US Deadline Is Fast Running out

Newsflash for Bashar Assad: You’ve got five days before a US ultimatum expires.

That may all come as a bit of surprise to the inexperienced Syrian president. After all, things seemed to be looking up during US secretary of state Colin Powell’s visit to Damascus last weekend. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that not a voice was raised in anger nor were any harsh US demands made during Powell’s conversations with Assad and foreign minister Farouq al-Shara. The US visitor merely said unemotionally that he was there to clarify a few points. His hosts were not unduly perturbed.

Reality should have come crashing down when it was time for Powell to fly out of Damascus to Beirut. Escorted by Shara and a bevy of senior Syrian officials, the Americans walked toward the US plane. Suddenly, a US official without a word handed a sheet of paper to a Syrian colleague. It contained a complete list of US demands. Witnesses told our sources the Syrian official was dumbfounded.

“Why are you giving me this document?” he asked.

“It’s a list of demands to be carried out to the letter,” was the reply. “You have 10 days to comply, starting from Saturday (May 3) afternoon, when we leave Beirut.”

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report the document conveyed a warning to Assad that American patience and consideration for his efforts to stand well in Syria and the Arab world had run their course. This was followed by a named list of all the top Iraqi political, military, financial and scientific officials and senior Al Qaeda men who fled Iraq and crossed into Syria. The United States demanded their handover without delay.

The Americans went on to demand Syria’s immediate troop withdrawal from Lebanon – a detailed timetable would serve at this stage. Finally, Assad was reminded that in addition to Washington’s new demands, a couple of former requirements raised in mid-April had not yet been met. They included the dismantling and destruction of Syria’s own weapons of mass destruction – including medium- and long-rang missiles – and the closure of all Palestinian headquarters and training camps, especially those used by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

Terrorists harbored in those facilities were to be handed over to the United States, the document said. New additions to the list of wanted men were the Damascus-based Hamas masterminds who orchestrated the suicide bombing by British bombers at Mike’s Place, a jazz club near the US embassy in Tel Aviv, on April 30. (More on this subject will be found in separate article on Saudi Arabia in this issue).

Syria was also told to cut its political and military links with the Hizballah terror group, seize the Lebanese terror group’s heavy weaponry, such as missiles and rocket launchers, and remove them from Lebanon out of the Hizballah’s reach.

In his conversation with Assad, Powell ranged widely over unresolved past issues between Israel and Syria to be addressed before progress was possible towards peace negotiations. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources, who spoke with officials familiar with the conversation’s content, Powell urged Assad to provide information on Israelis missing in action and prisoners of war in Syria and Lebanon: three Israeli soldiers have been unaccounted for more than twenty years since the 1982 Israeli-Syrian tank battle at Sultan Yakoub in Lebanon; the Israeli air force navigator Ron Arad who baled out over Lebanon in 1986 and was never heard of again; the three Israeli soldiers kidnapped on the Lebanese border in 2000. Syria must arrange for the return of Elhanan Tannenbaum, an Israeli businessman kidnapped in Europe three years ago by Hizballah. Syria and Hizballah accused Tannenbaum of being a Mossad agent. Israel denied this.

The time is past for evasions and tricks, Powell warned the Syrian ruler. Missing and captive Israeli servicemen and civilians must be handed back without delay; the Iraq War had brought a new reality to the Middle East and delaying tactics would no longer be tolerated, whether on issues affecting Israel or Syrian-US matters.

In Beirut, the same scenario was played out a few hours later. Polite palaver with Lebanese Emil Lahoud was followed by a written list of Washington’s no-nonsense demands:

A. the handover to the United States of any Iraqi arms, including weapons of mass destruction hidden by Syria or any other party in Lebanese territory.

B. The deployment in southern Lebanon of at least one-and-a-half to two army divisions, who must take over the outposts and command centers the Hizballah has strung along the border with Israel, remove the Shiite terrorists’ flags flying overhead and disarm their fighters. In short, the United States wants to see the Lebanese army in full control of southern Lebanon, including the Israeli frontier region.

