Saturday, January 20, 2007

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in talks in Damascus Saturday night. A high Iranian official is keeping tabs on Asad and Meshaal

"Abu Mazen’s trip to Damascus, ostensibly to see Syrian president Bashar Asad, connects with efforts by Palestinian intermediaries to arrange a meeting with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. DEBKAfile’s sources disclose that a high-ranking Iranian intelligence officer arrived in Damascus this week with requests for information about Abu Mazen’s talks in the Syrian capital.

The live wires behind them are Palestinian tycoon Muhammad Rashid and Fatah activist Nabil Amar, who is now working for Hamas. They are in Damascus pushing hard for an Abbas-Mashaal meeting and have drafted a “Document of Principles for the Establishment of a Palestinian government,” for them to sign.

So far, neither side has accepted the document’s wording or the make-up of the potential government of technocrats that is supposed to include Fatah and Hamas representatives.

The rancor between Abbas and Mashaal is so rooted that Rashid and Amar hope at best for a photo opportunity showing them together, signing the document with a handshake and going their separate ways without speaking to each other. This too has not yet been agreed.

Tehran’s emissary has asked Asad for an explanation on how Muhammad Rashid – seen by Iran as a broker of the reconciliation between Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and the US and Britain – came to be given a free hand in Damascus to mediate ties between Hamas and Washington through Abu Mazen.

When Rice was in Ramallah last Monday, she informed Abbas that the US was vehemently opposed to his trip to the Syrian capital. Later, Rashid and Abbas’ aide, the Gaza-based Muhammad Dahlan, called her several times to talk her round. They argued that the Fatah-Hamas crisis might be resolved if Abbas talked to Asad and Meshaal. The US secretary was not convinced.

The success of the Rashid mediation effort depends very much on the instructions the Iranian emissary brought from Iran to the hardline Hamas leader Meshaal and whether he will obey them.

DEBKAfile’s sources in Tehran report that the Islami Republic is not happy with the Syrian government’s frequently published offers of friendlier relations with the US and the revival of peace talks with Israel. The Iranian emissary to Damascus asked Asad to describe how he perceives his strategic partnership with Iran in two or three years’ time.

This query was Iran’s way of checking to see if Asad intended to stick to their alliance in the foreseeable future or break away. The Iranians are also uneasy over Syria’s non-response to the Israeli demand to rein in the Hizballah. The Iranian high-up demanded an unambiguous statement from Asad that his attitude to the Lebanese Shiite terrorist group was unchanged. He asked for a pledge that Damascus would not restrict Iranian arms consignments transiting Syria to the Hizballah, or curb the Shiite militia’s activities in Lebanon. Asad reassured the Iranian official and promised him Tehran had nothing to fear about any change of policy.

Our Middle East sources note that this is the first time since the Iran-Syrian strategic alliance was forged seven years ago that Tehran is showing uncertainty and concern about the Syrian ruler’s commitment."


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