Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 18 January 2006
Issue No. 777
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

No quiet on the Eastern front

Egypt is stepping up attempts to contain the crisis that is threatening to topple the Syrian regime, reports Dina Ezzat

Following talks between President Hosni Mubarak and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, held in Sharm El-Sheikh on Sunday, Syria appeared to be edging closer to full compliance with the international commission investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri. The tentative agreement with Damascus to meet the commission's requests in a manner that does not compromise the status of the Syrian presidency was broached following a telephone conversation between Mubarak and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, who had earlier met with Al-Assad in Jeddah.

Legal sources in London, and diplomatic sources in Geneva, expect that within days Syria will approve the commission's request to meet with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa and that Al-Assad will himself provide written answers to the queries of the committee regarding the killing of Hariri and other Lebanese figures opposed to Syria.

"This issue has been the subject of informal talks in Geneva," said one Arab diplomat, who added that a compromise must now be reached between international law, which grants heads of state immunity from interrogation, and the enforcement of Chapter VII of the UN Charter which US diplomats have threatened to use should the Syrian president refuse the requests of the investigation committee. High ranking legal sources say a defence for Assad and Sharaa is already being prepared by a leading Swiss legal firm.

Meanwhile Ghada Murad, the head of the Syrian Commission investigating the murder of Al-Hariri -- created by Al-Assad following the adoption of UN Resolution 1559 which calls on Syria to cooperate with the UN probe -- has been replaced by ex-Justice Minister Nabil Al-Khatib. Al-Khatib, an Assad loyalist, has been a member of the Baath Party's central committee since 2000. The move is being interpreted as an attempt by Damascus to project a more positive image following criticisms of the Syrian commission's activities by Detlev Mehlis in his report delivered in mid-December.

President Mubarak and King Abdullah also succeeded in convincing the Syrian leadership to accommodate at least some American demands concerning security cooperation on Iraq and to respond positively to Lebanese demands that Syria's security and intelligence presence be ended, borders be demarcated and diplomatic missions exchanged.

Egypt, say official sources, is now seeking to ensure the Syrians do not get cold feet. The cost of any reluctance from Damascus at this stage, they insist, will be very high.

According to strategist Salaheddin Selim, Cairo's concerns on the Syrian-Lebanese front involve more than encouraging Syrian cooperation with the international investigation committee. Egypt, along with other regional powers, is, he says, anxious to promote genuine Syrian efforts to pursue national unity.

"Damascus needs to be encouraged to implement the set of regulations and laws adopted in 2002 in an attempt to address the grievances of Syria's three million Kurds. It also needs encouragement to better accommodate the Muslim Brotherhood" whose London- based leader might otherwise join the Paris-based former vice president Abdel-Halim Khaddam in offering an alternative to the current regime.

The time has also come, argues Selim, for concerned regional powers to pressure Syria to rid the regime of faces that have given it a bad name in Lebanon and at home.

"Al-Assad must let go of relatives, especially his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, if he wants to give his rule credibility."

Concerns over Syria are compounded by problems elsewhere in the eastern part of the region, with Egyptian officials and strategists increasingly vexed by the situation in Iraq and Israel. Cairo's assessment of the chances of achieving a semblance of stability in Iraq remains far from positive, and the consensus is that it will take weeks before a coalition government can be established in Baghdad. Nor are there any guarantees that when -- and if -- this does happen the new government will be able to contain ethnic and tribal rivalries.

But it is developments on the Israeli-Palestinian front, say officials, which constitute Cairo's worst nightmare. "Of all the imminent threats that seem to be coming from the east those along the Israeli-Palestinian border seem to be the most pressing," says Selim.

Egypt is worried about the growing inability of the Palestinian Authority to control the border between Gaza and Egypt where Palestinian militants waged attacks last week that left two Egyptian soldiers dead and 30 injured. As one Egyptian diplomat notes, "if the current state of chaos persists then more incidents of violence can be expected along the border."

But there are yet worse scenarios. In the absence of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon it is possible that Israel's Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz may decide to send troops back to Gaza, provoking a bloody Israeli- Palestinian confrontation on Egypt's doorstep.

Selim is also concerned about the weakening authority of both the PA and Fatah, and the growing influence of Hamas. Add to this the likelihood that Israel will shift more to the right -- certainly if Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu is elected as prime minister in March -- and the prognosis looks bleaker than ever. "And even if it is the Kadima candidate Ehud Olmert that gets elected," says Selim, "we should still expect more extreme rightist positions since Olmert will try to prove to the Israeli public opinion that he is a tough leader who can fill Sharon's position."

President Mubarak has already sent a message of good will to Olmert. But at this stage Cairo is excluding no scenarios.

Additional reporting: Amer Sultan in London and Sami Moubayed in Damascus

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