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Cablegate: Codel Gregg's December 30 Meeting with President

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S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 06 DAMASCUS 000008

SIPDIS

DEPARTMENT FOR NEA/FO, ELA
NSC FOR SHAPIRO/MCDERMOTT
PARIS FOR NOBLES
LONDON FOR LORD

E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/03/2029
TAGS: PREL IR LE IZ SY
SUBJECT: CODEL GREGG'S DECEMBER 30 MEETING WITH PRESIDENT
ASAD

Classified By: CDA Charles Hunter for reasons 1.4 b and d.

1. (S) Summary: In a frank one-hour meeting with Syrian
President Bashar al-Asad, Senators Gregg, Bayh, Specter,
Enzi, Cornyn, and Klobuchar affirmed Washington's interest in
better U.S.-Syrian relations and pushed Asad to take positive
steps as well. The senators urged Syria to move forward on
security cooperation with the U.S. on Iraq, facilitating the
release of three detained Americans in Iran, and re-opening
the Damascus Community School. Asad welcomed the prospect of
more Congressional visits and candid exchanges, saying
diplomacy had failed to solve the region's problems during
the last two decades.

-- On comprehensive peace, Asad reiterated Syria's strong
desire to return to Turkish-facilitated indirect talks with
Israel as a means to establish agreed terms of reference for
direct negotiations. Syria's relations with Iran should not
be linked to Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations. Syria's ties
to Hamas, Hizballah, and other groups could be satisfactorily
resolved only after the achievement of a comprehensive
regional peace, Asad maintained.

-- The U.S. and Syria should use the next several months to
improve bilateral relations so that both sides could overcome
mutual distrust that would hinder U.S. credibility as an
honest broker, Asad told the senators. Later in the
discussion, FM Muallim argued the onus for taking the next
positive step lay with the U.S. Syria could not move on
issues such as the American school or the Cultural Center
unless Washington lifted its ban on the sale of new
commercial aircraft to Syria.

-- Calling Iran the region's most important country, Asad
said the West could improve the prospects for peace by
acknowledging Iran's NPT-protected right to enrich uranium
under IAEA monitoring. Asad argued the West should accept
Iran's "reasonable" counter-offer to ship several batches of
low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad for enrichment by other
countries, instead of insisting Iran ship all of its LEU at
once. Asad said he believed Iran was not interested in
pursuing a nuclear weapon, but warned that an Israeli
military strike on Iran's nuclear infrastructure would fail
to disable the program and would only increase Iran's
determination. End Summary.

--------------------------------------------- --
Doctor Asad: Treat, Don't Condemn, the Illness
--------------------------------------------- --

2. (S) A confident President Asad greeted the six visiting
senators and accompanying staff of CODEL Gregg on December 30
with a call for frank discussion of "the facts" rather than
an exchange of opinions. Only the facts, he said, would
enable both sides to focus on the critical issues of common
interest and lead to a process of identifying solutions to
shared challenges. The international community had failed
for two decades to solve the region's problems. Now, there
were new challenges on top of these that required direct, not
diplomatic, solutions. He welcomed the delegation, saying he
hoped for more meetings with Congressional groups.

3. (S) Senator Specter expressed the delegation's
condolences after the death of the President's younger
brother Majd and recalled his numerous meetings with
President Asad since their first meeting in 2000 at the
funeral of former Syrian President Hafez al-Asad. Senator
Specter referred to his earlier discussions with Syrian
officials about Israeli-Syrian peace talks and suggested

DAMASCUS 00000008 002 OF 006


Israel would benefit from peace with Syria. The U.S.
recognized Syria's deep and long-standing ties to Iran, but
it also saw dangers if Iran acquired nuclear weapons.
Stipulating that the Israeli government would have to make
its own decisions on how to proceed in peace talks with Syria
without U.S. pressure, Specter suggested the U.S. would
positively view Syrian efforts to use its influence to alter
Iranian policies. Iranian policies currently opposed the
achievement of peace between Syria and Israel, even as Syria
recognized such a development would have a positive impact on
defusing other regional tensions.

