Thursday, Oct. 16, CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden was expected in Beirut for quiet discussions with top Lebanese officials on cooperation in the fight against terror on the regional and international levels. He will be followed by a US military delegation to discuss military coordination.
All these terms vary in meaning according to context and the standpoint of their users.
Exactly 10 days earlier, Assistant Deputy Secretary of State David Hale and Assistant Deputy Secretary of Defense Mary Beth Long, were in Beirut, responding to an SOS from prime minister Fouad Siniora for help against an ominous Syrian troop and tank buildup around Lebanese borders.
With global markets crashing around his ears three weeks from the presidential election and a war going from bad to worse in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush might have been excused from indulging in fresh Middle Eat initiatives, especially for tiny Lebanon. However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington, Jerusalem and Beirut sources report that, far from shying away, his administration has launched yet another bid on well-trodden ground to woo Damascus, which not so long ago was vilified in Washington as a leading sponsor of terrorists.
Even more surprisingly, US policy-makers appear willing to put up with restored Syrian political and military influence in Beirut just three years after evicting Bashar Assad’s cohorts. They are again entertaining hopes of pulling him away from his strategic bond with Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hizballah.
Washington is determined at the same time to preserve Lebanon’s sovereignty and stability, a chancy balancing act.
Washington approves Syrian border deployment post factum
Since early September, our sources report, CIA and Syrian officials have been bargaining in Damascus on terms for this tradeoff.
So secretive is this controversial ploy that particulars are hard to verify. However with the help of its Washington, Beirut and Jerusalem sources, DEBKA-Net-Weekly has pieced together the current state of play:
By the end of last month, the negotiations had advanced far enough to place an interim progress report before decision-making levels of the US and Syrian governments for approval and a deadline for execution.
The apparently cursory meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem on Sept. 27 at UN Center in New York took the process to the next stage.
She referred to the encounter in this throwaway comment:
“I did on the margins of the Iftar (meal breaking the Ramadan fast) last night have an opportunity to speak with my Syrian colleague for about, I think, 10 minutes, just to talk a bit about the regional situation and some of the emerging efforts there.”
It was much more serious than that, according to our New York and Washington sources: The US government was ready to okay the deployment of 6,000-8,000 Syrian troops on the northern Lebanese border.
But without waiting for the secret talks to mature to this point, Damascus moved its troops forward between Sept 14 and Sept. 20.
On Oct. 3, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 367 reported in an article captioned “Syria’s Planned Occupation of North Lebanon” that two Syrian commando brigades of the 4th Mechanized Division had been positioned along 2 km of the El Kebir River which marks that sector of the border. Armored and artillery units were ranged further back. (See attached map –
Assad uses US approval to validate restored domination of Lebanon
The case Muallem made for this movement to the US Secretary was the need to fight smuggler gangs. This pretext was also offered the world media when the Syrian build-up came to light. It was compatible with one of the conditions Rice laid down for approving the troop concentration: Damascus must put a stop to gunrunning for Hizballah and the radical Islamic militias on the loose around the northern city of Tripoli.
Washington’s turnaround was a major breakthrough for Assad’s plans. It meant the Americans were no longer pressing him to keep his hands off Lebanon. Permission to position his army right up to Lebanon’s borders was taken as US confirmation of the Syrian ruler’s right to use his military as an instrument for making Beirut accept Damascus’ ascendancy.
The Americans also saw benefits in the deal:
1. The Assad government sounded willing for the first time to obstruct Hizballah and hold up its supplies of military hardware.
2. It was inferred that Damascus was at last beginning, albeit two years late, to honor UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which banned arms supplies to Hizballah as part of the ceasefire which ended the Israel-Lebanon war. Syria and Iran mocked that resolution for two years by smuggling weapons in bulk to the Shiite terrorists.
3. The implied willingness to go against Hizballah was taken by Washington as a measure of how far Assad would go in standing up to Iran now – and breaking away in the future.
4. And might not that willingness be extended to embrace Tehran’s other terrorist proteges, the Palestinian Hamas and Jihad Islami, both of whose headquarters have long been welcome in Damascus?
Counting chickens before they are hatched
Seen realistically, these benefits are chickens yet to be hatched – and not likely to be before George Bush quits the White House in January.
Furthermore Assad’s relations with the US have left a long trail of broken promises, as Rice’s predecessor, Colin Powell, can confirm.