C. The full disarmament of the Hizballah as a terrorist force and its restructure as a political party.

D. The removal of all foreign military forces from Lebanon, including Syrian and Iranian troops.


More dilly-dallying


Lebanese action on this five-point ultimatum depends on Syria playing its part first. Thus far, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and military sources report that neither Assad nor his close advisers and Syrian army commanders have taken a single step towards meeting Washington’s demands, apparently hoping to fob the Americans off with such meaningless gestures as –

1. Instead of closing Palestinian terrorist headquarters and offices, moving them out of the center of Damascus to the less conspicuous Palestinian refugee camp at Yarmouk, north of the capital. The downtown offices of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the PFLP-GC remain open, albeit with skeleton staffs.

2. Banning their spokesmen from Syrian television.

3. Confining Palestinian activists to their homes between dusk and dawn by reviving a military directive enacted by his father, Hafez Assad.

Tuesday, May 15, the Bush administration and Syria will be faced with the end of a deadline. Will the Syrian president opt for defiance? Or –

— Take a series of last minute steps indicating a willingness to gradually comply, just as he did when he began pushing some of Saddam’s wanted officials over to American forces in Iraq;

— Order the Lebanese government to start meeting some US demands and so create the appearance that Lebanon, rather than Syria, was knuckling under to US dictates.

Follow the advice he has received from Britain and France to turn the situation to his advantage by instigating a political reform program starting with political and military leadership reshuffles. The Europeans would then back Assad up when he argued that Washington’s far-reaching demands were placing him in danger of a putsch and that he was forced to reform his government before dealing with US demands.

One of the problems with Assad, apart from his inexperience, is that no one ever tells him anything straight from the shoulder. His close advisers say what they think he wants to hear. Brass tacks are beyond him. Harsh truths are screened. If Washington decides to get tough with Syria, it will undoubtedly proceed in stages, spaced out to give the Syrian president a chance to register what is happening.

On the other hand, he or his advisers are wily enough to come up with a stratagem for deflecting American ire and putting off an uncomfortable deadline. Damascus has suddenly developed a keen interest in peace talks with Israel over the Golan Heights. The scrap of land lost almost forty years ago is not really of compelling interest to the Syrian president. But Washington’s pressing demands on other issues could be placed on the table of peace negotiations, Assad would buy time to dodge round the awkward US ultimatum by claiming it was part and parcel of a complex negotiating process for peace and required patience.


How will Washington react?


Since no public ultimatum was issued, Washington is free to extend its deadline. That is one option. Another is to tighten economic pressure on Syria, which is already smarting from the cut-off of Iraqi oil that flowed into the Iraqi-Syrian pipeline and brought in an annual $1.2 billion in revenue. More economic punishment could destabilize Assad’s regime.

The US administration could alternatively opt for military or covert strike action against certain Iraqi or terrorist targets located in Syria and Lebanon to warn Syrian and Lebanese leaders that more punishment would result from further non-compliance. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources report that Iraq war commander General Tommy Franks, who also leads the global war on terrorism, has collected an expeditionary force in northern Iraq. An advance force of between 12 and 20 reconnaissance, intelligence and special forces troops are already inside Syria marking out and tracking potential targets. One preferred target would be an unconventional weapons site in Syria, an attack which would flash a strong signal to Iran, Middle East terrorist organizations and Saddam’s supporters in Iraq that US forces are fully prepared to extend their scope of operations if need be.

Next week, therefore, will be decision time in Washington for the next chapter of its Middle East campaign. By then, secretary of state Colin Powell will be back from his swing round Israel, Palestinian territory and Arab capitals – assuming his trip is not cancelled. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism sources have picked up increasing signs of a terrorist counter-attack in preparation to spike Washington’s anti-terror strategy. To this end, the terrorists still operating freely within the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Lebanon are planning a particularly vicious attack on American and Israeli targets.

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