Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, August 5th, 2008
Amid increasing speculation, some Arab media and Syrian dissidents suggested Monday that the reported assassination of a senior Syrian intelligence officer over the weekend may be a case of one man knowing too much for his own good.
As of Monday, the tightly-controlled Syrian press had yet to comment on the reported death of Brig.-Gen. Muhammad Suleiman, said to be a close adviser to Syrian President Bashar Assad, who was reportedly killed by a sniper from a yacht.
"There is no doubt that General Muhammad Suleiman is the closest person to Bashar al-Assad and is his right hand in the armed forces and he knows everything," an unidentified Syrian official was quoted as saying in Monday's London-based Asharq al-Awsat, which is owned by Saudi Arabia and is critical of Assad's government. "He has all the files; security, financial and [army] reform" files.
Suleiman, 49, was responsible for "sensitive security files" in the Syrian president's office and in charge of the financing and reform of the Syrian army, the source said. But he added that it was too early to know whether the assassination had to do with particular files Suleiman handled.
"It's better to wait three or four days until the indications appear in this or that direction, particularly because the assassination took place in a very precise way," he was quoted as saying by Asharq al-Awsat.
Other Syrian sources, quoted in the Al Bawaba news site, have said he was the liaison officer to Hizbullah, in addition to other assignments.
Asharq al-Awsat also said Suleiman had been among the Syrian officials requested by the former president of the international tribunal to investigate the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
Dissidents were quick to point the finger at the regime.
"As [with] everybody else, it seems, I cannot help but connect [Suleiman's assassination] to an ongoing attempt at eliminating people who have sensitive information on the Lebanese file and Syria's involvement there, perhaps even the assassination of Hariri, et al," the Maryland-based Syrian dissident and novelist Ammar Abdulhamid wrote in an e-mail interview.
"It seems that the indictment issued against [President] Omar Bashir of Sudan [by the International Criminal Court for genocide, crimes against humanity and murder] might have had a psychological impact here. After all, the Tribunal is still the main threat against the regime."
But Syrian expert Joshua Landis, the co-director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said he doubts the veracity of many such claims, often circulated by the regime's opponents to show Western countries that Syria is unstable and not worth engaging.
"We don't know anything about this Muhammad Suleiman," he told The Jerusalem Post. "It's really all wild speculation. There is a big propaganda machine that would use something like this to imply that the regime is falling apart… I think there will be a lot of speculation about this, [and] all of it will be uninformed or misleading."
Landis said that Suleiman had played an important role the first two years of Bashar Assad's regime, serving "as a sort of chief of staff" but had played a less prominent role since then.
The assassination, he added, is "embarrassing to the regime," since it is doing its best to depict itself as "a sea of tranquility in the Middle East fraught with extremism, factionalism and al-Qaida type elements."
Israeli diplomatic sources said it was difficult to tell what kind of significance the killing of Suleiman would have on Syria domestically, or on the possible ramifications for Israel, since no one had any definitive idea who was responsible.
"There is a complete Syrian blackout," the sources said, adding that there were a number of theories about who might have had an interest in killing him.
The first theory is that it had to do with internal fighting inside Hizbullah, and a possible "settling of accounts." The second theory is that Assad himself may have wanted to see him killed, concerned he may have known too much about the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri three years ago. The UN-established Special Tribunal for Lebanon is expected early next year to begin trying those suspected of killing Hariri in 2005.
And the third theory is that Israel was responsible for the killing, to stop the arms smuggling from Syria to Hizbullah. Suleiman was reportedly responsible for the transfer of arms to Hizbullah.
The officials said that unlike Israel's attack in September on an alleged nuclear facility in Syria, or the killing of Hizbullah commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus, Israel did not feel it had to prepare for a possible revenge attack, partly because the Syrians have not blamed Israel.
Though Syria did blame Israel for the September attack, and Hizbullah blamed Israel for the killing of Mughniyeh, Damascus has not pointed a finger at Israel for the killing of Suleiman.
Suleiman's assassination, along with that of Hizbullah operations chief Imad Mughniyeh's, demonstrates that Syria's security apparatus is not fool-proof, says Moshe Maoz, a professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
"This is a blow to the regime," he told the Post. "This is a police state and security is above everything. In this sense, it's not going good for the regime." Maoz said he "doubts very much" that Israel was involved in Suleiman's death.
