President Bush is about to issue an ultimatum to Syria - throw terrorist Ahmed Jibril out or lose diplomatic ties with America.
Intelligence sources tell us that U.S. officials believe it was Jibril who arranged to blow up Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, last Dec. 21, killing 259 passengers, most of them Americans.Syrian President Hafez Assad has given refuge to Jibril, a Palestinian. But if Assad wants to stay in the good graces of the Bush administration, Jibril has to go.
The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Edward Djerejian, will conduct the negotiations with Assad. The bottom line will be that Assad must turn Jibril over to the United States for prosecution, or, at the very least, kick him out of Syria. (One source says an initial message of this nature was delivered to Assad on Nov. 30.)
Iran contracted for the "hit," in retaliation for the accidental downing of an Iranian airliner by the USS Vincennes July 3, 1988, in the Persian Gulf. All 290 passengers on that plane were killed.
Iran hired Jibril and his Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command. He was paid at least $2 million and possibly as much as $10 million, according to Central Intelligence Agency sources.
Jibril needed the cash badly because his traditional patrons, Assad and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, cried poverty when he asked for his 1988 stipend of $20 million plus. Jibril needs money to keep his 500 terrorists supplied raids on Israel.
But Jibril isn't in the terrorism business just for the cash. He hates Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and uses acts of terrorism to embarrass and stymie him. Jibril has tried on many occasions to murder Arafat. He loathes any sign that Arafat may be making peace with Israel or the United States. Several weeks before the Pan Am bombing, Arafat had officially recognized Israel's right to exist and had opened talks with the United States. The Pan Am bombing was Jibril's way of frustrating those negotiations.
The CIA and British intelligence now believe Assad either knew about the bombing beforehand or was an accessory after the fact to protect Jibril.
Iran has denied any complicity in the Pan Am bombing. Last May, Jibril also declared that he is innocent. His long-winded denial was full of holes. Knowledgeable State Department sources say Jibril's admission in that interview of his affection for Iran hastened the U.S. government conclusion that he was responsible for Pan Am 103.
The unresolved question is whether Assad knew about it. State Department sources tell us that it's not imperative to prove that Assad knew.
Assad is generally not a man to be bullied, but U.S. diplomats think he will fold this time. He is isolated from the world community and economically strapped. The Soviets have secretly served him notice that they can't continue to support him in the style to which he has become accustomed. He needs to make friends with the West and he can't afford to have a wart like Jibril on his nose.
Assad promised last March that those responsible for the bombing would be punished, but he said he thought it "highly improbable" that Jibril was guilty. Assad said he needed proof. His defense minister, Gen. Mustafa Tlas, needed no proof to recklessly charge last January that Israel blew up the plane by duping an American GI into carrying the bomb thinking he was smuggling $500,000 worth of diamonds.