To clear up the Khaddam photo misinformation, here are a few specifics. The Reform Party of Syria, Farid Ghadry's US-based, anti regime group, reported a few days ago that the Iraqi and American troops had confiscated photos from an insurgent which showed leading mujahidiin with Syria's VP Khaddam. As it so often does, the Syrian Reform Party was shooting from the hip and confused everyone with false information or at least half-truths, making it very hard to know what to believe from them.
Thanks to Nicholas Blandford of the Christian Science Monitor, who recently interviewed Iraqi offials in Damascus, we have gotten some real facts. The always smart and right-on N. Blandford writes:
By the way, on the photographs of a Syrian official, it wasn't Khaddam that was supposed to be in the picture with the Iraqi insurgent.
Also General Petraeus' role in the oil for electricity deal was somewhat overblown, perhaps because of the "King David" image that surrounded Petraeus' nation-building efforts in Mosul at the time. Petraeus himself told me the story when I had some one-on-one time with him last June while we were touring the Taji military base north of Baghdad where the Iraqi troops are trained. Apparently the idea arose between Syrians and Iraqis in Mosul. The Iraqis approached Petraeus and he relayed the request to Paul Bremer in Baghdad. It was Bremer who gave the green light for the deal to proceed (off his own back or w/ the approval of the State Dept/Pentagon I don't know. But interestingly, the deal went ahead at the same time Rumsfeld was spouting all manner of threats against Syria in the aftermath of the war.) There were no Iraqi ministers to make such a deal at the time because Iraq was being governed by the Coalition Provisional Authority. The arrangement was brokered between the Americans in Baghdad and Khaddam in Damascus, so I don't see why that should suggest the VeeP has nefarious contacts with Iraqis. Lots of Syrians have contacts with Iraqis - bizmen and intelligence officials included.
Also on the pics, the Iraqi ambassador (who gave me this info) explained that PM Allawi is hoping the Syrians will see the light and crack down on the Iraqi Baathists in Damascus w/o having to embarass their neighbor by publishing the photos. The ambassador said that Iraq hopes to play the role of interlocutor between the Arab world and the US, instead of Saudi Arabia or Jordan. He believes that Syria needs to be encouraged to cooperate (rather than threatened) by economic/trade incentives.
Now that I have finished cursing the Reform Party for being untrustworthy spinners, let me quote their latest info! They claim that Armitage, who is in Syria today, will lay out 8 demnads, which are:
1) End all Emergency Laws that have been in place inside Syria over the last 41 years.
2) Free permanently all Prisoners of Conscience and political prisoners
3) Free the Syrian press from all censorship
4) Institute immediately political reforms
5) Institute immediately economic reforms
6) Rupture all relations with Iran
7) Announce that the Shaba farms are Syrian owned to resolve all outstanding issues with Hezbollah.
8) The United States delivered to the Syrian regime a list of 55 Saddamists living in Syria that it wants delivered to the US Armed Forces or expulsed from Syria.
THE RPS adds: "The Bush administration gave the Syrians until the end of April to implement these requests. This is the first time that the United States interferes in Syria's own internal affairs for the benefit of helping democratic civil societies and the rule of law in Syria."
We will see if any of this is correct. If it is, it will mean a real showdown between Washington and Damascus. It is hard to believe Washington is truly contemplating regime-change for Syria and not just using it as a threat. No one here seems to believe that anything good could come of instability in Syria. There are no white princes or democratic masses who could save the day. Evidently the Oxford Analytica group has predicted as one of their New Year events that Bashar al-Asad will resign and the Syria People will rise up. This made me laugh. There is no opposition here.
John C.K. Daly and Martin Sieff of UPI write that worried Syrian leaders are worried that the United States is moving towards a military confrontation aimed at toppling their Baathist government, or giving Israel the go-ahead to make such an attempt. Thus "they are pulling more troops out of Lebanon and holding urgent talks with Iran and the Palestine Liberation Organization."
Syrian leaders fear that the Bush administration, facing a grimly escalating guerrilla insurgency in Iraq in the run-up to the Jan. 30 elections there for a new National Assembly, might seek to outflank and dishearten the insurgents by widening the conflict to strike at alleged insurgent bases across the border in Syria.
Syrian officials are anxiously monitoring the appointment process of the second Bush administration for clues as to whether neo-conservative hawks such as David Wurmser, the most influential Middle East adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, and John Negroponte, the current U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, will get promoted to even more powerful positions, or whether incoming secretary of State Condoleezza Rice chooses officials regarded as more moderate or pragmatic, like current U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns, for key slots. Negroponte and Burns have both been mentioned as possible contenders for deputy secretary of state.
Wurmser has been mentioned as a possible contender for the key position of assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. He has been a vocal proponent for many years for "dismembering" both Iraq and Syria as "failed" Baathist states. And in Syrian eyes, Iraq has already effectively been dismembered, and they fear they are going to be next on the list.
The interim Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has dramatically ratcheted up its rhetoric against Syria in recent days. On Dec. 22, Hassan Allawi, Iraq's newly appointed ambassador to Damascus, told The Times of London that Baghdad now had evidence that senior Syrian officials had been giving significant assistance to the insurgents in his country. And only a few days before that, Gen. George W. Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, accused the Syrian government of "not going after the big fish" among the Iraqi Baathists who some U.S. and Iraqi officials claim are now running the insurgency from Damascus.
Ironically, Assad's government has cooperated closely with U.S. intelligence over the past three years in passing on much valuable intelligence about al-Qaida operations in the region. But Syrian policymakers fear that for U.S. decision-makers, blaming them for the Iraq mess has become the only game in town.