POWELL'S MISSION RUNS INTO GREAT DIFFICULTY: Region may be plunged into all-out war

by DEBKAfile, 14 April 2002

"In attempting to unscramble the Palestinian-Israel-Hizballah confrontation, US secretary of state Colin Powell faces the toughest assignment of his career. Its complexities persuaded him to ask the President for more time in the Middle East, well beyond the 48 hours first allowed him.

With the help of its exclusive political sources in Washington and Jerusalem, DEBKAfile attempts to reconstruct the US secretary’s conversations with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon Saturday and Sunday nights, before and after his meeting with Yasser Arafat in Ramallah Sunday morning.

Powell: You really must wind up your campaign against Palestinian towns and get out so that we can go ahead with our offensive against Iraq. We can’t hit Saddam while you’re hitting the Palestinians.

Sharon: The situation is not of our making. It was generated by the Arabs. Iraq, Iran and Syria keep on whipping up terror and war. With the best intentions of helping you as well as Egypt and Jordan, our first duty must be to help our own people who live in constant fear of suicide bombings. Since New York, we find ourselves in the first line of global terror attack.

Powell: But the Iraq operation is in your interest too. You’ve got to help yourselves, as well as Egypt and Jordan.
Sharon: That is correct. But you are looking at the problem the wrong way. Assuming we interrupt our offensive against the Palestinian terrorists and quit their towns. What next? Shall we have peace? Will the Palestinians call off their suicides? Never! They will send twice as many. We’ve had nine or ten ceasefires declarations from Arafat and we know how much they’re worth. This time round, the Hizballah will follow where the Palestinians lead. You may think our conflict is separate from yours. Arafat does not. He has got it into his head that he is the mighty leader of the region and what he says goes.

You’ll find that when you fight a single-front war against the Iraqis, we’ll have two fronts on our hands.
Powell: I don’t deny this is possible. But try and see it our way. Our offensive against Iraq will be far from plain sailing. What you are saying is that the war will be fought on several fronts at once - Iraq, Palestinians, Hizballah, maybe Syria too – and there is still Egypt and Jordan to worry about.

Jordan too could face two fronts – a Palestinian uprising at home and an Iraq attack. We don’t want our offensive against Saddam to plunge the entire Middle East into all-out war. That would not be correct strategy.

Sharon: I understand you very well. I would be happy to hear any ideas you may have to stop this happening and to help as much as we can. But I must shoot square with you. Whatever understandings we may reach with you - and whatever happens in the Middle East - we are determined never to sit still for another Seder massacre such as the one we suffered at the Netanya hotel. If it happens again – and we know the Palestinians are preparing more of the same – they can expect a second Jenin. Nothing will stop us dealing out the same punishment again.

DEBKAfile ’s sources report that the US secretary carried this message to Arafat, when he called on him Sunday, April 14, in Ramallah. Powell was also armed with a proposition. The Palestinian ceasefire declaration would be matched by Israel’s consent to pull its army out of Palestinian cities. Both sides, with US mediation, would then go to work on a formulae and timetables for the next stage. If they get this far, the United States will guarantee that both sides live up to their undertakings, while American monitors – no other nationals – oversee implementation.

According to DEBKAfile’s Palestinian sources, while the Palestinian side agreed to set up joint committees for work on formulations, Arafat is skeptical of Powell’s intentions and believes he is only trying to buy time for Israel’s military to establish itself in the West Bank.

The Palestinian leader responded to Sharon’s threat with one of his own: Continued Israeli military presence and attacks in West Bank towns would be met with more suicide terrorism. When Powell asked Arafat how long the suicide attacks would go on, warning him that they damaged the Palestinian people’s prospects of a state, the Palestinian leader did not answer.

Monday or Tuesday, April 15 or 16, the US Secretary sets out for Beirut and Damascus for a last-ditch effort to avert an eruption on Israel’s Lebanese and Syrian frontiers. He has come to believe that the situation in that sector is no less dangerous than the crisis with the Palestinians – more so in at least one respect - Tehran’s involvement, which could deepen.

The trouble is that Powell reaches Damascus and Beirut on the heels of Iraq’s deputy president, Taha Yassir Ramadan, and Iranian foreign minister Kemal Kharazi. Both visited Syrian president Bashar Assad last week to align their concerted front against the United States and Israel.

The US Secretary will be undertaking the unrewarding task of persuading Assad to back out of his deals with both and pacify the Lebanese-Israel frontier, across which the Hizballah has been attacking Israel for two weeks. His chances of success are about as slim as those of drawing Arafat away from terror.

Over the weekend, the US secretary sought the aid of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, asking him to inform Syrian leaders that Cairo would stay out of any military action in the Middle East, even if Israeli launches an attack against the Hizballah and Syria. You’re on your own, Mubarak told Assad.

Powell hopes this warning will induce the Syrian president to fall into line behind Mubarak and stay clear if war action is launched against the Palestinians and the Hizballah. However, just as Arafat’s terror campaign is Iraq’s forward line against the US, the Hizballah acts in the same capacity for Iran. Assad and Arafat are both committed to their roles.

The US secretary discovered on his second day in the Middle East that the pell mell rush of events on the ground is not waiting for the carefully crafted US Iraq strategy to translate into action. It is impelling the Bush administration into picking its way between two daunting options. To advance against Baghdad and leave the smaller regional conflicts to sort themselves out unaided? Or to take a hand in those conflicts and go forward against Iraq – at one and the same time?

A solution to this dilemma is one of the answers Powell hopes to bring home to the president from the Middle East."