Heretofore Secretary of State Rice and the CIA have advocated patience in dealing with the Syrian leader on two accounts. For one, following September ll, 2001 Syrian officials, particularly its chief of military intelligence, Asef Shawkat, Assads brother-in-law, now a key suspect in the death of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, worked closely with U.S. counter-terrorism agencies. Secondly, CIA officials have told the White House that a U.S. military attack inside Syria may destabilize the Assad government and there is no guarantee that a worse government, possibly an Islamist fundamentalist one, might replace it. Israeli intelligence officials have also expressed similar concerns to their Western counterparts.
White House insiders, however, report the reservoir of patience for Syria is all but evaporating by the hour. One official known to be strongly advocating a strike against Syria is President Bushs national intelligence director, John Negroponte.
In recent months, President Assad has been shown unmistakable evidence by representatives of the U.S. government of insurgent military training camps that are being operated inside Syrian territory. Assad has reviewed such information and repeatedly promised to do something about it. But to date he has done little or nothing to quell the insurgent attacks, most of which are comprised by Saudi nationals.
In an exercise of pan-Arab solidarity, Syrias President Assad expressed hope back in 2003 that Americans would lose the war in Iraq , which rankled feathers with Washington.
The problem with any U.S. aerial strike inside Syria is that we are not a thousand percent sure where all of these camps are located, explains one U.S. intelligence official. But any such attack would surely bolster President Bushs sagging popularity in the short term.
Assad seems to have pushed Syria into a tight corner by balking at complete cooperation with the United Nations lead investigator, Detlev Mehlis, regarding Syrias complicity in the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariris murder. He has characterized the UNs investigation into the February l4th assassination of Hariri as part of a United States attack on Syria.
Several well-placed members of the U.S. intelligence community report to IIMCR that members of the Syrian intelligence apparatus were definitely involved in orchestrating the assassination of Mr. Hariri. U.S. and Israeli intelligence authorities have hard evidence of Syrian officials discussing plans of Hariris death. But neither U.S., nor Israeli intelligence officials, warned Hariri directly. That responsibility was left to French President Jacques Chirac, a close confidant of Hariri. It is also known that Hariri was actively involved in the year before his death in attempting to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria. And yet others suggest the evidence the United Nations has on the Hariri investigation is not an open and shut case.
What is clear, however, is that one of Assads primary supporter, Egypts President Hosni Mubarak is believed to be exhausted in helping the Syrian leader extract himself from daily crises.
Syrias 40-year-old leader, a former eye doctor who spent a year training at a St Marys Hospital unit in London, is believed to be in way over his head. Not equipped to run a country to which he ascended to power in June of 2000, Assad is no longer being given the benefit of the doubt. He continues to frustrate his own aides on almost a daily basis.
But can Assad save himself with the West if he were to do more to try to block the flow of Arab volunteers going to join the Iraqi insurgency? Very few are willing to take such a bet today.