4. (S) Asad asserted he wanted peace with Israel, but the
issues were complex and required an organized frame of
reference. Both sides might agree on the shared objective of
peace, but they differed on preferred approaches. Calling
for a fact-based approach to identifying the obstacles to
peace, Asad likened the process to how a doctor should treat
cancer. Condemnations and mutual recriminations might be
self-satisfying, but the cancer still grows unless the doctor
is able to treat the root illness. Syria, Asad continued,
had begun indirect peace talks with Israel in May 2008 under
Turkish auspices. In roughly eight months, these talks had
achieved more than several years of direct negotiations with
Israel in the 1990s. The U.S. and Europeans needed to
support the Turkish track, argued Asad. They also should
convince Israel that only peace will protect Israel.
Israel's military superiority would not secure it from attack
against missiles and other technologies. President Obama's
tenure might represent the last opportunity for peace, Asad
told the senators.

-----------------------------------------
Asad on Necessity of Indirect Peace Talks
-----------------------------------------

5. (S) Senator Gregg asked why Syria insisted on pursuing
indirect peace talks via the Turks. Why couldn't Syria and
Israel move to direct talks brokered by the U.S., while Syria
helped on issues important to the U.S., such as Hizballah,
Hamas, and relations with Iran? Asad replied Hamas and
Hizballah should be a part of the peace, but not organizing
principles for conducting peace discussions. Syria, as
demonstrated by then-lead negotiator Muallim's efforts in the
1990s, had no problems with direct negotiations. But those
negotiations failed; failing again might foreclose future
opportunities. U.S. ambitions to push the peace process
forward only resulted in spoiling the process because of the
lack of "rules of negotiation." Indirect talks represent the
best way to establish terms of reference similar to those
reached by Secretary Baker during his intense shuttle
diplomacy in 1991. While no one called these talks indirect
negotiations, they functioned comparably to Syria's indirect
talks under Turkish auspices.

6. (S) Syria, Asad continued, saw the indirect talks as a
way to institutionalize the process and reach agreed terms of
reference on which to base direct negotiations. This basis
was absent in the 1990s and explained why the direct
negotiations ultimately failed. Referring to the "elephant
in the room," Gregg asked whether it would be possible to
reach peace with Israel without first resolving the Iranian
nuclear issue. Asad cautioned against linking Iran's nuclear
program to an Israeli-Syrian peace deal, arguing such a link
would only complicate both sets of issues. "Too many cooks
spoil the meal," he said. Later in the conversation, however
(in the context of a request for Syrian intervention with
Iran to free detained American hikers), Asad noted every
person and nation was key in bilateral and regional dynamics.

DAMASCUS 00000008 003 OF 006


Syria had cut relations with the U.S. after the 1967
Arab-Israeli conflict, but bilateral relations had improved
markedly after President Nixon visited Syria in 1974 to
discuss peace with Israel. "That's our issue," he stressed,
noting that the Golan track had been active under President
Carter but then dormant through most of the 1980s and the
early part of the current decade.

--------------------------------------------- ---------
Iraq: Political Cooperation, Then Security Cooperation
--------------------------------------------- ---------

7. (S) Senator Bayh observed that many things in Syria had
changed for the better since his 2002 visit. Now, there were
positive indicators that bilateral relations might be on the
upswing as well. One area, however, in which relations had
not improved was intelligence cooperation. The U.S. and
Syria appeared to have common interests in seeing a stable
Iraq, not dominated by Iran. Yet, foreign extremists
continued to travel through Syria into Iraq. The U.S. had
provided information regarding four named individuals to the
Syrian government, but nothing had happened. Perhaps now was
a propitious moment to consider re-establishing intelligence
ties, Bayh suggested. Asad concurred with the idea of
overlapping U.S.-Syrian interests in Iraq. He noted,
however, that the main obstacle to increased U.S.-Syrian
security cooperation stemmed from the absence of political
cooperation. The U.S. possessed a "huge information
apparatus" but lacked the ability to analyze this information
successfully, maintained Asad. "You're failing in the fight
against extremism. While we lack your intelligence
capabilities, we succeed in fighting extremists because we
have better analysts," he claimed, attributing the superior
analysis to living in and understanding the region.

