Will He or Won’t He Perform a Qaddafi Stunt?

Last week, president Bashar Assad‘s uncle Rifat asked for a US visa for a trip to Washington to collect payback for the assistance he rendered the UN investigator Detlev Mehlis in rounding up the evidence to incriminate his nephew in the assassination of Lebanese leader Rafiq Hariri.

It was through his intervention that senior Syrian intelligence officers defected to Paris and parted with testimony against the Syrian president and his close circle.

What Rifat Assad was after was a chance to offer himself to the Bush administration as a short-list candidate to succeed Bashar in the presidential palace in Damascus.

However, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, Rifat was greatly surprised to be refused a visa.

Told that the time had not yet come for him to visit, he told his associates: “If the Americans are treating me like Bashar (who too was refused a US visa), then they are not serious about regime change in Damascus…”

The same sort of thumbs-down signals were picked up by Syrian opposition leaders ahead of their grand assembly in Paris on September 25, an event in which anti-Assad groups and French intelligence have invested money, planning, excitement and high hopes.

Their eagerness is matched by Syrian intelligence efforts to sabotage them.

The opposition reported swelling numbers of Syrian army officers on active duty offering support on the home front.

But the regime supporters were not idle. An officer of the old presidential guard of Bashar’s father Hafez Assad, was sent to Paris to launch a smart new Syrian culture center called “Ugarit.” The sole function of this institution, as far as DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources have discovered, is to keep an eye on the organizers of the opposition event and get the names of its participants and their intelligence contacts.

The “cultural” center was given an overseer. Bashar Assad’s brother in law, Syrian military intelligence chief Gen. Asaf Shawqat, took his wife Bushara, the president’s sister, and their children, on a purported family trip to Paris.

He was there to make sure that a close watch was kept on two particular opposition leaders: the sacked vice president Khalim Haddam and former chief of staff of Syria’s armed forces Hikhmat Shehab.


First signs of Washington cooling to regime change


But as the date of the rally approached, Washington’s interest in the event and its goals appeared to cool.

Tuesday, Sept. 20, the New York Times ran an article that contrasted sharply with everything the US media have been publishing for months, under the heading “Don’t Push Syria away.”

Joshua Landis, professor of Middle Eastern Studies of the University of Oklahoma and a Fulbright scholar in Damascus, came to this conclusion: “Washington seems to be pursuing a policy of regime change on the cheap in Syria” despite the fact that “the two countries have much to talk about: Both are trying to solve their Iraq problems, they share a common interest in subduing jihadism and helping Iraq build stability.”

This presentation of Syria’s role in the Iraqi guerilla war is unusual, to say the least. The writer omits to mention that those guerrillas’ get most of their supplies, weapons, funds and fighters from sources in Syria. US-Syrian differences are depicted as a mild tiff between two countries which require only a spot of diplomacy to put right.

Landis goes on to maintain that Syria’s 60% Sunni Muslims are the source of aid to Iraqi guerilla fighters and for Assad to tackle the problem in the way that Washington wants would threaten his own regime. He ends by arguing that “Washington must choose between destabilizing Syria and stabilizing Iraq.”

The sense elicited from this article and other signals was the same for Rifat Assad and the Syrian opposition groups waiting in exile for their great moment. It is that Washington has veered sharply away from its drive for regime change in Damascus.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East analysts do not go that far. But they do detect a tendency in the Bush administration to take a second look at its Syria policy – thanks, they have discovered, to pressure coming from two regional big shots: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.


Abdullah and Mubarak to Assad’s aid


The Saudi monarch has decided to come to the aid of Assad and rescue his presidency from their plight as Washington’s quarry. Abdullah was even willing to set aside his anger at Syria’s involvement in the assassination of his friend, the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who was of Saudi descent, last February. The Saudi monarch is therefore bidding for President George W. Bush to give the Syrian president another chance. There would be a Saudi-Egyptian guarantee that Assad lived up to obligations he can be persuaded to undertake.

The scheme as put before Bush is embryonic. Neither side has had a chance to examine it properly. The Saudi ruler has put forward the conception of the Syrian president treading the same path as Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi in 2003, when he scrapped his weapons of mass destruction in return for admission to Washington’s good graces.

The Assad version, if accepted, would consist of severing the links between the Damascus political and military elite and Iraqi Baathist insurgents and al Qaeda terrorists in Syria and Iraq. Top Saudi and Egyptian intelligence counter-terror experts would help the Damascus regime get rid of the terrorist elements which have struck root in Syria.