Suleiman "was at the heart of the regime and Israel is in negotiations with Syria and this is not the time to do it," he said. "Normally, Israel would exhaust all possibilities to damage the regime, but not now."
He added: "But it's very, very hard to say."
Channel Two journalist Ehud Ya'ari said Monday that Syrian sources indicated the assassination had to do with Suleiman's involvement with Syrian's alleged nuclear program
[Landis Analysis] The following analysis by Oxford Analytica, which is usually very good, does not seem very sound this time. The analyst, who may be new, argues that Syria has dramatically changed its foreign policy to become cooperative on Lebanon and elsewhere because it was scared to death by Israel's 2006 bombing of Lebanon. The analysist surmises that Damascus made the calculation that it had to make serious concessions to the West or bad things would happen to it. The Analyst also takes seriously the rumours about Asef Shawkat trying to undermine the regime. This is poppycock according to my sources. Asef has not tried to carry out a coup and is still a power in Syria and on good terms with the president.
The reason for the change in Lebanon is because the March 14 coalition and Western powers — primarily France – caved in to Hizbullah's demands that the Lebanese opposition get a blocking third in the new cabinet. It was not Syria that changed behavior and altered its demands but France and March 14th. Washington also has had to bow to reality and Hizbullah's power in Lebanon. The 2006 War did not prove Israel's hegemony, but its weakness. Miltary means could not wipe out Hizbullah. The US stepped in after 2006 and tried to build up the March 14th hardliners and the Lebanese Army in the hope that they would be able to disarm Hizbullah. This proved to be in vain when the Army cooperated with Hizbullah in the Shiite militia's strike on Hariri's power base in West Beirut. France saw the writing on the wall and recognized that only diplomacy and dialogue with Syria would settle the Lebanon stand-off. So did Hariri and company, so did Israel, leading to its announcement of renewed peace negotiations with Syria.
Here is the Oxford Analytica analysis:
SYRIA: Foreign policy adjustment breaks isolation
Tuesday, July 29 2008
Oxford Analytica 2008
EVENT: The US State Department on July 24 reversed plans for a meeting with a visiting Syrian delegation.
SIGNIFICANCE: Although relations with the United States are still in deep freeze, President Bashar al-Assad's state visit to France this month marked the end of Syria's international isolation. His promise in Paris to establish diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon signalled a foreign policy shift that further confirmed the end to his pariah status over Lebanon.
ANALYSIS: President Bashar al-Assad's recent visit to France was in response to an invitation from French President Nicolas Sarkozy extended in the context of the EU's Mediterranean Union initiative (Assad's landmark visit marked the end of Syria's international isolation.
Isolation. Damascus fell out of favour with France and much of the Western world following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in February 2005. Many, including then French President Jacques Chirac, a personal friend of Hariri, have accused Syria of the killing, though Damascus denies involvement. Syria, which for almost 30 years had exercised control over Lebanon's political scene, has also faced charges of obstructing Lebanese political reconciliation through its alliance with the Hizbollah-led opposition, as well as smuggling arms into Lebanon.
Lebanon breakthrough. With Chirac out of power, Damascus last year worked hard to convince Sarkozy's administration of the need to engage Syria in bilateral discussions over the fate of Lebanon. The French proposal to solve the impasse in Lebanon involved Lebanese MPs electing as president army chief General Michel Suleiman, the consensus candidate (one among the few that both majority and opposition accepted):
· The Hizbollah-led opposition rejected that proposal on the grounds that, in the absence of a national unity government, the election of a new president was in itself insufficient.
· Although Damascus too wanted Suleiman installed — as army commander under the former pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, Suleiman and Assad had a good working relationship — Syria's terms were similar to those of the Lebanese opposition, creating renewed tensions.
Syrian role. What broke the new logjam between Paris and Damascus was the constructive role Syria played during the Qatari-mediated talks between the Lebanon's pro-Western coalition and the Iranian-backed Hizbollah-led opposition at Doha in May. The bloody clashes that erupted in early May served as the catalyst for the Doha agreement:
· Syria feared that it would be accused of obstructing a deal and that it would be the target of further international retribution.