8. (S) Syria, Asad explained, had refused to cooperate with
President Bush because it did not trust him and because the
Bush Administration had wrongfully accused Syria of
supporting foreign fighters. When President Obama assumed
office, Syria tried to be positive. Asad he had proposed to
Special Envoy Mitchell the idea of a border security
cooperation initiative with Iraq as a first step. (Post
Comment: Asad's recollection is both selective and
inaccurate. U.S. officials first proposed a border security
cooperation initiative to a reluctant FM Muallim in May 2009.
President Asad agreed to participate after meeting S/E
Mitchell in late July 2009.) "This was a small step for me,
but big for you," Asad argued. Citing the U.S. inability to
control its long border with Mexico, Asad said the border was
not the major challenge. Syria's close intelligence
cooperation with Turkey enabled both countries to prevent
terrorists from crossing their 860-kilometer border without
relying on a huge border security presence. This
intelligence cooperation enabled Syria to "suffocate"
logistical networks critical to the movement of terrorists.
"In the U.S., you like to shoot (terrorists). Suffocating
their networks is far more effective," said Asad.

9. (S) Asad said Syria required a positive first step prior
to resuming intelligence cooperation, a position that Senator
Mitchell had accepted. Syria had succeeded in convincing
Iraqi PM Maliki on August 18 to reverse its opposition to the
trilateral border security initiative and was ready to
participate. After the August 19 bombings and Iraqi
accusations against Syria for facilitating the terrorist
attacks, Syria remained willing to participate in the border
assessments. It was the U.S., Asad insisted, that had backed
away. Syria had no interest in supporting extremists, who
weren't killing Americans but rather Iraqi civilians. "That

DAMASCUS 00000008 004 OF 006


hurts us," Asad claimed. U.S. "mistakes in Iraq" had cost
Syria and the region a great deal. Syria had out of
self-interest sought to deter terrorists who popped up.
Still, despite a shared interest with the U.S. in ensuring
Iraqi stability, Syria would not immediately jump to
intelligence cooperation without ensuring its own interests
would be respected. "I won't give it (intelligence
cooperation) to you for free," he said. Senator Bayh replied
that the U.S. was working to normalize relations and
considering positive steps to take along the way. Syria,
Asad commented, had been clear on how to start rebuilding
relations. "We didn't say no," he said, "but we have to
build from an absence of trust."

----------------------------------------
Asad: Door Open to Iranian Nuclear Deal
----------------------------------------

10. (S) Senator Cornyn commented the most dire threat to
regional peace stemmed from Iran's nuclear aspirations.
Syrian interests could well suffer if there were a conflict
between Israel and Iran and possibly others. Asad replied no
one could predict the course of a conflict; therefore, it was
better to avoid one. The Bush Administration took a
political approach to Iran instead of dealing with the
nuclear issue in the context of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Under the NPT, Iran enjoys the right to enrich uranium,
provided there is IAEA monitoring. Instead of trying to stop
Iran's program, the international emphasis should shift to
ensuring proper monitoring. Iran had accepted the principle
of enriching uranium outside of its borders. Now the
challenge was how to meet Iran's concern that shipping all of
its LEU at once would risk not receiving any in return. Asad
claimed Iran sought only to enrich its uranium to 20 percent,
well bellow the 95 percent threshold necessary for
weapons-grade material. If the international community
agreed to divide Iran's shipments into four or five parts,
Iran would be flexible, Asad argued. In the meantime, Israel
had to forget about attacking Iran. Such a move would only
encourage Iran to follow the path of India, Pakistan, and
others in seeking a nuclear weapon. Syria opposed this
outcome, but viewed the only solution was to recognize Iran's
rights and demonstrate flexibility in foreign enrichment,
Asad said.

11. (S) Later in the conversation, Senator Specter argued
Iran appeared to be blocking a deal. Asad claimed Iranian
diplomacy was now more flexible because the government was
stronger and more confident after the 2009 elections. Noting
he had shared this assessment with French President Sarkozy,
Asad said he judged Iran to be looking for cooperative signs.
Iran represented the most important country in the region,
Asad assessed, ranking Turkey second and Syria third. The
U.S. had troops in Afghanistan and needed better relations
with Iran. Specter agreed the enrichment issue could be
solved; Russia had offered to enrich Iranian uranium several
years ago, subject to international monitoring. Iran had
answered yes, replied Asad, but the issue was how to proceed.
Iran's desire to divide the uranium shipments represented
the only difference: if the West agreed, the issue would be
solved. There was an open door; if the nuclear issue could
be solved, the peace process would proceed more easily. But
if conflict erupted, the regional context would become
extremely complicated.

