British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has just completed an official visit to Syria. This was the first visit of a senior British elected official to Damascus since 2001. Following the visit, the British media revealed that Miliband has agreed to the renewal of high-level intelligence links with Syria.
Miliband’s visit was clearly intended as a signal to the incoming US administration of London’s support for the view of Syria as a potential guarantor of peace and stability in the region – if it can be tempted with the right inducements. This view is currently helping Damascus rebuild both its relations with the West, and its power in the neighborhood.
Syria is trying to market itself as a key ally in the struggle against al-Qaida style Islamist terrorism in the region. There is a certain irony to this, since Syria has itself been acting as a key facilitator for the Sunni jihadis in the last years. Maj.-Gen. John Kelly, head of Multinational Forces West in Iraq, said recently that al-Qaida fighters have been living “pretty openly” on the Syrian side of the border. Both Iraqi and Jordanian officials have confirmed that recent warnings and appeals to Damascus regarding the presence of senior al-Qaida figures in Syria have gone unheeded.
But a particular group of Sunni Islamists are now being presented by the Syrian regime as evidence of Damascus’s status as a fellow sufferer from the al-Qaida scourge. A week ago, Syrian state television broadcast interviews with members of a cell of the Fatah al-Islam organization. The 10 members of the cell admitted carrying out a bombing in southern Damascus on September 27. They said they had carried out this act as part of an effort to bring down the Bashar Assad regime.
Fatah al-Islam is the mysterious Sunni Islamist organization that emerged last year in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon. The organization fought a bloody battle with the Lebanese army in the camp. At the time, many Lebanon-watchers noted the extensive links of the group’s leader, a Palestinian called Shaker al-Abssi, with the Syrian authorities.
Abssi, who had previously belonged to a pro-Syrian group called Fatah Intifada, had been released early from a Syrian jail before reappearing as the Fatah al-Islam commander. A Lebanese citizen, Ahmed Merie, testified that he had acted as a liaison between Abssi and Gen. Assef Shawkat, head of Syrian Military Intelligence. According to Merie, Shawkat supplied a skilled bomb maker to the terrorist group.
The Syrians have also been touting the Sunni jihadi threat as the reason for increased Syrian-Lebanese security cooperation. Many see this as coded language for the rebuilding of effective Syrian security control of its neighbor.
Miliband, in Damascus, held up the establishing of formal diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon as an example of the encouraging transformation in Syrian attitudes. But a recent report in the pro-Syrian Al-Akhbar newspaper explained that the formalization of relations was made possible because of the effective domination of the Lebanese government by pro-Syrian elements since the Doha agreement of June 2008.
The international investigation into 2005’s murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri had been the key threat hanging over the regime’s head in the last three years. The possibility of senior Syrian officials being called before an international court to answer charges was a nightmare scenario from Damascus’s point of view. The contempt in which the Syrians now hold the tribunal, as well as the regime’s feline sense of humor, may be gauged by the fact that the ubiquitous Assef Shawkat, himself formerly a chief suspect in the investigation into the Hariri killing, is now in charge of the joint Syrian-Lebanese campaign against “terrorism.” Shawkat also serves as liaison with Lebanon’s intelligence chief on this issue.
The newly-minted Syrian victims of Islamist terror, meanwhile, were quite clear with their British guest that their alliance with Iran, and support for Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, would continue. Syrian officials, including President Assad, have stated since the indirect talks with Israel began that these links are not up for discussion.
So let’s take a glance at the score sheet. Links with the Europeans are being steadily rebuilt, on the basis of Syria’s declared opposition to Sunni Islamist forces – some of which Damascus itself appears to have created, others of which it has provided with a safe haven.
The Syrian security forces who left Lebanon by the front door in 2005 are reentering by the back door of cooperation with a government increasingly dominated by pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian forces. This cooperation is also taking place in the name of a joint struggle against “terrorism.”
The regime is now preparing for the next goal – rapprochement with the US. All this is happening with a tacit understanding that Syria’s strategic alliance with the West’s main regional enemy remains off-limits for discussion. The process is also currently unaffected by growing evidence of a clandestine Syrian nuclear program in progress at least until the Israeli raid of September 2007.
So will Israel find itself in a few months chided for intransigence toward our fellow anti-terrorists in Damascus for conditioning a withdrawal from the Golan on other, “unrelated,” issues? This will depend on whether President-elect Obama can be persuaded that Gen. Assef Shawkat – suspect in the Hariri murder, one time facilitator of Fatah al-Islam – is now a comrade in the battle against Islamist terror.