Syria Woos Israel with Peace Serenade to Avoid Disarming Hizballah

Syrian ruler Bashar Assad is pitching his offer of peace talks with Israel to disguise his real woes: US and French demands to disarm the Hizballah terrorists and let Lebanon have a fair election and the internal divisions bedeviling his regime. The Bush administration and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon are not fooled. On November 12, Assad made the unusual gesture of taking UN Middle East Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen aside in a quiet corner of his palace in Damascus for a long tete-a-tete. Aides – even an interpreter – were left standing outside the door. When he came out three hours later, the UN official announced with the same sort of enthusiasm he used to show about Yasser Arafat’s peaceful intentions that Assad is ready to start negotiations with Israel at once without prior conditions and even pay a visit to Jerusalem.
Washington sources assured debkafile that his words bore no relation to his conversation with the Syrian president. Larsen’s mission was not to discuss Syrian-Israel relations but rather to deliver a two-point ultimatum from Washington:
1. Damascus’s statement on Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon is not good enough. It meets only one half of UN Security Council resolution 1559. The other half requires Syria and Lebanon to disarm the Hizballah terrorist group by April 2005, just under five months away.
2. Lebanon’s March 21 general election must be fair and above board. All of Assad’s goodwill gestures will count for naught if Syrian military intelligence and the Lebanese security service customize the list of candidates and tinker with the voting process. Larsen stressed to the Syrian ruler the importance Washington attaches to a fair and honest election in Lebanon – so much so that if Assad monkeys with the process, the United States is prepared to seek Security Council sanctions.
Assad was very grateful for the way Larsen highlighted the Israeli issue as a red herring to draw attention away from the real business at hand – firstly because he is not happy about showing the world how far American pressure is getting to him and, second, because he would be even less happy about exposing the power struggles besetting his regime.
One quarrel, according to our sources, is muddling the chain of authority in the intelligence apparatus. Newly-appointed interior minister Ghazi Kenaan, who came to the job from long years as Syria’s all-powerful military intelligence chief in Lebanon, insists that his department is not subordinate to any other intelligence body in the country. That was his condition for taking the job. But by backing him up, the Syrian president has caused his nephew General Assad Shawqat to resign as head of Syrian intelligence and security and take the job of deputy military intelligence commander.
These musical chairs bear on Assad’s attitudes on the Lebanese and Israeli questions. Kenaan belongs to the pro-reform faction in the Syrian leadership which advocates Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon and negotiations with Israel to stave off American punishment. By strengthening Kenaan’s hand, the Syrian ruler appears to adopt this position – although he has never confirmed this outright. Shawqat’s boss, head of military intelligence General Hassan Khalil, is due to retire early next year. Shawqat may replace him, although this is not certain. If he does, he will attain equal rank with Kenaan. This may be a setback for the faction seeking to disengage from Lebanon and engage Israel. However, in Assad’s shop, hopefuls are kept dangling in suspense about their next steps on the ladder.
Outside the intelligence community, civilian government is split into two camps over policy. The pro-reform faction, led by propaganda minister Dr. Mahdi Dahlallah and deputy foreign minister Walid Mualem, who as Syrian ambassador to Washington led many formal and secret talks with Israel, want talks with Israel to start from the point they were broken off four years ago. The Syrians claim that late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to Israel evacuating the entire Golan except for a chain of hills commanding the Sea of Galilee. If what has become known in diplomatic parlance as the Rabin deposit is accepted, an accord can be wrapped up in 24 hours.
The second camp, the conservatives, headed by vice president Khalim Haddam and foreign minister Farouq al-Shara disagree. They reject the Rabin deposit and demand a full return to pre-1967 lines, including also the Syrian strip of shore on the eastern bank of the Sea of Galilee, the entire Golan and the Shabaa Farms at the foot of Mt. Dov, to which the Syrians claim sovereignty.
The French have been helping the US press Assad to quit Lebanon and allow a fair election to go forward. debkafile‘s Paris sources report that Washington also asked the French to find out if Assad is willing to publicly renounce Syria’s territorial claims to the Shaaba farms, thereby proving his genuine desire for progress on Lebanon and the dispute with Israel.
Damascus has made no reply to this trial balloon from Paris.
As seen from Washington, Assad is consistently evading response to American demands and messages on Lebanon and the Hizballah by turning the subject round and offering to start talks with Israel – a call that makes him look good in the world media while avoiding the issues.
To get around this blank wall, the Americans enlisted the help of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who summoned the Syrian ruler to a meeting at the Sinai resort of Sharm al-Sheikh last Tuesday, November 30. Our Middle East sources report that Assad was very unwilling to go, but Mubarak, prodded from Washington and Paris, insisted.
They spent two hours in blunt conversation. The Egyptian ruler warned his guest in no uncertain terms that continuing to ignore Washington and its demands would end badly. But an Egyptian spokesman in Mubarak’s party, alert to the importance of disguising the content and tenor of the summit, picked up the Damascus stratagem and announced Mubarak had offered to broker resumed Syrian-Israeli negotiations. The Syrian ruler was furious at having his tactic hijacked without his permission and forced Cairo to publicly retract this statement.
Realizing what is going on, Israeli prime minister Sharon on Thursday December 2, denied knowledge of Assad’s offer to visit Jerusalem or enter into negotiations. Whenever he is questioned on the subject, the Israeli leader says words are cheap; he wants to see action. Israel applied this rule of thumb to the Syrian government newspaper Tishrin’s article on Saturday, December 4, which urged the world to force Israel to accept negotiations with Syria rather than tolerating the Jewish state’s obstructions.
For the moment, “the world”, especially Washington and Paris, is pushing Assad for answers and not getting them.

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