DEBKAfile Exclusive Report January 11, 2005
Last Sunday, January 2, US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage performed his last major mission before stepping down in favor of Robert B. Zoellick, whom incoming secretary Condoleezza Rice has picked as her deputy. (Zoellick, currently trade representative in charge US world trade, served as deputy to secretary of state James Baker in the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations. This mission took Armitage to Damascus with nine American demands. But the punchline was in the last demand. General Casey, commander of US forces in Iraq has already received orders from the commander-in-chief in the White House to pursue military action inside Syria according to his best military judgment if Damascus continues to meddle in Iraq's affairs. To subscribe to DEBKA-Net-Weekly click HERE.
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report December 4, 2004
Syrian ruler Bashar Assad is pitching his offer of peace talks with Israel to disguise and dodge his real woes: US and French demands to disarm the Hizballah terrorists and let Lebanon have a fair election and the internal divisions bedeviling his regime. The Bush administration and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon are not fooled. On November 12, Assad made the unusual gesture of taking UN Middle East Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen aside in a quiet corner of his palace in Damascus for a long tete-a-tete. Aides - even an interpreter - were left standing outside the door. When he came out three hours later, the UN official announced with the same sort of enthusiasm he used to show about Yasser Arafat's peaceful intentions that Assad is ready to start negotiations with Israel at once without prior conditions and even pay a visit to Jerusalem. Washington sources assured debkafile that his words bore no relation to his conversation with the Syrian president. Larsen's mission was not to discuss Syrian-Israel relations but rather to deliver a two-point ultimatum from Washington:
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report September 27, 2004
Before deporting him to Lebanon in 1991, the late Yitzhak Rabin called Ezz-Eldin Sheikh al-Khalil "the snake's head," singling him out as the terror master who raised and handled Hamas' most accomplished terror operatives, Adnan al Hool and Mohammed Deif. Yasser Arafat used to claim in the early days of the current Palestinian confrontation with Israel that it was not he who pulled the strings of terror but Sheikh al-Khalil from Jordan. Until Sunday, September 25, few Israelis had heard of him as, lacking political ambitions, he kept to the shadows of anonymity and stealth. For two years, the snake's head wielded authority as supreme commander of Hamas's terrorist and suicide operations against Israel, outranked only by Khalid Mashal.
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report August 14, 2004
Israel's chief of staff, Lt.-Gen Moshe Yaalon put his hand in a hornet's nest when he said in an interview: The question is will we reach agreement with Syria for the right price. If you ask me if an agreement that is correctly balanced is theoretically possible, I say that mindful of Israel's military needs, an accord with Syria can be attained which leads to Israel's withdrawal from Golan. The army is capable of defending Israel's border wherever they are. Most quotes left the "theoretically" caveat out of their reports, as the general should have foreseen. They also ignored what he said clearly about the here and now. He noted Syria has missiles that can reach all parts of Israel and chemical capabilities, thus making the point that as long as those threats remained, the strategic plateau was a vital element of Israel's security.
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report June 22, 2004
Obeying a tradition of more than a quarter of a century, the Syrian army shifts some officers around twice a year - in summer and winter. It is a game of musical chairs with little impact on the armed forces as a whole. This time was different. On June 1, DEBKA-Net-Weekly exclusive military sources uncovered the largest single purge in the annals of Syria's armed forces that was carried out on the orders of President Bashar Assad. Forty percent of the staff officers with the general command in Damascus were dismissed or forced into retirement; half the Syrian divisional commanders in Syria and Lebanon relieved of their duties - laid off or assigned to minor staff positions in Damascus and elsewhere. The top level of the Syrian air force has been peeled off and replaced with younger men - except for the top commander and the head of its intelligence branch.
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report February 10, 2004
Syrian president Bashar Assad's advisers tried hitching a ride on the second stage of the Hizballah-Israeli prisoner swap - the one requiring the handover of information on the long missing Israeli navigator Ron Arad. Assad's men went to work on Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharazi when he came to Beirut last week to make sure the exchange focused on an even older mystery, the disappearance of four Iranian diplomats in Lebanon 22 years ago. Tehran insists they are alive in Israeli captivity and demands a tit for tat, notwithstanding all the evidence that the Christian Phalange security chief Elie Hobeika seized them at a highway checkpoint in northern Lebanon as they were fleeing the 1982 war to Syria, and murdered them.