------------------------------------
Discussion of Detained Amcits in Iran
-------------------------------------


DAMASCUS 00000008 005 OF 006


12. (S) Senator Klobuchar commented that she had supported
Barak Obama because of his promise to advance a new approach
to international relations. While there were no easy
solutions in the region, the U.S. and Syria appeared to have
overlapping interests in avoiding war and in ensuring a
strong and stable Iraq. From the U.S. perspective, Syria
might demonstrate as a goodwill gesture its interest in
better relations by helping obtain the release of three
American citizens -- Joshua Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sarah
Shourd -- who apparrently crossed into Iran while hiking in
northeastern Iraq. Swiss officials had visited them, but
they were isolated and the U.S. lacked information on their
whereabouts and any pending charges.

13. (S) Asad replied he was unfamiliar with their case and
requested that the Embassy send more information. Senator
Specter interjected later in the conversation that the
Embassy had delivered a letter to the MFA that week from the
Secretary. Specter added he had personally raised the matter
in Washington with Syrian Ambassador Imad Mustafa. The U.S.
would view positively Syrian efforts to secure the three
Americans' release, Specter said, comparing the case to the
Iranian detention of UK sailors whom Syria helped to free.
"We'll try our best," replied Asad, saying it would be
necessary to ask about the legal aspects of the case.
Specter clarified there had been no charges filed. It had
started as a trespassing case, but U.S.-Iranian relations
were so poor it was impossible to resolve.

--------------------------------------------- ---
Re-Opening DCS: Syria Awaiting U.S. Steps First
--------------------------------------------- ---

13. (S) Senator Klobuchar and Senator Enzi argued Syria
might demonstrate good will by re-opening the Damascus
Community School (DCS), whose closure had hurt not just
American students, but also many foreigners and Syrians.
Senator Enzi said his committee's purview on education
created a personal interest in seeing the DCS re-opened; the
school's closure represented a step away from moving towards
positive relations. Asad replied he wanted to open Syria to
the rest of the world. In September 2008, for example, the
French Embassy opened a new international school. Asad
explained he had ordered DCS's closure after a U.S. military
attack on Syrian soil had killed seven innocent civilians in
late October 2008. "We had to respond," he argued, saying
the school's closure "was the only step we could take" in
response to the Bush Administration. President Carter, Asad
continued, had urged the reopening of DCS during his December
2008 visit. "I told Carter that we are ready," said Asad,
who noted the Syrian government wanted to send positive
signals to the Obama administration and had done so by
re-opening the American Cultural Center (ACC).

14. (S) FM Muallim noted that only part of the American
Language Center portion of ACC had been allowed to re-open.
He argued that he and other Syrian officials had told State
Department officials that steps by Syria to improve relations
first required U.S. steps. "We can't move without a waiver
for Syrian Airlines," he argued, citing the threat to Syrian
civilians posed a U.S. ban on the sale of civilian aircraft
and spare parts. Asad noted that a good friend who ran a
medical laboratory was similarly unable to import U.S. lab
technology. The bigger issue, Asad said, was about bilateral
relations. Syria's intent was to re-open the DCS. Asad said
he trusted President Carter and supported President Obama.
"We know he has other problems and priorities, but there must
be U.S. steps," Asad insisted.


DAMASCUS 00000008 006 OF 006


15. (C) U.S. Participants:

CDA Charles Hunter
Senator Judd Gregg
Senator Evan Bayh
Senator Arlen Specter
Senator Michael Enzi
Senator John Cornyn
Senator Amy Klobuchar
Mr. Paul Grove, Clerk, Senate Appropriations Committee
Mr. Christopher Gahan, Staff Member, Senator Gregg's Office
Mr. Michael Pevzner, Staff Member, Senate Select Committee on
Intelligence
Mr. Tom Sullivan, Staff Member, Senate Judiciary Committee
Mr. Christopher Bradish, Staff Member, Senator Specter's
Office

16. (C) Syrian Participants:

President Bashar al-Asad
Foreign Minister Walid Muallim
Vice Foreign Minister Faisal Miqdad
Presidential Advisor for Media and Policy Affairs Bouthaina
Shaaban
MFA America's Desk Director Dr. Muhammad Khafif

17. (SBU) Mr. Paul Grove of CODEL Gregg cleared on this
cable.
HUNTER

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