms – combatants, weapons and funds.
6. To level with the United States on the quantities and hiding places of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction which Syrian military engineering units transported through Syria between January 10 and March 10.
Since the likelihood of the Bashar government ever coming through on any of these points is nil, the frictions between Washington and Damascus are expected to be long-lived and the border tensions between Jerusalem and Damascus unabated.