Cablegate: Sleiman Visit to Damascus: Agreement On
PP RUEHAG RUEHROV
DE RUEHDM #0579/01 2271606
ZNY SSSSS ZZH
P 141606Z AUG 08
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 5280
INFO RUEHXK/ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUCNMEM/EU MEMBER STATES COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC PRIORITY
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY
RHMFISS/CDR USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL PRIORITY
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 02 DAMASCUS 000579
DEPARTMENT FOR NEA/ELA
NSC FOR ABRAMS/SINGH
EO 12958 DECL: 08/13/2028
TAGS PGOV, PREL, SY, LE
SUBJECT: SLEIMAN VISIT TO DAMASCUS: AGREEMENT ON
DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS, LOTS OF WORK AHEAD
REF: A. DAMASCUS 526 B. DAMASCUS 541
Classified By: Classified by Pol/Econ Chief Tim Pounds for 1.5 b and d.
1. (S) Summary: In a visit that went largely as scripted, Lebanese President Sleiman arrived August 13 in Damascus and issued a joint press statement with President Asad on their decision to establish full diplomatic relations “at the ambassadorial level.” Though there were Syrian concerns that a bus bombing in Tripoli might have led to a postponement, the two leaders held a series of positive meetings and left their FMs with most of the follow-up work. At an August 14 mid-day press conference, FM Salloukh and FM Muallim explained that they and their ministerial counterparts would meet soon to implement this decision through a long list of bilateral committees. Beneath the calm surface, internal debate reportedly intensified among Syrian policymakers over the SARG’s foreign policy course and the future of key security service officials. End Summary
Warm Atmospherics, Visit Goes as Planned
2. (SBU) Pre-visit Syrian editorials and statements waxed eloquently about the special nature of Lebanese-Syrian relations and predicted success in the opening a new chapter between the two countries. A Presidential Palace source spun the visit as a victory in preventing efforts to drive a wedge between Lebanon and Syria. Damascenes awoke to find a two-mile stretch of the Beirut-Damascus highway decorated with Syrian and Lebanese flags, placed side-by-side atop median street lights. FM Muallim told the press that Bashar had instructed all Syrian officials to make the visit “successful and fruitful,” adding “it is up to both parties to decide whether they want to reopen wounds or heal them.” VP Sharaa, adding his deft touch to the pre-visit build-up, said Syria was interested in good relations with Lebanon and welcomed “any Lebanese official,” including PM Siniora. On the issue of prisoners (“the issue of the missing”), Sharaa called for a “solution that reassures both parties; hence, the Lebanese do not complain about having any detainees in Syrian prisons, and vice versa.” The closure of this file, Sharaa added, would mark the “real entry” into new bilateral relations.
3. (C) D/FM Miqdad’s Chief of Staff told us during a August 13 courtesy call with incoming and outgoing Charge that there had been concern regarding the possibility of a postponement in the wake of the early morning bus bombing in Tripoli that killed Lebanese civilians and soldiers. The SARG quickly issued a condemnation of the attack, and the joint presidential statement reiterated this sentiment. FM Muallim and Salloukh issued new condemnations in their joint press conference today.
4. (SBU) In their August 13 joint statement, Sleiman and Asad agreed on “establishing diplomatic relations between the Syrian Arab Republic and the Lebanese Republic at the ambassadorial level,” in accordance with the UN Charter and international law. It added, “The foreign ministers of the two countries have been tasked, beginning this day, to take the necessary measures in accordance with legislative and legal regulations in the two countries.” The text states that border issues and “missing people from both countries” were also discussed.
5. (C) According to XXXXXXXXXXXX the two Presidents discussed a wide range of issues for further action, including prisoner releases, border demarcation, and the broad array of economic, political, cultural and other agreements implemented by the Syrian-Lebanese Higher Council (Ref A). Asad and Sleiman reportedly agreed in principle that Asad would visit Beirut at some date in the future. The two leaders are trying to build confidence on a basic level by exchanging embassies and ambassadors, but both sides realize the need for political consensus within each country to move forward, XXXXXXXXXXXX reported. Having only recently arrived at a Council of Ministers declaration and a vote of confidence by the Parliament, the Lebanese government needed more time to discuss how to approach the relationship. Having the foreign ministers continue discussions was the logical step, he suggested.
DAMASCUS 00000579 002 OF 002
6. (SBU) In addition to the joint Presidential statement, FM Salloukh and Muallim spoke at a joint press conference about the creation of several working committees to implement the establishment of diplomatic relations. Asked about Secretary Rice’s positive characterization of the resumption of diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon, Muallim replied, “This issue was merely a result of bilateral will. If others find it positive, we welcome this.” Follow up actions announced by the FMs include:
-- a commitment by both sides to reactivate joint committees on border demarcation “according to the priorities agreed by both sides.” (Note: Muallim stressed, and Salloukh supported, the necessity of ending Israel’s occupation of the Golan, Shebaa farms, Gajar, and Kfar Shuba.)
-- a commitment to control borders, combat smuggling, and coordinate more closely on border administration.
-- agreement to reactivate joint committees on “missing citizens” in both countries.
-- agreement to reactivate commercial relations and to create a “common market.”
-- agreement to review bilateral agreements “objectively.”
Report of Mounting Tensions Inside SARG
7. (S) According to XXXXXXXXXXXX, General Mohamad Sulayman’s assassination remains a frequent source of controversy in internal SARG deliberations. XXXXXXXXXXXX confided that tempers flared during an August 12 Higher Policy Council meeting when high level security service officials openly questioned the government’s continuation of indirect negotiations with Israel and its “generosity” with Lebanon. The spark that reportedly set off this discussion was FM Muallim’s presentation on potential deliverables that would strengthen President Sleiman’s hand, to include release of Lebanese prisoners. The security service chiefs claimed that Syria would make concessions and not receive any tangible gains from engaging Lebanon or talking indirectly to Israel.
8. (S) Underlying this tense exchange was frustration within the security services that the SARG was all but ignoring the assassination of Sulayman (ref B), XXXXXXXXXXXX noted. Security service officials were suggesting that “if the Israelis did it” (i.e., killed Sulayman, why was the SARG continuing the dialogue? XXXXXXXXXXXX added, “And if it was an inside job, people are wondering about their future.” Bashar was thus under increasing pressure to provide assurances to his security chiefs about their positions and about the SARG’s intention not to make premature concessions, such as public deliverables that would strengthen Sleiman’s position within the GOL. Bashar’s brother Maher was “somewhere in the middle” of this debate and was seeking to play consensus maker and would likely make efforts to satisfy security service chiefs that Sleiman visit had strengthened the regime’s prestige, XXXXXXXXXXXX said.
9. (S) Comment: As expected, the Sleiman visit was long on symbolism and short on commitment to take immediate concrete actions. While this meeting marked a historic precedent, the absence of any public mention of agreed timelines suggests the exchange of ambassadors could be a prolonged process. Unless Asad and Sleiman agreed privately to expedite ministry-to-ministry talks, progress on other issues (prisoners, borders, bilateral agreements) is unlikely to move rapidly. Nonetheless, the SARG will play up Sleiman’s visit to demonstrate that Syria has met a key French demand for further engagement. Internal SARG ripples from the Sulayman assassination could lead to a confrontation, but thus far the regime has contained these tensions from spilling over into the public sphere. The Palace’s spin of the visit as a success in blocking efforts to drive a wedge between Lebanon and Syria suggests an attempt to satisfy hard-liners that the regime’s image has been bolstered.