Washington Seeks Missing 15pc of Syrian-Israeli Equation

The Syrian-Israel diplomatic track has been reduced to mathematical polemic before taking any other shape. Ariel Sharon told his cabinet in Jerusalem that any Israeli response to Syrian president Bashar Assad’s call for fresh negotiations must begin at zero percent, ie on a slate wiped clean of all failed diplomatic efforts from the past. Assad says 80 percent of the issues on any future agenda are not negotiable as they were settled in previous talks.
The gap appears unbridgeable except by negotiation – ergo, impasse.
This week Washington decided to discover what it was about.
debkafile‘s US sources reveal that a White House directive was relayed to US ambassador Margaret Scobey in Damascus to find out from the Syrian President this week what he means when he says that 80 percent of the issues between Syria and Israel are closed, when his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, is on record as telling President Bill Clinton at their failed summit in Geneva on March 2000 that 95 percent of the peace agreement with Israel – Labor leader Ehud Barak was then prime minister – had been finalized. Israel, Hafez Assad claimed, had agreed to withdraw from the Golan to June 4, 1967 lines. Later, he told reporters that the only issue still outstanding was the line of withdrawal; Syria demanded sovereignty up to the water line of northern Israel’s Lake Kinneret (See of Galilee). Israel refused and that line represented the outstanding 5 percent.
The question the US ambassador was to put to the Syrian president is: What happened to the missing 15 percent of the agreement? On what issues is the son backtracking on his father’s deal? Ambassador Scobey was also asked to point out that the Syrian ruler’s demand to reopen a done deal for discussion had resulted in Israel likewise putting back on the table items resolved in 2000 by a former government before various upheavals struck the region. At the time, the Israel-Syrian talks raised a wall-to-wall outcry in the country against any move to restore the Golan to Syria. Israeli sentiment on this territory runs far deeper and embraces more circles than Israel’s presence in the Gaza Strip or even the West Bank.
However, as one senior Washington source put it, if Bashar Assad is willing to “toss aside” achievements and accords that took years to rack up, Sharon will not miss the chance of going all the way back to the starting line.
Sharon’s impenetrable posture on this is typical of his handling of any thorny dilemma. He is certainly involved in secret diplomatic moves which he cannot admit because any sort of publicity would instantly abort the fledgling process. But, because the exchanges are under cover, the Syrian ruler is able to grab center stage and behave as though he is calling the shots. At home, Sharon finds himself unwillingly aided by uninvited helpers who sense motion afoot on the Syrian front and want a piece of the action. The carefully leaked mission by a “senior Israeli figure” falls into that category.
debkafile‘s Paris and Washington sources report that foreign minister Silvan Shalom sent his political adviser Aharon Prussoir to Paris this week to meet Saria Ojeh, the millionairess daughter of Syrian defense minister Gen. Mustafa Tlas. She has lived in the French capital for the last forty years and is more French than Syrian.
At the same time, Mme Ojeh is known to be close to her father who in turn is a member of the Syrian president’s inner circle. At the same time, Gen. Tlas idealizes his detestation of Israel, penning books and poetry dedicated to praise of his loathing. Furthermore, another of the general’s offspring, Firas Tlas, about whose activities debkafile has written in the past, made himself one of the richest in Syria, mostly just before the Iraq war, by acting as facilitator for Saddam Hussein’s clandestine deals, including the smuggling of Iraqi oil shipments out to international markets via Syria and the concealment of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in Syria.
It is hard to determine, therefore, what became of the message the Israeli foreign minister’s adviser carried to Paris, what use was made of it – or even if it reached Damascus. In his three years in office, President Assad has won the reputation at home and abroad as a pretty odd character whose actions often appear less than rational. For instance, debkafile‘s exclusive sources in Washington and Iraq reveal that the Syrian leader recently embarked on an effort to re-establish the Iraqi Baath as a pro-Syrian party. To this end, he recruited Salah Omar al-Ali, a veteran Iraqi exile who spent years in Damascus and was a founding member of the original Baath before arguments split it between the rival Syrian and Iraqi segments. Al-Ali was sent on a special mission to Iraq to explain to the tens of thousands of Saddam’s Hussein’s former Baath followers that their abysmal defeat at American hands proved that the Baath gospel from Damascus was the true one and to save themselves they must repent. Our sources report that US intelligence watchers are eying Assad’s efforts with interest.
The calculus gap between Assad senior and Assad junior may be just another of sign of Bashar’s eccentricity – or not. Sharon too will be waiting to hear what Ambassador Scobey finds out.

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