Dispatch

'There Is No Question That the Man Was Poisoned'

On the streets of the West Bank, the conspiracy theories about Arafat’s death are everywhere. But does anyone really care anymore?

RAMALLAH, West Bank — "Yasser Arafat: A Story of a Nation" read the hundreds of new flyers plastered on the dilapidated walls of Ramallah's old city. In the newer parts of the city, where the roads are paved and new buildings are mushrooming at a fevered pace, black and white photos of the revered Palestinian leader, clad in his iconic checkered keffiyeh, line the busy streets. The words "Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand" are emblazoned above him. 

The placards were placed a few days shy of the 9th anniversary of Arafat's death and two days after the release of a report by Swiss scientists, which found in Arafat's remains unnaturally high levels of Polonium 210 -- the same radioactive isotope that killed Alexander Litvinenko, a vocal critic of the Kremlin, in 2006. The Swiss scientists said the finding "moderately supports" the belief that polonium was the cause of death.

The findings, however, were not the bombshell you might expect in the West Bank -- many Palestinians say they already knew Arafat was poisoned, and don't need confirmation from a year-long scientific study. "There is no question that the man was poisoned," said Mo'ayad Wahdan, who heads the village council of Rantis, near Ramallah. "Everyone knows this. The way his illness quickly gave way to death proves that."

For Wahdan, the question of whether Arafat died an unnatural death is an afterthought. The real question, he explains, is who killed him: Who was able to poison the leader when he was besieged by Israeli tanks at the height of the Second Intifada, and living in a few rooms amid the rubble of his headquarters? Wahdan's answer is echoed by many here: "It's the Israelis, with the help of some Palestinian collaborators."

Back then, Israeli leaders didn't attempt to hide their contempt for Arafat. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon labeled the Palestinian leader "a murderer and a liar ... a bitter enemy," and admitted that all Israeli governments "made an effort -- and I want to use a subtle word for the American reader -- to remove him from our society." In 2003, the country's vice premier, Ehud Olmert said that Arafat had to be removed from the political scene, and that "killing is also one of the options" to do so.

Nor would Arafat be the first Palestinian leader that Israel targeted for death. Wahdan ticks off the Israeli assassinations of Fatah co-founder Khalil al-Wazir in the late 1980s and the botched attempt at killing Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal in 1977 by Mossad operatives disguised as Canadian tourists.

Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) adviser, also agrees that Arafat was likely assassinated by the Israelis. But she blames Arafat's successors for the nine-year delay before this information came to light. "The [Palestinian Authority (PA)] should be driving and pushing efforts to hold Israel accountable," she said. "This is the most important thing to come out of this report. Sweeping it under the rug will only ensure that Israel assassinates more people with impunity."

Israeli authorities are quick to dismiss allegations they were behind Arafat's death. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor called the report's findings a "soap opera" while Energy Minister Silvan Shalom, a former foreign minister, called it a "tempest in a teacup," and insinuated that someone in Arafat's inner sanctum may have been behind the poisoning.

In 2011, high-ranking Fatah officials accused Mohammad Dahlan, who headed the PA's security forces in Gaza, of "having a hand" in Arafat's death. However, no evidence was provided to back up the claim, and the former Gaza strongman suggested he was being targeted because of an ongoing feud with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Nine years after Arafat's death, a formal investigation is still in the works. On Nov. 8, Tawfiq Tirawi, a former West Bank intelligence chief who currently heads the PA's investigative committee on Arafat's death, held a press conference to grapple with the latest reports of Arafat's assassination. He was asked whether top Palestinian officials -- or anyone else, including Suha, Arafat's widow -- was involved in such a plot, but ignored the questions. While the committee fell short of calling for an international investigation, it did name Israel as the "only culprit" in the Palestinian leader's death.

The press conference proved to be nothing more than a session to regurgitate the findings of the Swiss report, and an opportunity to lay the blame squarely on Israel -- despite the fact that another report inked by a Russian team found insufficient evidence to suggest Arafat died by polonium poisoning. The committee also did not address who actually administered the lethal dose while Arafat was holed up in his compound.

This added fuel to ongoing theories that someone in Arafat's inside circle -- perhaps a power-hungry official within his Fatah party -- may have had a hand in the deed. "Between Abbas' resignation as prime minister and his return to power [as PA president], it was essential that Arafat be made to disappear," said 36-year-old Sarhan Zyadeh, an expert in medical physics. "Abbas was a moderate and a favorite [of Israel and the United States] at the time, and Arafat had to be sidelined because he was the only one who could lead an armed resistance."

Zyadeh, who has read the 108-page report, said he had no doubts Arafat was killed by poison. "It takes between 4 to 6 weeks for the poison to lead to organ failure, which is what happened in Arafat's case."

But whatever theory one supports, many seem to agree that Arafat was a marked man. "For the Israelis, he was the main hurdle to their version of peace," Zyadeh said. "They didn't want to kill him directly by blowing up the Muqataa [presidential headquarters]. They didn't want to make him a saint or a revolutionary icon."

When Arafat died almost a decade ago, people poured into the streets to mourn the passing of a revered nationalist leader. But while his legacy remains strong, these findings hold little consequence for many Palestinians. The real breakthrough, for those who have long taken it as gospel that Arafat was assassinated, would be to reveal the entire conspiracy to the world -- including the identity of those who administered the poison.

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Saudi Arabia's Shadow War

The Kingdom is turning to Pakistan to train Syria’s rebels. It’s a partnership that once went very wrong in Afghanistan. Will history repeat itself?

BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia, having largely abandoned hope that the United States will spearhead international efforts to topple the Assad regime, is embarking on a major new effort to train Syrian rebel forces. And according to three sources with knowledge of the program, Riyadh has enlisted the help of Pakistani instructors to do it.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, along with the CIA, also supported the Afghan rebels against the Soviet-backed government during the 1980s. That collaboration contains a cautionary note for the current day: The fractured Afghan rebels were unable to govern after the old regime fell, paving the way for chaos and the rise of the Taliban. Some of the insurgents, meanwhile, transformed into al Qaeda and eventually turned their weapons against their former patrons.

While the risk of blowback has been discussed in Riyadh, Saudis with knowledge of the training program describe it as an antidote to extremism, not a potential cause of it. They have described the kingdom's effort as having two goals -- toppling the Assad regime, and weakening al Qaeda-linked groups in the country. Prince Turki, the former Saudi intelligence chief and envoy to Washington, said in a recent interview that the mainstream opposition must be strengthened so that it could protect itself "these extremists who are coming from all over the place" to impose their own ideologies on Syria.

The ramped up Saudi effort has been spurred by the kingdom's disillusionment with the United States. A Saudi insider with knowledge of the program described how Riyadh had determined to move ahead with its plans after coming to the conclusion that President Barack Obama was simply not prepared to move aggressively to oust Assad. "We didn't know if the Americans would give [support] or not, but nothing ever came through," the source said. "Now we know the president just didn't want it."

Pakistan's role is so far relatively small, though another source with knowledge of Saudi thinking said that a plan was currently being debated to give Pakistan responsibility for training two rebel brigades, or around 5,000 to 10,000 fighters. Carnegie Middle East Center fellow Yezid Sayigh first noted the use of Pakistani instructors, writing that the Saudis were planning to build a Syrian rebel army of roughly 40,000 to 50,000 soldiers.

"The only way Assad will think about giving up power is if he's faced with the threat of a credible, armed force," said the Saudi insider.

A State Department official declined to comment on the Saudi training program.

Saudi Arabia's decision to move forward with training the Syrian rebels independent of the United States is the latest sign of a split between the two longtime allies. In Syria, Saudi officials were aggrieved by Washington's decision to cancel a strike on the Assad regime in reprisal for its chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburbs this summer. A top Saudi official told the Washington Post that Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan was unaware of the cancelation of the strike. "We found about it from CNN," he said.

As a result, Saudi Arabia has given up on hopes that the United States would spearhead efforts to topple Assad and decided to press forward with its own plans to bolster rebel forces. That effort relies on a network of Saudi allies in addition to Pakistan, such as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and France.

As Sayigh laid out in his Carnegie paper, Saudi Arabia is attempting to build "a new national army" for the rebels -- a force with an "avowedly Sunni ideology" that could seize influence from mainstream Syrian opposition groups. In addition to its training program in Jordan, Saudi Arabia also helped organize the unification of roughly 50 rebel brigades into "the Army of Islam" under the leadership of Zahran Alloush, a Salafist commander whose father is a cleric based in the kingdom.

Given the increased Islamization of rebel forces on the ground, analysts say, it only makes sense that Saudi Arabia would throw its support behind Salafist groups. These militias "happen to be the most strategically powerful organizations on the ground," said Charles Lister, an analyst with IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre. "If Saudi Arabia does indeed follow such a strategy... it could well stand to become a major power player in the conflict."

In calling on Pakistan to assist in toppling Assad, Saudi Arabia can draw on its deep alliance with Islamabad. The two countries have long shared defense ties: Saudi Arabia has given more aid to Pakistani than to any non-Arab country, according to former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, and also allegedly helped fund Islamabad's nuclear program. In return, Pakistan based troops in Saudi Arabia multiple times over three decades to protect the royals' grip on power.

The current Pakistani government, in particular, is closely tied to Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted from power in 1999 by a military coup - the Saudis allegedly brokered a deal that kept him from prison. Sharif would spend the next seven years in exile, mainly in Saudi Arabia. "For the Saudis, Sharif is a key partner in a key allied state," said Arif Rafiq, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.

But despite close collaboration in the past, Saudi Arabia may find its old allies chafing at the sheer scope of its ambitions in Syria. One Pakistani source with close ties to military circles confirmed that Saudi Arabia had requested assistance on Syria over the summer -- but argued that Pakistani capabilities and interests were not conducive to a sweeping effort to train the rebels.

Pakistan is already grappling with its own sectarian bloodshed and must mind its relationship with Iran, while its foreign policy is focused on negotiations with the Taliban over the future of Afghanistan and its longtime rivalry with India. "They have their hands full," the source said. "And even if they want to, I don't think they'll be able to give much concrete help."

Jordan is also reportedly leery about fielding a large Syrian rebel army on its soil. The ambitious Saudi plan would require a level of support from Amman "that is opposed within the security and military establishment and is unlikely to be implemented," according to Sayigh.

As the Saudis expand their effort to topple Assad, analysts say the central challenge is not to inflict tactical losses on the Syrian army, but to organize a coherent force that can coordinate its actions across the country. In other words, if Riyadh hopes to succeed where others have failed, it needs to get the politics right -- convincing the fragmented rebel groups, and their squabbling foreign patrons, to work together in pursuit of a shared goal.

It's easier said than done. "The biggest problem facing the Saudis now is the same one facing the U.S., France, and anyone else interested in helping the rebels: the fragmentation of the rebels into groups fighting each other for local and regional dominance rather than cooperating to overthrow Assad," said David Ottaway, a scholar at the Wilson Center who wrote a biography of Prince Bandar. "Could the Saudis force [the rebel groups] to cooperate? I have my doubts."

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