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Cablegate: Eu Agreement Invitation Meets Syrian Demand To

VZCZCXYZ0000
OO RUEHWEB

DE RUEHDM #0734/01 2881504
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 151504Z OCT 09
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 6929
INFO RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON PRIORITY 0743
RUEHFR/AMEMBASSY PARIS PRIORITY 0702
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEHGVA/USMISSION GENEVA PRIORITY 0715
RUEHUNV/USMISSION UNVIE VIENNA PRIORITY 0067
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK PRIORITY 0732
RHEHAAA/WHITE HOUSE WASHDC PRIORITY
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY

UNCLAS DAMASCUS 000734

SIPDIS

DEPARTMENT FOR NEA/ELA, NEA/PI, DRL/NESCA
LONDON FOR LORD, PARIS FOR NOBLES

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PHUM PINR PREL EU KMPI SY
SUBJECT: EU AGREEMENT INVITATION MEETS SYRIAN DEMAND TO
STUDY DOCUMENT AND ARREST OF HUMAN RIGHTS LAWYER

REF: A. DAMASCUS 00534
B. DAMASCUS 00604

1. (C) Summary: Following the Swedish Ambassador's October 14
delivery of an invitation to attend the October 26 signing
ceremony for the Syria-EU Association Agreement, FM Muallim
brusquely asserted Syria needed more time to study the text.
On the same day, Political Security agents arrested Haitham
Maleh, attorney for imprisoned lawyer Muhanad al-Hasani (ref
A), in his office, one day after the chief prosecuting judge
issued formal criminal charges against Hasani. The
coincidence of Maleh's arrest and Muallim's remarks has
sparked debate over whether (1) Syria is serious about
signing the Association deal; (2) whether Syria is defying an
EU consensus stipulating that human rights be explicitly
recognized in the implementation of the agreement; and (3)
whether there is a campaign by some Syrians to forestall an
October 26 signing. Some observers believe Maleh's arrest
also represents an effort by the Political Security
Directorate (PSD) to reassert its role at the expense of the
General Intelligence Directorate (GID). End Summary.

---------------
Arrest of Maleh
---------------

2. (C) Activists and diplomats quickly circulated news of the
October 14 arrest of lawyer and long-time activist Haitham
Maleh. Reportedly, PSD had contacted Maleh on October 13 and
asked him to come to its offices, but Maleh refused to
comply. On October 14 he went to work in the morning as
usual and at some point around 14:00, he disappeared. It now
remains to be seen whether PSD wants merely to frighten
Maleh, or intends to level criminal charges against him.

3. (C) Syrian Human Rights Organization (SWASIAH) activist
Catherine al-Tali (strictly protect) told us Maleh's defense
of Hasani represented the root cause for the PSD action. She
also predicted more arrests, particularly of public
intellectuals with anti-regime positions regarding Lebanon
and Iraq, would follow. In a separate meeting, however,
Damascus Declaration operative Fawaz Tello (strictly protect)
argued the Hasani case was only part of the issue. Tello
pointed out that over the last few weeks Maleh had published
increasingly harsh condemnations of the regime in Levant
News. Then, on October 13, Maleh appeared on Barada TV, a
television channel that broadcasts news programming in
support of the Syrian political opposition.

4. (C) Syria-based Reuters correspondent Khalid Oweis
(strictly protect) informed us that Maleh's detention, along
with the ongoing prosecution of Muhanad al-Hasani, indicated
a new crackdown by SARG security that could only come from
the top. Two weeks ago, Oweis himself, who is a Jordanian
national, was called in by security agents for questioning.
Oweis was incredulous in describing his interview. He said
that when he expressed surprise that a non-Syrian journalist
would be questioned, the agents reportedly replied, "Don't
worry, we just want to get to know you." Oweis said this was
the first time security had called him in, and that it did
not bode well for Syrian civil society in general.

-----------------------------------
Muallim's Remarks Spark Uncertainty
-----------------------------------

5. (C) The Swedish Ambassador, who had not yet received a
full readout of Spanish PM Zapatero's October 13 meetings
with President Asad and others, reacted negatively on October
15 to FM Muallem's press remarks the preceding day regarding
a document from Brussels announcing EU consensus on signature
of the Syrian-EU Association agreement. The document, signed
October 9, stipulated that signature would acknowledge an
understanding that implementation of the agreement's
provisions on human rights would be necessary for
implementation of other chapters. Muallim commented during
Zapatero's visit that "The EU approval was surprising to us,
so the Syrian government should study the agreement in all
its details." Muallim added that, if the SARG finished
studying the agreement during the Swedish presidency, "we

will sign it (then) or . . . during the Spanish presidency.
Both countries are our friends."