· France feared that the clashes would cause the collapse of the pro-Western coalition, especially since Washington, the pro-Western coalition's lead supporter, was now on the retreat.
However, it was also out of a shared fear of yet another civil war in Lebanon that Syria and France, together with their respective local Lebanese allies, reached agreement:
· Syria proposed that the election of the new president be part of a wider deal that included the formation of a national unity government that gave the opposition veto power and the establishment of a new electoral law.
· When this was rejected by the ruling majority, Syria leaned on Hizbollah — with the approval of Iran — to limit its own share of the cabinet seats which would be allocated to the opposition under the agreed formula — whereby the majority would get 16 cabinet ministries, the opposition eleven, and the president three (see LEBANON: Doha truce buys time to tackle deep problems – May 23, 2008).
Conclusion of the agreement removed Sarkozy's condition for the resumption of Syrian-French relations. It was in this context that he included Assad in the list of honoured guests this month. As a reward for helping him come out from the cold, Assad awarded a 1 billion dollar contract for a cement factory to a French company. Moreover, he announced following his meeting with Suleiman in Paris that he would work towards establishment of diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Syria. Sarkozy asked Syria to intercede between Western countries and Iran over the Iranian nuclear issue. He also promised to push for the long-stalled Association Agreement between the EU and Syria.
Policy shift. The constructive role Syria played during this episode did not emerge in a vacuum but is part of a larger reorientation in Syrian foreign policy. That reorientation began with the 34-day Hizbollah-Israel confrontation in the south of Lebanon in the summer of 2006, a war in which Lebanon was nearly destroyed:
· The duration of that conflict and the extent of the damage Israel's punitive air strikes inflicted on Lebanon impressed upon Syrian leaders just how far the US-led international community would go to destroy Hizbollah.
· As a result of its threat perception, Syria began sending signals to Israel via Turkish diplomats that Damascus was willing to resume peace talks, albeit indirectly.
· To demonstrate its sincerity, Syria this year leaned on the Damascus-based political leadership of Hamas to accept a truce with Israel that Egypt was negotiating (
· Furthermore, Syria has played the role of mediator between the Fatah-dominated Palestinian National Authority and Hamas.
· In yet another sign that Syria was willing to change its ways, Damascus recently allowed a team of IAEA inspectors to visit, unhindered, the site of the alleged nuclear facility that Israeli air force jets bombed in early September ().
Domestic aspects. The shift in Syria's attitude coincided with the rumoured removal in April of Major General Assef Shawkat from power following the assassination of Hizbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh in February in Damascus. Shawkat, a hardliner who promoted relations with Iran at the expense of Saudi Arabia and Egypt (the pillars of the Arab system) and at the expense of relations with the Western world, was head of Military Intelligence and Assad's brother-in-law. He is said to be under house arrest.
If Shawkat has indeed been removed, it means that the moderate faction in the regime now has the upper hand, at least in foreign policy matters. Indeed, Syrian foreign policy now seems to be conducted by the seasoned foreign minister, Walid Mouallem, a former ambassador to Washington and one who commands considerable respect in the West, instead of Shawkat and Vice-President Farouk al-Shara.
Key relationships. However, this shift — and the Doha agreement — have not yet translated into improvements in Syria's other key relationships:
· United States. Relations remain cool, with Washington last week apparently passing up an opportunity to meet a Syrian private delegation. With US isolation policy showing few results and Washington seemingly caught out by the indirect Syrian-Israeli talks, it had seemed that a tactical adjustment might be forthcoming, in a similar vein to the presence of Under-Secretary of State William Burns at a recent meeting with Iranian officials.
· Saudi Arabia. Relations have not yet recovered from Syrian claims several months ago that the Saudis were plotting a coup against the Assad regime, fomented through Sunni tribes loyal to Riyadh. Damascus then expelled the Saudi military attache.
CONCLUSION: The regime has recognised that a foreign policy adjustment away from Tehran and towards the West is necessary for its survival. Its success in breaking out of its isolation is due not only to its diplomatic skill: Washington's regional retreat and France's new push for a major regional role have provided Damascus with the diplomatic opportunity, which it has seized. If the Assad regime can avoid actions in Lebanon that anger Paris and strike a deal to avert the worst-case outcome in the international tribunal over the Hariri assassination, it is likely to remain in power for some time.