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report January 23, 2004
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There were no giveaways, balloons or barbecues, but business was booming this month at a bizarre Syrian bazaar - a used tank lot at al-Qamishli, located at the point where the borders of Syria, Iraq and Turkey meet. On sale: Russian T-72 tanks. No, not in mint condition, hardly top-of-the-line merchandise, the tank on sale was a Soviet product purchased by the Syrian army in the 1980s, well enough maintained and offered at a rock bottom price of $3,000 apiece. To subscribe to DEBKA-Net-Weekly click HERE. This arms market has sprung up, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly`s exclusive intelligence and counter-terrorism sources have discovered, in back of the large train station at al-Qamishli, a forward point whence freight trains laden with oil and other products picked up at Syria`s Mediterranean ports once set off for Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report January 19, 2004
Syrian president Bashar Assad is a very worried man. In a typical reflex action, he sent his Hizballah proxy to shoot up an Israeli military tractor, killing one Israeli soldier and injuring another, on the very day, January 19, that a group of Syrian opposition leaders based overseas held its first known public get-together in Brussels. debkafile's sources report the group last met five months ago in Washington. Its new venue in Europe recalls the pattern of conduct followed by overseas Iraqi resistance groups prior to the Iraq war. Just as any such meeting Washington would have had to be sanctioned by the powers-that-be, so too Monday's gathering in Brussels could not have taken place without the approval of European Union leaders and the Belgian government. The Bashar regime finds itself increasingly isolated. Europe is clearly lining up with the United States on the Syrian problem. As one of Damascus's main trading partners, Europe is capable of squeezing the Assad regime economically even more than America.
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report January 16, 2004
At its wits' end to pierce the thicket of rhetoric emanating from Damascus and Jerusalem, the White House has plucked the veteran Middle East hand, Edward P. Djerejian, from academia for a fresh initiative to try and decode the conflicting signals broadcast by the Assad regime on whether or not and under what conditions they are prepared to resume peace talks. It has been a month since Assad gave his seemingly groundbreaking interview to the New York Times and two weeks since he visited Ankara and hinted to Turkish leaders that if it were up to him, he would resume peace talks with Israel immediately. Wednesday, January 14, Damascus rejected Israeli president Moshe Katsav's public invitation to Assad to put his money where his mouth is and come to Jerusalem.
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report January 14, 2004
The Syrian leadership, in an urgent session on Sunday, January 11, resolved on two fresh initiatives after failing to make head or tail of Israel's wordy and inconsistent responses to Bashar Assad's feelers for the resumption of the peace talks that broke down four years ago. The first such feeler was broached in a New York Times interview last month. Since then, different Israeli government and military officials have been tacking and weaving between outright rejection and wary affirmatives. The Damascus meeting decided to seize the diplomatic high ground provided by Israel's apparently negative response and move forward in two seemingly opposite directions: in the first instance, a charm campaign to throw off Washington's heavy pressure and its implied threat of military action against Syrian targets both on its soil and in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley; in the second, to bury the twenty-one-year old hatchet between the Assad regime and Yasser Arafat. This week Damascus moved forward on both these fronts:
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report January 10, 2004
Update January 12: Turkish Cypriots form a new government led by Mehmet Ali Talat's Republican Turkish party which favors UN's reunification plan Greek Cypriots and others may remain skeptical, but debkafile's intelligence sources believe Turkey to be genuinely committed to a speedy settlement of the decades-old division of Cyprus. Speed is of the essence because Cyprus is due to join the European Union this May: if the division is healed, and a federation formed, the whole island will join; if Turkey's protege, Northern Cyprus, continues to hold out against the federal plan, only the internationally recognized government of Greek Cyprus will join the EU, and the northern Turkish third, which Turkey alone recognizes and supports, will be more isolated than ever.
debkafile's confidence is based on the secret talks that took place this week between Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, and Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, who was in Ankara for a 3-day state visit. Erdogan told Assad that the Turkish leadership had decided to force Rauf Denktash, the long-time Turkish Cypriot leader, to go along with the plan first put forward by the UN's secretary-general Kofi Annan in November 2002. This envisages a federation of two constituent parts, with a rotating presidency. Last March talks on this plan collapsed after Denktash held out against it.
But Northern Cyprus is entirely dependent on Turkish support, and on the 30,000 Turkish troops that have been stationed there for the 30 years since Turkey invaded the island in 1974. According to debkafile's sources, Erdogan told Assad that Turkey has decided to withdraw this occupying army after Cyprus joins the EU, thus forcing Denktash's hand. And, indeed, Turkey has good reason to do so. It is itself an applicant to join the EU at some point, and furthering a peace in Cyprus will advance its case.
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report January 2, 2004
US President George W. Bush took advantage of his end-of-year vacation to launch a surprise move in the Middle East. He added the region to the remit of his special envoy on Iraqi debt relief, the former secretary of state James Baker, after commending him on progress made so far, especially in persuading China and Japan to ease up on their share of Iraq's $120bn debt. Baker will decide when the time is right for his trip. debkafile's exclusive sources in Washington lay bare the most important layer of Baker's new mission. While working to persuade Syrian president Bashar Assad to part with the $3bn of Saddam Hussein's money he is hanging onto in secret - admitting only to holding one-sixth of that amount - the former US secretary of state will also bend his diplomatic energies to the Syrian-Israel dispute and the close ties the Assad regime maintains with the Lebanese Hizballah and hard-line Palestinian terrorist groups.
