- The Bush Administration has offered Syria's beleaguered
President a "Gaddafi deal" to end his regime's isolation if Damascus
agrees to a long list of painful concessions.
- According to senior American and Arab officials, an offer
has been relayed to President Assad that could enable him to avoid the
looming threat of international sanctions against his country. The matter
could come to a head as early as next week when Detlev Mehlis, the head
of the United Nations team investigating the murder of Rafik Hariri, the
former Lebanese Prime Minister, is due to submit his report to Kofi Annan,
the UN Secretary-General.
- While details of that report are not yet known, it is
widely expected that senior figures in the Syrian intelligence services,
which until earlier this year were in control of Lebanon's security, will
be named as accomplices. The assassination was widely blamed on Damascus,
and consequently relations have been badly damaged with key Syrian allies
such as France and Saudi Arabia. Already strained relations with Washington
have become even more fraught. Evidence of Syrian complicity could lead
to international sanctions and make the country a pariah state.
- "Assad is facing a tough time ahead and he has very
few friends left," said a senior Arab diplomat. "He is desperately
looking for a way out of this predicament." Mr Assad said this week
that contacts had resumed between Damascus and Washington via Arab intermediaries,
thought to be Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
- "There has been an attempt to resume co-operation,
basically through mediation, by some Arab and European states," he
told CNN. The Times has learnt that the American proposal is very specific,
with at least four key demands being made of Damascus. Syria must first
co-operate fully and adhere to any demands by the UN inquiry into Mr Hariri's
- If members of the Syrian regime are named as suspects
they would have to be questioned and could stand trial under foreign jurisdiction.
- The Syrians would also have to stop any interference
in Lebanon, where they have been blamed for a series of bomb attacks against
their critics, most recently May Chidiac, a television presenter who was
badly injured last month when a device exploded under her car. Washington
also wants Syria to halt the recruiting, funding and training of volunteers
for the Iraqi insurgency, which they claim are openly operating in Syria
with the connivance of the regime. They include former members of the Iraqi
regime and foreign volunteers responsible for suicide car-bomb attacks.
- The Bush Administration also has a long-standing demand
that Syria cease its support for militant Islamic organisations such as
Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
In return America would establish full and friendly relations with Damascus,
opening the way for foreign aid and investment and ensuring the regime's
- Last night, a source close to the regime in Damascus
confirmed that the offer had been presented by a third party in the past
ten days and that the Syrians had signalled a willingness to co-operate.
The Americans are convinced that if Syria was prepared to commit such a
radical volte face it could transform the whole climate in the Middle East
- freeing Lebanon, dealing a serious blow to the insurgency in Iraq, and
opening the way for progress between Israel and Palestine.
- The precedent for the offer is the deal clinched two
years ago with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. His regime was isolated
internationally after it was blamed for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103
over Lockerbie. After more than a decade, sanctions were lifted when Tripoli
handed over two intelligence officers to stand trial in a Scottish court
and paid compensation to the relatives of the victims. Full relations were
restored after Washington and London concluded a secret deal with Mr Gadaffi
to dismantle and turn over all his nuclear, biological and chemical weapons
- The Americans have now reopened their embassy in Tripoli,
US oil companies are operating in Libya and recent visitors have included
Tony Blair and top British businessmen.
- The main question troubling the Americans is whether
the Syrian leader is strong enough and bold enough to cut a deal. There
are even doubts that he is really in control of the country. Some suspect
it is run by various security services in the hands of his extended family.
Asef Shawkat, his brother-in-law, is head of military intelligence. Maher
al-Assad, his brother, commands the presidential guard. British diplomats
do not believe that the Syrian leader will take the offer, not least because
it would be regarded as a huge climbdown and a betrayal of Syria's hardline
policies established by his late father, Hafez al-Assad.
- Washington has made clear that if the Syrians do not
co-operate, it intends to increase the pressure on the regime. One consequence
of that pressure was the death this week of Ghazi Kanaan, the Syrian Interior
Minister and a key witness in the UN inquiry. He was found shot dead in
his office. The authorities said that he had taken his own life, but many
suspect he was killed by those who feared what he might divulge from his
time as head of Syrian Intelligence in Lebanon.
- A Syrian source close to the ruling family predicted
that Mr Assad would turn down the deal. "The regime has calculated
that it has the resources to survive for quite some time even if it is
isolated," said the source. "The strategy could be to manage
the conflict until external pressures ease."