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May 11, 2003

Middle East Road Map – A Useful Cover Story

While the US persues a different route.

DEBKAfile Exclusive Reports that Powell left the Road Map at home

After undergoing several metamorphoses since its formulation by the Quartet, the Middle East road map looks rather like a skimpy blanket pulled over Ariel Sharon, Colin Powell, Bashar Assad, Abu Mazen and Yasser Arafat while each keeps to his own bed. Saturday, May 10, the blanket was whisked away, draining of its structural content the heralded visit by US secretary of state Powell to Israel and the Palestinians. Correspondingly, the regional context of his trip swelled in importance, its focus switching from the Israel-Palestinian conflict over to US relations with Iran, Syria and Lebanon – a higher priority in the post-Iraq war period.

This switch generated the Bush administration’s decision, as leaked in Washington Saturday, to put aside the road map for now and press instead for Israeli and Palestinian steps to ease the tensions between them. The leak, released when Powell was airborne, followed President George W. Bush proposal to establish a Middle East free trade area within a decade. Speaking at the University of South Carolina, Friday, May 9, he did not mention the road map’s 2005 target date for Palestinian statehood. He only promised the Palestinian people an independent state if they cracked down on terror and took the path of peace, reform and democracy. Israel’s Arab neighbors, said the US president, must recognize Israel’s right to exist in peace.

The spotlight began edging away from the Middle East road map a week ago. As the secretary of state prepared to board his outward flight from Damascus after meeting Syrian president Bashar Assad, one of his aides handed a sheet of paper to a Syrian official. On it was a list of 10 American demands which the Syrian was told Damascus had ten days to meet. The deadline runs out on Tuesday, May 13.

DEBKAfile has listed the key American demands of Syria in other articles on this page and they have not changed. But Powell added an important oral detail during his talk with Assad. DEBKAfile’s Middle East sources reveal he informed the Syrian president that it was time to close the books on the longstanding issues of Israelis missing in action, prisoners of war and abducted men. He named the three men missing from the 1982 Sultan Yacoub battle, Yaacov Katz, Zachariah Baumel and Zvi Feldman, the navigator Ron Arad, the men kidnapped by the Hizballah in 2000, Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Sawwad, and the civilian Elhanan Tanenboim, as well as Guy Hever, who disappeared with trace and whose family believes he was abducted to Syria. Powell warned Assad the Middle East had entered a new era and this agonizing business must be put to rest.

A week later, the Syrian president had still not responded to the ten American demands or to Powell’s request regarding missing Israelis. Neither has Washington signaled how it will react if Syria turns a deaf ear. According to DEBKAfile’s Washington sources, the administration is mulling four optional responses:

A. To leave the ultimatum sword hanging over Assad’s head not knowing when it will come down.

B. To carry out covert or overt military operations against Iraqi and terrorist targets in Syria and Lebanon.

C. To strangle the Assad regime with an economic noose.

D. To instigate regime change in Damascus - whether by means of a military putsch or a coup d’etat.

Syrian peace feeler
Earlier, to stave off threatened action from Washington, Syria sent out a peace feeler to Jerusalem. An Israeli emissary was dispatched to Amman with a reply. Even before he returned to Jerusalem, the cat was out of the bag and the media trumpeted the failure of another Israel-Syrian peace initiative. What happened, according to DEBKAfile’s political sources, was this: Syria made an offer, wrapping it round with two inducements to make it more attractive: 1. The Israel-Syrian negotiating track would not be linked to the Palestinian issue. 2. Syria would forego its demand for the resumed process to be picked up at the point where the last round broke down.

On the other hand, Syria demanded the talks take place under an international umbrella like the Quintet’s sponsorship of the Middle East road map. This would bring the Europeans, the Russians and the United Nations into the process – hidden trap number one for Washington and Jerusalem.

The Lebanese issue would not be addressed before the Israel-Syrian process began, leaving Hizballah terror unresolved – trap number two.

After consultation, American and Israeli leaders diagnosed the Syrian president’s overture as not springing from any change of heart in regard to peace, but rather an attempt to fight free of the toils of the US ultimatum. US officials warned Sharon that his cooperation would give Damascus a chance to duck round American demands for the surrender Saddam’s unconventional weapons and regime leaders and the dismantling of the Hizballah and Palestinian terrorist structures in Syria and Lebanon. Syria would tag Washington’s ultimatum onto the Syrian-Israeli peace agenda and declare it must take its turn on the table. The Israeli prime minister therefore played for time and promised an answer one month hence.

Having failed in its ruse, Damascus pulled back and, on May 10, rejected “Sharon’s offer” of peace negotiations without prior conditions.

This announcement on the day of Powell’s arrival in the Middle East and Assad’s zigzags indicate considerable agitation in Damascus under the pressure of the approaching expiry of the American ultimatum next Tuesday. DEBKAfile’s sources in Beirut report that Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah is also running around between Lebanese politicians in search of help to escape the US dictated evacuation of his armed positions along the Israeli border and his group’s total disarmament.