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report December 29, 2003
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 Exclusive Report December 25, 2003
Cairo is still fuming over the "flying shoe ambush" to which Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Maher was treated when he tried to pray Monday, December 12, at al Aqsa mosque on Temple Mount, Jerusalem. Mubarak regards the assault as a spiteful rejoinder from Yasser Arafat for the Egyptian minister's failure to call on him in Ramallah. Since the incident, Palestinian delegations have been rushing to the Egyptian capital to grovel. Cairo entertains a strong suspicion that there was more in the affair that meets the eye. Hints have been dropped that either the two teams had advance knowledge of the attack and orders not to intervene or, worse, Arafat and the Palestinian authorities have abandoned control of al-Aqsa mosque to radical Muslims.
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report December 14, 2003
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. To subscribe to DEBKA-Net-Weekly click HERE.
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.
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report November 11, 2003
On Monday, November 10, Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz said that as long as Syria provides bases for Palestinian terrorists for attacks in Israel, his government reserves the right of self-defense. He is reported to have said this to US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld during their two-hour discussion in Washington which also ranged over the upgrading of bilateral intelligence exchanges and the Iranian threat to the region. To subscribe to DEBKA-Net-Weekly click HERE. Last month, Syria made its position clear when spokesmen in Damascus warned Israel of a second warfront opening up on the Golan Heights by means of "Syrian citizens mounting attacks on Israeli settlements."
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report October 29, 2003
A shrill chorus of threats has been emanating from Syria, the Palestinians and the Hizballah as the Middle East heads toward another bleak winter. President Bashar Assad is still smarting from Israel's October 5 retaliatory air strike against a terrorist training camp at Ein Hatsav 15 miles from Damascus - the deepest Israeli raid inside Syria since the 1973 war. It followed the deaths of 19 Israelis in a suicide bombing in Haifa and Israeli accusations of Syrian support for terrorist groups and activities. Not content with the warnings issuing from Syrian officials every couple of days, Assad dispatched his military chief, General Hassan Turkmani, and deputy chief of staff general Ali Habib - widely regarded as the Syrian army's most professional commander -- to Beirut on Monday, October 27 for some straight talk with Lebanese leaders. They notified President Emil Lahoud, army chief of staff General Michel Suleiman and military intelligence chief General Michel Azar in no uncertain terms that any future Israel strikes would bring forth Syrian reprisals. In such a contingency, Lebanon would be required to stand shoulder to shoulder with Syria in a united front.
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report October 14, 2003
According to one Damascus source, Syria has followed the Israeli air raid of a Palestinian site on its soil by secretly calling up 300,000 reservists to beef up its standing army of roughly the same number. This figure, in the view of debkafile's military sources, is implausibly high. A large call-up was certainly staged after the Israeli raid. But in Syrian terms, 50,000 men would be the more realistic figure, plus standby orders to tens of thousands more. In general, the attempt to depict Syria as another of Ariel Sharon's victims fails to take account of the "victim's" proactive role in the Iraq war in support of Saddam Hussein. It ranges from the asylum granted Iraqi political and military elite to the smuggling of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction out of the country several weeks before the war in March and after it began. In between, Bashar Assad has deployed thousands of Syrian combatants in Iraq as well as Hizballah, Palestinians and any other Arabs willing to fight American troops in Iraq. To subscribe to DEBKA-Net-Weekly click HERE.
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report September 22, 2003
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Syrian Vice President Khalim Haddam Saturday, September 20, dismissed any suggestion of Damascus bowing to pressure from Washington - or being scared by economic sanctions. American threats are futile, he said. Syria does little business with the US; its main trading partners are European. The Syrian leader was responding to US demands for a halt to the passage of terrorists and Islamic fighters pouring into Iraq and an end to Syrian-based terrorist activity. To subscribe to DEBKA-Net-Weekly click HERE. One of top anti-US officials left in place in the latest government reshuffle in Damascus, Haddam made this speech while preparing to receive a delegation of angry Arab-Sunni tribal leaders from the Syrian-Iraq borderlands.
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report July 7, 2003
On July 6, the day before he took off for Cairo, Syrian President Bashar Assad signed Decree 408 in the name of the ruling Baath party. This bureaucratic measure hit the Syrian political system like a bolt from the blue. In a trice, the party which had governed ever corner of Syria's civil and military administration single-handed for forty years was removed from the levers of control. For decades, the lowliest officials in government and the economy, every university lecturer, journalist, military and police officer was obliged to be a member of the Baath party. Decree 408 dismissed the party as the main engine of power. Assad's next step, debkafile reports from its Middle East sources, is a major government reshuffle. By divorcing the ruling party from its influence over all forms of government in Syria, Assad has shown himself to be the only Arab leader who understands the import of the Iraq War in terms of regional democratization.