Sunday, January 2, US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage arrived in Damascus with a fresh list of nine demands for Syrian president Bashar Assad
These are the demands, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington and the Middle East:
1. Start repealing Syria’s 40-years old emergency laws.
2. Free all political prisoners from jail.
3. Abolish media censorship.
4. Initiate democratic reform.
5. Speed up economic development
6. Cut down relations with Iran.
7. Announce publicly that the disputed Shaba Farms at the base of Mt. Hermon are Syrian territory. (This would cut the ground from the Lebanese terrorist Hizballah’s claim that the land is Lebanese and must be liberated from Israeli occupation).
8. Hand over to US or Iraqi authorities 55 top officials and military officers of the former Saddam regime, who are confirmed by intelligence to be established in Syria and running the guerrilla war in Iraq out of their homes and offices.
(An address, telephone number and cell phone number were listed next to each name).
9. Syria had better make sure that the Kornet AT-14 anti-tank missiles which it recently purchased in large quantities from East Europe does not turn up in Iraq. US intelligence has the serial numbers for identifying their source. Just in case they do appear in Iraq, General George Casey, commander of US forces in Iraq has been armed by President Bush with an order to carry out military action inside Syria according to his best military judgment.
This demand incorporates a tangible threat of blanket military action which has been authorized in advance without further delay in the face of continued Syrian meddling in Iraq.
Armitage reminded Assad that Washington already had its smoking gun.
Last November, Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi, on a visit to Damascus, placed before Assad a unique photo album. Pages on the right-hand side contained photos of captured terrorists who spilled the beans during interrogation on how they were trained and paid in Syria and then sent into Iraq. Pages on the left were filled with photos of Syrian security officers – colonels and generals – whom the terrorists admitted had personally briefed them on their missions, instructed them how to steal into Iraq and whom to contact there. The album formed a highly detailed presentation that even including pictures of Syrian traffic police officers given the job of blocking roads in eastern Syria, to make way for vehicles carrying the terrorists to Iraq to travel at top speed.
Assad just listened to what Armitage had to say and made no response.
And what about his Palestinian terrorist proteges?
The US diplomat did not let up.
He reminded Assad of a wedding that took place in Damascus on Tuesday, December 21. What caught Washington’s eye was the two kissing cousins who tied the knot, Khaled Marzouk, son of Hamas leader Mussa Abu Marzouk, and Isara Ashi, daughter of the groom’s uncle.
Armitage was more interested in the guest list than in Marzouk family ties.
It included Imad Alami, Hamas’ chief operations officer, Hamas leaders Khaled Meshal and Mahmoud Nazal, Islamic Jihad chief Ramadan Salah, and Talal Naji, Ahmed Jibril‘s deputy and commander of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command’s terrorist network.
Armitage also made sure Assad was aware that Washington knew about the security precautions Syria had taken to protect the cream of the terrorist crop.
The wedding invitations instructed the guests to assemble at a certain address, where de luxe coaches waited to whisk them to the secret wedding venue under heavy Syrian military escort. US intelligence had learned, according to Armitage, that hundreds of Syrian special forces troops and intelligence agents had guarded the wedding hall.
He then asked Assad: Explain to me, if you will, how all of those terrorists you told us had left Damascus suddenly surfaced at the nuptials? And why were elite Syrian security forces protecting them instead of arresting them?
Again, Assad said nothing.
The tough talk peters out mysteriously
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism and Middle Eastern sources note that a series of events led up to and set the tone of the Armitage-Assad conversation.
On December 14, Iraqi defense minister Hazem Shaalan accused Iranian and Syrian intelligence agents, plus former operatives from Saddam Hussein's security forces, of cooperating with the deadly Abu Musab al-Zarqawi al-Qaeda in Iraq “to run criminal operations in Iraq”.
A week later, Iraqi authorities detained 50 suspects over an explosion in the Shiite holy city of Najaf that killed at least 54 people and wounded 142. Thousands of mourners attended the victims’ funerals.
Najaf police chief Major General Ghaleb al-Jazairi reported that “elements” among the detainees had confessed to having links with the intelligence services of neighbouring Syria and Iran.
Then, car bombs tore through a Najaf funeral procession and a main bus station in the nearby Shiite city of Karbala, killing at least 13 people and wounding 33.
And, shortly before Armitage flew into Damascus, Allawi declared his government’s patience was wearing thin with its Syrian neighbor’s role in orchestrating terrorism in Iraq. In late December, a story was leaked to military and security officials in the Middle East that Allawi was leaning heavily on Washington to bring to an end what he regarded as its unproductive “dialog of ultimatums” which US secretary of state Colin Powell initiated when he visited Syrian capital in May 2003 with the first ultimatum.
It was time, said Allawi, for action. The United States ought to begin striking Syrian military facilities that hosted and trained Iraqi insurgents. The Iraqi leader was not averse to Washington announcing the attacks publicly as staged at the request of his government – even though this would be tantamount to an Iraqi declaration of war against Syria.
Monday, January 3, the day after Armitage talked to Assad, there was an abrupt change of tone. This could be explained as an attempt to lower the tensions up until the Iraq election.
The Najaf police chief was suddenly ordered to transfer to Baghdad. He refused, saying the order was provoked by his venturing to accuse elements linked to Syrian intelligence of being behind the last bombing massacre in his town. Al-Jazairi declared he would stay in Najef until after the elections. But he also made it clear that he had not accused Syria outright but only reported the confessions of suspects and handed them over to the prime minister’s office.
Two days later, the Bush administration was reported to be leaning towards a tightening of economic sanctions to force Syria to stop supporting terrorism. There was no more mention of the nine demands that Armitage brought to Damascus.