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Posted at 2:40 AM ET, 12/ 2/2010

Report: Syrian spy chiefs deployed to foreign capitals

By Jeff Stein

Syrian intelligence chiefs made discreet visits to London, Rome, Paris, Beijing and possibly Pyongyang in recent days, according to a new report, a development all the more intriguing in light of WikiLeaks' disclosures this week that President Bashar Assad might be willing to distance himself from Hamas.

The reasons for dispatching his senior intelligence officials abroad are not clear, but according to the Paris-based Intelligence Online newsletter, “Syrian intelligence services have been engaged in intensive diplomatic activity of late.”

Gen. Ali Mamlouk, an Assad intimate and head of Syria’s General Intelligence service, made an unannounced trip to London from Nov. 16 through 20, said the subscription-only newsletter. At his side was Gen. Tha’er al-Omar, described as head of the service’s anti-terrorism component, and Gen. Hafez Makhlouf, the head if its internal branch, “who was traveling outside Syria for the first time.”

U.K. officials “shrouded the visit in absolute secrecy,” IO reported, citing sources in Damascus. Mamlouk went on to Paris on Nov. 22 to lay the groundwork for an upcoming visit by Assad.

In London, presumably, the Syrians met with their U.K. counterparts who, like the CIA, have found common ground with Damascus in combating al-Qaeda and its allies.

Mamlouk was said to have also met with lawyers from Matrix Chambers, who have been defending the regime during the U.N. inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. A final report in the long-running probe is considered imminent.

Assad described Hamas as an "uninvited guest" in a 2009 meeting with a U.S. congressional delegation, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, and likened its presence in Syria to that of the Muslim Brotherhood, which his father crushed in the 1980s. Assad hinted that he might be willing to break with Hamas in exchange for “incentives,” such as being allowed to buy U.S. commercial aircraft and parts.

Mamlouk was in Rome on Oct. 19 signing an anti-terrorism agreement, IO also reported, accompanied by his top foreign intelligence official, Zouheir Hamad, and his Brussels station chief, Fou’ad Fadel.

Just as Mamlouk was leaving London, meanwhile, another General Intelligence official, Gen. Bassam Merhej, described as “director of Assad’s security and military bureau,” was arriving in China.

“His real destination was probably Pyongyang, with whom Syria has a nuclear co-operation program,” IO reported. A heavy water reactor obtained from North Korea was destroyed in September 2007.

A former deputy general director of air force intelligence, Mamlouk was appointed head of the General Intelligence service by Assad in June 2005 and is in frequent contact with his Gulf States counterparts, according to reports.

By Jeff Stein  | December 2, 2010; 2:40 AM ET
Categories:  Foreign policy, Intelligence  
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> A heavy water reactor obtained from North Korea was destroyed in September 2007

A point of detail: According to the standard story concerning the reactor, it used graphite, not heavy water, as the moderator. And natural uranium metal for the fuel elements, pieces of which the IAEA apparently found the one time it was allowed to view the site.

Posted by: TexLex | December 2, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Seems like the Syrians go in for direct negotiations cutting out the middlemen...

Posted by: Wildthing1 | December 2, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

In light of Hariri's recent visit to Tehran, it would see highly unlikely that Syria would be willing to step over to the US side. Expect UN indictments to only strengthen Iran's grip on Lebanon--for their Al Qods leadership is already in country--a move which would encircle Syria. Add to this bloc Turkey and Russian (which as a brand new port in Lebanon) and you get a formidable tactical adversary. This is more likely a stalling tactic to buy more time for the crumbling North Korean regime to disperse its WMD to its allies such as Iran, Syria, Yemen and some other Gulf States before it implodes. We must prevent this at all costs and then play defense against any retaliatory strikes.

Posted by: beacon12 | December 4, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

And the really interesting thing in the IO report is,

"Merhej is reported to have replaced Maj. Gen. Mohammed Suleiman, who was assassinated Aug.2, 2008 [as head of the Syrian nuclear program].

"Merhej was accompanied by Col. Jihad Shehadeh of the army's Corps of Engineers, who has been seconded to the Center for Scientific Study and Research, which is involved in Syria's nuclear program, Intelligence Online said.

"He was also accompanied by an Iranian, identified as Ali Zadeh, officially the cultural attache at the Iranian Embassy in Damascus but "in reality in charge of logistics for the Iranian nuclear program in Syria." [As well as an Iranian engineer, Mohammed Mutawakkili.]"

Posted by: TexLex | December 5, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

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