Tehran’s crucial role
The two targeted leaders are casting about for a lifeline. They are looking for salvation to Iranian president Muhammed Khatami, whose visits to Damascus and Beirut Monday, May 12, were suddenly announced just before Powell arrived in the Middle East. Assad needs to hear whether Tehran will support him if he stands up to the Americans or opt for a repetition of the pattern followed in Iraq - first calling on Iraqi Shiites to fight the American invaders and then caving in on the pivotal issue of who calls the shots for the country’s Shiite majority. By conceding to the Americans on this vital issue, the ayatollahs made possible the return to Iraq from 23 years in Iranian exile of Ayatollah Bakir al-Hakim, head of SCIRI, the largest Iraqi Shiite group, who reached Basra Saturday, May 10.

If Iran lets him down, Assad may have to accept that, despite the rosy picture painted by his advisers, he is directly in America’s firing line. As for Nasrallah, while the Hizballah is Tehran’s old and tried terrorist surrogate, the ayatollahs’ concerns have broadened considerably since the Iraq war ended. DEBKAfile’s military sources were not surprised to hear that Iran has just suspended its arms and ammunitions shipments to the Hizballah.

Yasser Arafat in Ramallah too is waiting to see what message President Khatami brings to Damascus and Beirut. But he is not worried. If Iran lets Assad and Nasrallah down and they are forced to mend their ways in obedience to Washington’s dictates, he will be left in solitary command of his most coveted role, the last Arab and Muslim leader still openly fighting the United States and the Zionists. Even Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein have been forced into hiding. This rationale requires the Palestinians to continue their terror campaign at full spate in obedience to the orders Arafat hands down from his supreme command post in Ramallah.

It was therefore inconceivable for Powell to go to Ramallah to see Palestinian premier Mahmoud Abbas, aka Abu Mazen. He would have run into grave danger of assassination by the Hamas or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. They are therefore meeting Sunday, May 11, in Jericho.

Abu Mazen is also watching and waiting for Khatami’s visits, hoping for a clue to the situations of Arafat, Assad and Nasrallah and whether America – with or without Israel – means to take on the Hizballah, the Hamas, the Jihad Islami and the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. Neither he nor his internal security minister Mohamed Dahlan are willing to put their hands into that fire – meaning that Abu Mazen as Palestinian reform horse will not run. Without a reformed Palestinian administration, the Middle East road map is a non-starter and Washington had little choice but to suspend it.

As for Sharon, he is waiting for his talks with Bush at the White House on May 20.

Tehran’s posture will have a crucial bearing on the next stage of policy-making for the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and in relation to Israel. How will the message reach Washington?

First exploratory US-Iranian talks were held very recently in Geneva, centering on Iran’s nuclear weapons program and prospects for regime change. Middle East capitals are now flooded with rumors that the US secretary or a member of his party may meet Khatami or his representative at some point in his current Middle East tour which takes him from Israel and Jericho on to Cairo, Amman and Riyadh.

Regime change in Tehran from within?
Tackling Iranian hardliners on their home front, the United States this week managed to raise a majority of Iranian parliamentarians, members of the Majlis who support the reformist president Khatami, who put their signatures to an open letter firing a powerful broadside at the regime in Tehran and its repressive and anti-American policies.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources report that the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, the National Security Council, the CIA and every congressman or senator with a connection in any Iranian expatriate community fired every weapon in their collective diplomatic arsenal to round up the signatures in time to publish the letter on Wednesday May 7.

Three important principles were laid out by 153 of the house’s 290 deputies:

1. The Iranian regime will merit legitimacy only after narrowing the gap dividing it from the people and by reviewing the inefficient methods of governance that led to its failures of policy.

Our sources note that the term “failures” is used for the first time publicly in reference to the Islamic government in Tehran.

2. Legitimacy of the Iranian regime is conditional on the promulgation of two laws: One, providing for electoral reform and another expanding presidential authority.

Our sources explain the aim of this motion as being to place all foreign policy-making within the exclusive province of the president.

3. The reformist faction urges the government to take advantage of US threats by turning them into opportunities for negotiating an accommodation with Washington and effecting essential reforms.

The last clause was meant to convey that American threats should be taken seriously enough to convince the Iranian government to opt for engagement.

After firing this volley behind enemy lines, Washington is waiting to see how Iran’s hard-line spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reacts and whether a meeting can be set up between Powell and Khatami - or their representatives - now that the Iranian president is armed with a parliamentary majority advocating reform.

Regime change in Tehran generated by domestic forces would be the key to a similar process in Damascus, Beirut and Ramallah, failing which the United States may turn to other methods for achieving its goal. This circumstance could finally free the hands of Israel’s prime minister and defense minister Shaul Mofaz for action in Ramallah.