Will Assad Meet Sharon after Failing to Woo US Jewish Leaders?

Syrian president Bashar Assad is due to begin a state visit to Athens Monday, December 15. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Athens sources report that Greek foreign minister Georges Papandreou entertains high hopes of a sparkling diplomatic breakthrough from the visit, bright enough to eclipse the Greek’s drab performance as former European Union president.
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What Papandreou is trying to set up is a summit between Assad and Israeli minister Ariel Sharon.
He sold the plan to Greek prime minister Costas Simitis:
“This is our big chance to stage a dramatic turnabout in relations between Damascus and Jerusalem,” said Papandreou. “What if Assad and Sharon should start talking in Athens?”
Simitis embraced the plan with enthusiasm.
The next step, according to our sources in Athens, was an approach from the Greek foreign minister to Sharon through Greek and Israeli go-betweens with a request to send a message for the Greeks to place in the Syrian president’s hands as soon as he steps off the plane in Athens.
Sharon agreed. His letter to Assad was delivered at the Greek foreign ministry Thursday, December 11. In it, Sharon declared himself ready to meet Assad any place at any time, openly or in secret, to work together on a face-to-face accord. The usual Israel rhetoric calling for Syria to withdraw its sponsorship of terrorists was absent from the note.
Israeli emissaries were instructed to stay in Athens until early next week in case Greek diplomacy came up with a positive reply.
At the same time, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East experts note that, regardless of all these discreet comings and goings, Bashar Assad has quite different fish to fry in his visit to Greece. He hopes it will be followed up with a state visit to Ankara in January, for him a trip of vital significance.
No Syrian president has ever paid a visit to Turkey lest it be interpreted as the concession of Syria’s claim to the disputed Alexandretta, most of which is ruled by Turkey.
On the other hand, Assad understands that a rapprochement with the pro-Muslim government in Ankara and the chance of political, military and economic pacts between the two governments could be the key to creating a bloc able to confront the American presence in Iraq and perhaps offset or even downgrade the Israel-Turkish alliance.
As a token of his willingness to talk tangible friendship, the Syrian president last month surrendered to Turkey all 22 Turkish terrorists who escaped to Syria after two rounds of suicide attacks were carried out on Jewish synagogues and British sites in Istanbul.
To prepare opinion at home for his leap to Ankara, Assad found it politic to go the long way round via Athens.
The Syrian president arrives in the Greek capital fresh from a setback in Washington.
Thursday night, December 11, US President George W. Bush signed into law the Syrian Accountability Bill threatening sanctions for Damascus’s failure to end its support for anti-Israel terror groups or terminate its military presence in Lebanon, the development of WMD and missiles with chemical warheads and for not interdicting terrorists and weapons entering Iraq.
President Bush, who was not enthusiastic about the legislation, has the discretion to impose or waive penalties on the grounds of national security. They include a ban on Syrian exports, a freeze on Syrian assets in the United States, prohibition of dual-use technology exports to Syria and the operation of American business firms in the country, limits on Syrian airline flights in the United States and the reduction of diplomatic contacts.
Its main impact is less economic, since bilateral trade is no more than $300m a year, and more political and psychological – part of continuing American pressure applied against a government that has long figured on the US list of states sponsoring terrorists.
The sanctions bill was carried by a large majority in both chambers of Congress. The first response from Damascus was that Congress had acted under the influence of the “Jewish lobby.” However, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly 137 revealed, the Assad regime was not averse to trying its own hand at persuading American Jewish leaders to use their influence to prevent the president signing the legislation.
He sent his minister for expatriate affairs, Butheina Shaaban with Fayez Sayegh, director of Syria’s official news agency under Assad’s father, the late president Hafez Assad, on a charm offensive to the United States. Shaaban has been portrayed in the United States as spokeswoman of a new breed of young, forward-looking, liberal bureaucrats in Damascus. The two were instructed to try and soften the sanctions blow by hinting at Assad’s amenability to talks with Israel.
However, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, Shaaban was not exactly a smash hit. The violent accusations she flung at Israel and its prime minister, Ariel Sharon, in her address to Los Angeles Jewish leaders Monday, December 8, were not very popular; neither was her version of events in Iraq and the US military role in the country. The charm soon gave way to raised voices and bitter recriminations between the Syrian visitors and their Jewish audience, one of whom commented wryly after the event “If their purpose was to improve the climate between Damascus and Washington, that was hardly the way to go about it.”

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