The banking systems of Syria and Lebanon would halt the flow of moneys from Saddam Hussein’s Baathists and al Qaeda accounts to bankroll the Iraqi insurgency. Like Libya, Syria would dismantle its chemical and biological weapons and its nuclear program, as well as its WMD-capable missiles.

Damascus would lend America a hand to disband the Lebanese Hizballah terrorist organization, mainly by blocking Syrian arms supplies and providing Washington with intelligence on Hizballah’s arms caches. Damascus would also shut down the command centers, offices and the training facilities serving Palestinian terror groups in Syria for decades. This would entail the jihadist Hamas and Jihad Islami and the radical Palestinian “Fronts” losing their sanctuaries.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, the Saudi ruler assures Bush administration leaders that Assad would be required to go public on these steps, although easing into them gradually.


Recovery of the Golan as bait


The quid pro quo proposed by Riyadh and Cairo is a halt on US and international pressure on the Syrian regime to mend its ways. American economic sanctions would have to be suspended and economic assistance resumed in the framework of generous US-Saudi aid packages to build a modern economy. Washington would have to lean hard on Ariel Sharon, or whoever succeeds him as Israeli prime minister, for peace talks culminating in its withdrawal from the Golan – on the same lines as the pull-back from Gaza and prospective evacuations of the West Bank.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington and Middle East sources report that the Bush administration has gone no further than cautiously considering the Saudi-Egyptian blueprint and holding leisurely talks on its particulars. All the same, some parties, especially Saudi and Egyptian officials, are pushing hard to present Washington’s U-turn on Damascus as an accomplished fact.

A strong pointer to where it is headed will be seen in the way this week’s visit to Damascus by the UN investigator, Mehlis and his team develops.

He is there to interview General Rustum Ghazaleh, Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon at the time of the Hariri murder, and a list of high Syrian officers including General Shawqat, absent in Paris. He seeks to go as high as the Syrian interior minister Ghazi Kenaan and would also like a word with the president’s brother, Maher Assad, head of the presidential guard. The Mehlis team is in possession of evidence linking him directly to the Hariri murder plot

The question now is this: Will the Saudi-Egyptian rescue operation for Assad entail intervention to halt the UN investigator before he reaches Assad’s ministers and his close kin? Or will the UN team push forward with its inquiry and ignore the jeopardy to the Assad regime?

Mehlis is famous for his doggedness and courage – even at personal risk. He displayed these qualities when he probed the 1986 bombing attack instigated by Libya on the West Berlin La Belle discotheque, a favorite haunt of American officers and men, in which 3 were killed and 230 injured. The German prosecutor would be a hard man to pull off a case once he gets his teeth into it, although he is subject to orders from UN secretary Kofi Annan and the Security Council.


The UN Hariri probe is the litmus test


Therefore the fate of the Mehlis mission is drawing a good deal of curiosity from governments and undercover parties in the Middle East.

Abdullah and Mubarak, however optimistic, cannot even be sure that Bashar Assad is in the bag any more than the US president. They are still dickering over how much atonement the Syrian ruler will offer in return for his rehabilitation in Washington.

He may balk at a demand to make a clean breast of his under-the counter arrangements to conceal a part of Saddam Hussein’s WMD in Syria and Lebanon, or refuse to pull the rug from under the terrorists, Iraqi, Palestinian and al Qaeda, under his roof.

But Assad is clearly under mounting pressure.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Damascus sources report that he is working against time to form a new government so as to place his interior minister Gen.Kenaan outside the administration when he is interviewed about the Hariri assassination. Assad was on the point of announcing the new lineup, headed by finance minister Abdallah Dardarai, Wednesday, Sept. 21, when a new crisis struck

A panicky rumor going round the bazaars of Damascus that the regime is on its last legs brought the Syrian lira crashing down. It dropped to 55 against the dollar after massive withdrawals of bank deposits, some funneled to the black market in Syria cities to buy dollars; some smuggled overseas.

To arrest the slide, finance minister Dardawi went on the air on radio and television Tuesday night for an unprecedented appeal for calm. The central bank governor raised the interest on local currency deposits overnight. The Syrian government undertook from Thursday, Sept 22, to adjust the official Syrian lira rate against the dollar to a level higher than offered by the money changers.

But Assad’s options are shrinking. No sooner does he extinguish one crisis, when another looms, leaving him very little breathing space to prudently chart his next steps.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email