Still, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources disclose, the mission performed by the US officials, David Hale and Mary Beth Long, in Beirut on Oct. 6, was the product of Washington’s satisfaction with the progress of its initial dealings with Damascus, an expression of its eagerness to go forward and an occasion for briefing Lebanese president Michel Sleiman and prime minister Fouad Siniora on the process.
Alongside its detente with Damascus, Washington also conveyed a pledge of large-scale US military assistance for the Lebanese army, including Cobra assault helicopters (as debkafile disclosed on Oct. 13. See HOT POINTS below).
The Bush administration was partly hedging its bets with Damascus by bolstering Lebanon’s central government and demonstrating the importance of sustaining its stability. Whether or not the new Syrian gambit pans out, Washington promises to avert a recurrence of the political anarchy which bedeviled Lebanon for more than a year. And a strong, well-armed Lebanese army was necessary to safeguard the government against possible Hizballah retaliation for Damascus’ betrayal.
Hizballah has refilled its arsenals
After receiving Washington’s nod for its first border deployment, Damascus moved further south, consigning the 12th Mechanized Division to the border of the Lebanese Beqaa Valley and its central mountains.
The new movements extend Syrian military positions from points opposite the northern Lebanese town of Al Qaa on Mt. Hermil further south up to the Massena border crossing 50 km north of Beirut. (See attached map)
This is Hizballah’s primary smuggling route. The caves and tunnels riddling this upland Hermil region are hideouts for the long-range rockets Hizballah receives from Iran and accessible to its northern bases clustered in the Beqaa Valley.
Washington sees this second Syrian military move as a step towards confronting Hizbalalh (and indirectly Iran). Damascus has actually blocked HIzballah’s weapons supply routes from the north and east, and may yet go all the way and disarm the Lebanese Shiite militia in compliance with UN resolutions.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources stress that Hizballah ought by now to have replenished its weapons stocks after two years in which Iran and Syria smuggled vast quantities of military hardware across the Lebanese border. The blocked route will therefore not cause the Shiite terrorists too much pain.
Assad has got away with massive military deployment on the Lebanese border without international and Arab denigration partly thanks to the world’s preoccupation in the financial meltdown, but mostly because of the Bush administration’s sanction, although some issues in their deal remain to be cleared up.
Even Israel has not reacted (for reasons that will be laid out in a separate article in this issue).
Still outstanding between them, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources disclose, are the circumstances warranting a Syrian military crossing into Lebanon and its legitimate targets.
Assad reserves his options on border crossing
Monday, Oct. 13, President Bush warned Syria that it must respect Lebanon’s sovereignty and urged Damascus to confirm this by establishing full diplomatic relations with Beirut for the first time since both gained independence from France 60 years ago. Syria has always claimed that Lebanon was historically part of its territory.
“We discussed the need for Syria to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty, to cease its support for terror and to open full diplomatic relations with Lebanon’s elected government,” said the US president.
Within 24 hours, the Syrian president had complied, signing a decree formalizing relations and announcing an embassy would be opened in Beirut. True to form, Assad dodged setting a date for the first Syrian ambassador to take up residence in the Lebanese capital.
At the same time, Damascus is reserving its options on a border crossing. Its negotiators have hinted to the Americans that choking off smugglers is not their only concern; the “Islamic extremists” present around Tripoli are a threat and must be dealt with at some point. (More about this in a separate item on the Saudi game in Lebanon.)
The Syrians argue that if they are prevented from going in to deal with the Islamists, how can they tackle Hizballah when the time comes? Without waiting for a US response, they prepared the groundwork by leaking a story to the Middle East media through Turkish sources, which disclosed advice from Ankara to Damascus to go after extremists in Lebanon in the same way as the Turkish army strikes Kurdish Workers PKK havens in northern Iraq with Washington’s blessing.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources disclose that the US did not reject the Syrian scheme, only said it was under consideration and dispatched the CIA director to Beirut. His task is coordination with the Lebanese government and a final recommendation on whether or not Syrian troops should be permitted to strike targets on Lebanese soil.
Our Middle East sources believe that if Hayden returns to Washington with a negative assessment, Damascus will lock its army down on the Lebanese border. There are signs that Assad is staying put and holding his horses in order to negotiate with the next US president from a position of strength.