Author claims White House knew Iraq had no WMD By Bob Considine, NBC, August 5, 2008 President Bush committed an impeachable offense by ordering the CIA to to manufacture a false pretense for the Iraq war in the form of a backdated, handwritten document linking Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, an explosive new book claims. The charge is made [...]
The White House had concocted a fake letter from Habbush to Saddam, backdated to July 1, 2001,” Suskind writes. “It said that 9/11 ringleader Mohammad Atta had actually trained for his mission in Iraq – thus showing, finally, that there was an operational link between Saddam and al Qaeda, something the Vice President’s Office had been pressing CIA to prove since 9/11 as a justification to invade Iraq. There is no link.” …
Syrian Leader Gets Top Billing in Middle East by Doing Nothing
by Robert Fisk
Published on Monday, August 4, 2008 by The Independent/UK
President Bashar al-Assad is once more one of the “triple pillars” of the Middle East. We may not like that. George Bush may curse the day his invasion of Iraq helped to shore up the power of the Caliph of Damascus. But Mr Assad’s latest trip to Tehran – just three weeks after he helped to toast the overthrow of the King of France beside President Nicolas Sarkozy – seals his place in history. Without a shot being fired, Mr Assad has ensured anyone who wants anything in the Middle East has got to talk to Syria. He’s done nothing – and he’s won.
The Europeans like to think – or, at least, M. Sarkozy likes to think – Mr Assad was in Tehran to persuade President Ahmadinejad not to go nuclear. Even Sana, the official Syrian news agency, was almost frank about it. The purpose of the Assad visit was “to consult on the nuclear issue and the right of states to peaceful enrichment” and “exchange ideas aimed at clarifying Iran’s commitment to all international agreements”. Mr Assad was M. Sarkozy’s point-man.
The inevitable followed. President Ahmadinejad expressed his belief that only diplomacy could deliver us from the nuclear tangle, leaving us with Mr Assad’s statement to M. Sarkozy on 12 July. Asked if the Iranians were trying to develop a nuclear bomb, Mr Assad told the French President he had asked the Iranians this very question, they had replied in the negative and this was good enough for him.
What’s interesting about this is that Mr Assad probably believes it. Indeed, it may be true. Of all people, he knows about trust – or the lack of it – and his father’s main foreign policy achievement was probably maintaining Syria’s relations with Iran. In the face of every appeal to abandon Tehran, he refused. The younger Assad’s talks with Israel via Turkey suggested to the Washington commentariat that he may at last be abandoning Iran and the return of Golan was more powerful to Bashar al-Assad than Syria’s all-embracing role as the postman of Tehran. Not so.
For there was Mr Assad in Tehran this weekend, praising the mutual relationship between Iran and Syria and talking with Mr Ahmadinejad about the Israeli-US “conspiracy”. The Syrian-supported Hizbollah’s retrieval of living prisoners from Israel in return for the remains of two dead Israeli soldiers, was described by Mr Assad as “one of the achievements of the resistance”. Which, in a way, it was. For Hizbollah’s allies in the Lebanese government now have veto power over the cabinet majority, and Syria’s power has returned to Beirut without the cost of sending a single Syrian soldier.
In other words, Syria kept its cool. When the US invaded Iraq, the world wondered if its tanks would turn left to Damascus or right to Tehran. In fact, they lie still in the Iraqi desert, where US generals still variously accuse Iran and Syria of encouraging the insurgency against them. If Washington wants to leave Iraq, it can call Damascus for help.
And the real cost? The US will have to restore full relations with Syria. It will have to continue talks with Iran. It will have to thank Iran for its “help” in Iraq – most of the Iraqi government, after all, was nurtured in the Islamic Republic during the Iran-Iraq war in which the US took Saddam’s side. It will have to accept Iran is not making a nuclear bomb. And it will have to prevent Israel staging a bombing spectacular on Iran which will destroy every hope of US mediation. It will also have to produce a just Middle East peace. McCain or Obama, please note.
And the triple pillars? Well, one is Mr Assad, of course. The second is the crackpot Mr Ahmadinejad. And the third? It was once President Bush. Who will take his place? President Assad must have enjoyed his Iranian caviar.