June 13, 2011 | Middle East Times

What’s Going on in Syria?

Syria has been regularly popping up in the news. In fact, recent events point to the importance of that country for the future of the Middle East. Syria's political situation may indeed have an important impact on a few countries: first of course Lebanon, second Iraq, third Israel, and finally Iran.

First, one should not underestimate Syria's potential for creating havoc on a whim by using some of the militant groups it actively supports: such as Hezbollah and Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon, or Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories.

But also one should not forget Syria's active role in facilitating the transit of foreign fighters joining insurgent groups in Iraq to attack coalition troops or the Iraqi army. Interestingly back in October 2007, the U.S. command in Iraq announced having seized important documents that included a list of around 500 fighters that entered Iraq through Syria.

Last week, the usually well-informed Saudi daily Al-Watan revealed that those documents showed the undeniable role of Syria in terrorism in Iraq. They also allegedly proved how the terror group Fatah al-Islam ? that became notorious when it attacked the Lebanese army and fought from the Nahr al-Bared camp in May-June 2007 ? is strictly a product of Syrian services and not an al-Qaida affiliate, as Damascus pretended.

In fact, Syrian authorities were seizing the passports of al-Qaida fighters (coming mostly from Saudi Arabia) who were traveling to Iraq to join the insurgency. They gave these passports to Palestinian and Syrian combatants who were going to Lebanon to fight the Lebanese army.

The goal behind this tactic was to be able to blame the Saudi services and in particular Saudi Prince Bandar Bin Sultan (the ex-Saudi ambassador in Washington and the current national security director) of helping foster Sunni terrorism inside Lebanon. DNA tests, performed on some Fatah al-Islam combatants killed in Nahr al-Bared and holders of Saudi passports, proved that they were not actually Saudis.

Interestingly, last week, the Iranian Fars news agency reported that the results of the investigation on Imad Mugnieh's killing in Damascus led to both Riyadh and Jerusalem. This seems clearly like an attempt to blame two of Tehran's enemies, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Indeed, in light of available information, Syrian security services were possibly one way or another involved in Mugnieh's death. And here is where the situation becomes even more complicated and could lead to a shakeup at the top of the regime.

Last week, media reports abounded about the demise of Syria's strongman, the powerful head of the security services and Bashar Assad's brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat. For instance, the Algerian daily Ech Chorouk reported that Assad had his brother-in-law arrested for allegedly planning a coup against him.

Still, according to Ech Chorouk, Shawkat allegedly contacted the CIA for help and was then denounced by none other than Mugnieh. If this theory holds any water then it could possibly explain the potential role of Shawkat in Mugnieh's murder.

Obviously in a country controlled by such a secretive regime, reliable information is tough to obtain. But the Lebanese weekly Al-Shiraa confirms that Shawkat is under house arrest and that two military intelligence officers were allegedly executed last week for their role in Mugnieh's assassination. Also Al-Shiraa affirms that apartments of several high-ranked officers close to Shawkat were searched and that the car of a lieutenant colonel was shot at.

Also, Shawkat's wife, Bushra Assad, is reportedly in Paris with her children. But French authorities have denied that she asked for political asylum in France.

These revelations point out the shakiness of Assad's regime and the maneuvers behind the scenes.

It seems important to note that Israel and the United States have diverging views when it comes to Assad. In fact, the numerous public reports of “secret” and not so secret negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus over peace prove that Israel is at the moment satisfied with dealing with Assad.

Indeed, Assad is viewed as a weak leader who, for example, did not retaliate after Israel bombed Syria's nuclear facility back in September 2007. At the same time, Israelis have privately complained that the United States is not “allowing” them to go through with the negotiations with Assad.

If the rumors of possible CIA involvement in the Shawkat coup turn out to be true, then this seems like an ill-advised strategy to say the least.

Indeed, replacing Bashar Assad with Shawkat or Rifaat Assad (Bashar's uncle) or Abdel Halim Khaddam (the ex-vice president who was kicked out of power and Syria in 2005) – basically three individuals belonging to the old guard – is not going to be beneficial for the region.

What remains sure is that Syria is the key to a lot of thorny issues in the Middle East and therefore should be handled the right way. In light of the complexity of the situation, this is not a cakewalk, but neither the Israeli nor the U.S. approaches seem like good ones at the moment.