6. (C) The Swedish Ambassador said his Foreign Minister was
seeking clarification on whether this statement was aimed at
domestic audiences, or if it signaled Syria's intention
attend the signing ceremony. The Ambassador reported his
October 14 meeting with V/FM Faisal Miqdad, to whom he had
delivered Muallim's signing ceremony invitation, was cordial
and positive. Miqdad, the Ambassador reported, had thanked
Sweden for actively pushing the Syrian-EU agreement. The
Ambassador Swedish said he raised concerns with Miqdad about
Muhanad al-Hasani's case, to which Miqdad replied "This is
the first I've heard of it." The Ambassador described
Muallim's press remarks as a "splash of cold water" on the
signature ceremony, but he was still hopeful Muallim would,
in the end, accept the invitation.

7. (C) The UK Ambassador separately assessed that Muallim's
reaction signaled Syria's unhappiness with the EU's decision
to highlight human rights and incorporate language allowing
for the suspension of the agreement. Syria, he predicted,
would postpone the October 26 signing ceremony at the last
minute and then wait for the EU under the Spanish presidency
to come groveling. "That won't happen," he asserted
confidently.


--------------------------------
The EU and Human Rights Concerns
--------------------------------

8. (C) Other diplomats saw a linkage between Maleh's arrest
and Muallim's tough statement. The Dutch Ambassador, upon
being alerted to Maleh's arrest by Pol/Econ Chief and the
Swedish Ambassador during an October 15 UNDOF ceremony in the
Golan Heights, said "this will go over badly in the
Netherlands." Maleh was a close contact of the Dutch Embassy
and the 2006 winner of the Netherlands Geuzen medal, which is
awarded yearly by the Geuzen Resistance Foundation for
special contributions to the defense of democracy. The Dutch
Ambassador said he feared the Germans, French, and Spanish
would attempt to shift blame for Syria's escalating crackdown
on human rights activists over the last two months to the
Dutch, who insisted on making human rights an issue during
the EU debate on the association deal. The Ambassador shook
his head in disappointed dismay, noting that this logic was
faulty because the Syrians were cracking down even when the
EU Association Agreement was not in play. The Swedish
Ambassador suggested that there were elements inside the
Syrian Government trying to torpedo the EU-Syrian agreement.
That, he said, might help to explain why the SARG arrested
Maleh in such a conspicuous and seemingly defiant manner.

9. (C) The EU Mission suggested a more benign
interpretation. Our EU contact told us he was "confused" by
the proximity of events, and hoped that Maleh's arrest and
Muallim's press remarks were a reaction to the EU's
"unprofessional handling of the signing announcement." The
officer explained that Syria learned first of the invitation
through an October 8 French Press Agency article. The
announcement of the EU agreement on the association deal was
not delivered to the Syrian Brussels-based delegation until
October 12, and then to FM Muallim on October 13. Muallim's
lukewarm reception of the news may, the officer speculated,
simply be payback for a perceived slight. The Maleh arrest,
he added, would certainly complicate matters on both sides of
the agreement. He continued, coyly, "you know, with any
agreement there are elements on both sides who want to
obstruct progress."

10. (C) Another explanation of Maleh's arrest may be
internal rivalries within Syria's ubiquitous security
services. PSD's role has been largely subservient to GID in
suppressing internal opposition for last few years, according
to civil society activist Fawaz Tello. PSD, whose ranks were
previously considered untouchable, recently suffered public
humiliation when approximately 10 of its members were
indicted for corruption, he reported. Tello suggested PSD
was trying to reassert itself. "To touch someone like Maleh,

a realignment of power must have taken place," commented
Tello.

11. (C) Comment: Saudi King Abdullah's October 7-8 visit,
the October 13 inauguration of the Turkish-Syrian High Level
Strategic Cooperation Council, and the October 15 visit of
Spanish PM Zapatero have boosted Syria's confidence enough to
propel FM Muallim to announce the need to study an agreement
that his country desperately wanted -- at least at one point
-- and has been negotiating off-and-on for five years. To be
sure, many prominent Syrians take a dim view of the agreement
because of its association with efforts to isolate Syria.
There are also pockets of stubborn resistance to the economic
reforms that would be required by the association agreement.
Showing the EU that Syria intends to deal with it on equal
terms may help to quiet Syrian critics of the deal later on.
Whether Muallim's hubris will yield to more calculated
internal deliberations remains to be seen. Our guess is that
Syria now sees itself in a dominant position. Even if
October 26 passes without a signing ceremony, Syria can still
count on its relations with France, Germany, and Spain, all
of whom would probably be willing to push the agreement under
Madrid's EU presidency. Maleh's arrest is yet another
defiant gesture indicating the SARG has no intention of
yielding to the EU's or anyone else's concerns about Syria's
problematic human rights record.
HUNTER

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