The Dogs of War

By Uri Dan and Dennis Eisenberg

While the Labor government was busy billing Assad as ready for peace, it kept quiet about his poison factory.

WHEN Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah joined Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recently for a mini-conference of Arab leaders in Damascus, he had far more on his mind than just brandishing the big stick at Bibi Netanyahu and threatening terrible deeds against Israel if Yasser Arafat doesn't get his own state with Jerusalem as the capital.

Abdullah was disturbed by the publicity the German magazine Stern had given to the construction of one of the world's largest chemical warfare plants at Aleppo in Syria. Abdullah is only too aware, as is Israel, that President Assad has a stack of some 1,000 short-, middle- and long-range ground-to-ground missiles. These modern weapons, equipped with deadly chemical and biological warheads, can hit targets everywhere in Israel.

It is the same Abdullah and Saudi King Fahd whose donation of hundreds of millions of dollars enabled the Syrians to build the Aleppo plant, as well as the vast underground tunnels that, theoretically at least, ensure its safety. With a Likud government back in power in Jerusalem, Abdullah is remembering how another right-wing leader, Menachem Begin, destroyed Baghdad's so-called "indestructible" nuclear reactor when faced by the threat of a potential Iraqi nuclear weapon.

Is history about to repeat itself? Like Israel, Abdullah knows that the Aleppo plant is all geared up for production. If Israel decided to launch an attack on the plant on the pattern of its successful Osirak assault in 1982, Abdullah might lose his bitter struggle against Saudi Deputy Premier Prince Bandar Sultan to become the next king in Riyadh. For, like Fahd, Abdullah is a strong advocate of shoring up Assad's rule.

The price of Riyadh's bounty to Syria was Assad's restraint on Iran dispatching terrorists to cause mayhem in Saudi Arabia. Popular resentment at the corruption of the country's 20,000 royal princes could, encouraged by acts of terror, quickly turn into rioting; and the recent spate of Iranian bomb attacks on the oil-rich Gulf states serves clear notice that the terrorist virus could spread to Saudi Arabia. A bomb explosion in Riyadh last year sent shock waves shuddering through the royal palace.

Why did Abdullah go to Damascus at all? Saudi Arabia is the richest of all the oil states, and it is other Arab states that should have gone bowing and scraping. The mini-meet had in fact been scheduled for Riyadh, but it was cancelled because Fahd was too ill to attend, and his absence would have sparked rumors that his reign is nearing its end. This could have ignited violence in the battle for power between Abdullah, the Saudi premier, and his son Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi ambassador to the US, and maybe other ambitious princes. There was an even more potent reason for Abdullah to lower his dignity and appear in downmarket Damascus: his wife. The crown prince faced heavy pressure at home to lend Assad his support. Abdullah's lady is sister to the wife of Rifat, Assad's brother and the man expected to take over from the ailing dictator.

The ladies don't want the present Syrian clique kept in power just for family reasons. Abdullah has vast fortunes invested in joint international business enterprises with Rifat, who has a voracious appetite for piling up gold in his Swiss and other private bank accounts.

If Abdullah gets shoved aside by bin Sultan or others, the women's status at the palace will suffer drastic downgrading. They clearly feel they need the billions stashed away with Rifat to ensure that they and their children don't go hungry. The wily sisters also know that the US is wary about Abdullah becoming king. His initial hostility to allowing the US to protect Saudi Arabia after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 has not been forgotten in the US.

Abdullah is deeply religious, and he is anti-West. Washington would much prefer the pro-American ambassador to the US, Bandar bin Sultan, who looks askance at the Syrian approach favored by Abdullah. He is highly suspicious of Assad's role in exporting Iranian terrorism via Damascus, terrorism the treacherous Assad could direct at Saudi Arabia if it suited him.

WHAT IS alarming about the sudden publicity surrounding the Aleppo poison plant and its major threat to Israel is the way its existence was kept under wraps by the the Labor government of Rabin and Peres. The Syrian effort to build a vast chemical plant was known 11 years ago, when Jonathan Pollard sent Israel details about the massive undertaking. It was the CIA in 1991 that compelled a shipload of chemicals destined for Syria to be turned back to a German port with its cargo. A year later, after a Mossad tip-off, the Italians forced a ship from India carrying more chemicals for Syria to return its cargo promptly to the port of departure.

The government knew of the latent real-time danger posed by the Syrian chemical plant a danger far more potent than the Iranian-sponsored terror that Labor ministers have been harping on for years, yet they didn't utter a word of warning about the monstrous construction proceeding apace in Aleppo. One trembles to draw the obvious conclusion: that the illusion of a Syria "ready for peace" had to be kept alive at all costs for Peres and Rabin to soft-soap the public into believing Assad could be a trusted peace partner once he had been fed the opiate of the Golan Heights.

The right's electoral victory has fragmented the fantasy that the Arabs are now ready to make peace with Israel. The barrage of threats of belligerence if Israel does not withdraw to the 1967 lines and give Arafat his Palestinian state with his throne in Jerusalem is not a sudden plan concocted by Mubarak, Assad and Abdullah.

Intelligence sources report that the Arab leaders were ready to unveil it in about two years' from now had Peres won and conceded the above PLO demands. The plan was to be fired off in a blitz campaign if Peres refused to make further territorial concessions. The panic reaction by Arab leaders, who are holding yet another summit conference this month, was triggered by the unexpected defeat of the "soft-touch" Labor government. And the hitherto thinly veiled threats to unleash the dogs of war are being aired to put pressure on Netanyahu even before he can take over the reins of power. The aim is to get US pressure exerted on Israel.

A severe testing period lies ahead for both the new prime minister and the state.

(c) Jerusalem Post 1996

Uri Dan and Dennis Eisenberg are authors of The Mossad: Secrets of the Israeli Secret Service and other books on the Middle East.