March 2009

09DAMASCUS179 2009-03-10 10:10 2010-11-28 18:06 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Damascus

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E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/10/2019
TAGS: PHUM IAEA KPAL PGOV PREL PTER IR IS IZ TU SY
SUBJECT: PRESIDENT ASAD AND CODEL CARDIN DISCUSS A NUCLEAR
IRAN, PEACE PROCESS, TERRORISM, AND HUMAN RIGHTS

Classified By: Charge d’Affaires Maura Connelly for reasons 1.4 (b) and
(d)

¶1. (C) SUMMARY: CODEL Cardin, in a February 18 meeting with
President Bashar al-Asad, FM Muallim, Presidential Advisor
for Political and Media Affairs Shaaban, and Ambassador to
the U.S. Mustafa conveyed U.S. concerns regarding Iran’s
pursuit of a nuclear weapon, Syrian human rights abuses, the
Israel-Syria peace process, upcoming Lebanese elections, and
Syrian support for terrorism. Senator Cardin encouraged the
SARG to address these issues in order to lay the groundwork
for a more productive future dialogue. Asad argued Syria
essentially shared the same position as the U.S. on the
majority of these issues, but Syria’s approach toward solving
these problems was clearly different. Asad said the U.S.
needed to look at the larger regional political picture, as
Syria did, if it truly wanted to find satisfactory
resolutions. On Iran, Asad maintained IAEA monitoring would
ensure Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power for civilian purposes
only. Regarding human rights, Asad stated Syria was making
progress, but the CODEL needed to understand this issue in
the larger context of Israel’s aggression in Gaza, the
suffering of Palestinian refugees, and terrorist attacks on
Syria. Asad rejected the notion that Syria facilitated the
transit of foreign fighters into Iraq, pointedly asking the
CODEL what interest would he have in doing so? The upcoming
elections in Lebanon, Asad surmised, would not change the
composition of the government dramatically nor Syria’s
determination to continue the process of establishing a full
diplomatic presence in Beirut. On future Israel-Syria peace
negotiations, Asad was more vague. He offered no specifics
on re-opening talks, but expressed Syria’s desire for the
process to continue with U.S. involvement. Finally, in
response to the CODEL’s repeated concerns about Syrian
support for Hamas and Hizballah, Asad remarked that these
were democratically elected organizations in the Palestinian
Authority and Lebanon; dealing with them was simply part of
the reality of politics in the Middle East. END SUMMARY.

——————————–
The Opening Gambit: Human Rights
——————————–

¶2. (C) Following a warm exchange of pleasantries in which
Senator Cardin thanked Asad for sending Imad Mustafa to the
U.S. as Syria’s Ambassador (“He’s in our offices so much
we’ve thought of charging him rent!”), Senator Cardin noted
the CODEL had come to Syria for two major reasons: (1) As a
fact-finding mission with an eye toward reinvigorating the
Syria-Israel peace process; and (2) to learn more about the
Iraqi refugee situation. Senator Cardin added “there are new
opportunities . . . The U.S. has a new president who wants to
work” with countries in the region. Regarding Syria, he
said, “there are areas of major concern,” one of them being
Syria’s human rights record. Senator Cardin told Asad he
could give specific examples of citizens jailed for their
political views. Asad responded, “we are a country in
process of reform. We aren’t perfect. You are talking about
12 people out of 20 million. It’s a process. We are moving
forward, not fast, but methodically.” (NOTE: Asad’s mention
of “12 people” refers to the 12 members of the Damascus
Declaration National Council convicted in October 2008 and
sentenced to two and a half years in prison. END NOTE).

¶3. (C) Asad admitted Syria had very strong security laws, but
argued they were necessary to protect the nation. The
members of the Damascus Declaration had been convicted for
their “contact with an individual in Lebanon who had invited
the U.S. to attack Syria. This is against our law.” Senator
Cardin replied he realized this was a domestic issue; he was
not asking Syria to be exactly like the U.S., but Syria
should nonetheless adhere to widely accepted international
standards. Senator Cardin argued that “when the U.S. is
challenged, you see it on the front page of the newspaper”
and that such challenges were an important part of a national
dialogue. “You do not see this (freedom of expression)
anywhere in the region,” Asad chuckled in reply, “let’s talk
about Saudi Arabia.”

¶4. (C) Widening the human rights conversation beyond the
scope of Syrian prisoners of conscience, Asad admonished the
CODEL for focusing on 12 individuals without taking into
account half a million Palestinian refugees in Syria alone,
and the continued suffering of people in Gaza. “Human
rights,” Asad philosophized, “is related to the whole
upgrading of society. This will produce new laws.” In a
final bid to put the subject of human rights to rest, Asad
stated he was a popular president and that if he were working
against his people, he would not enjoy such popularity.
“Don’t worry about human rights, we’re moving forward,” he
said.

¶5. (C) Turning to conflict and reform in the region, Asad
observed many societies in the region (including Syria) were
experiencing a shift in political alignment to the right. As
a result, the process of political reform had become
increasingly difficult. Asad warned that countries, like
Lebanon and Algeria, which had strived for rapid reform in
the past, had only set the stage for more conflict. In the
case of Algeria during the 1980s, Islamists had tried to use
a sudden political opening to gain power and this had sparked
a conflict lasting twenty years. Similarly, Asad continued,
Lebanon’s reform process and the May 29 elections had been
the cause of the subsequent sectarian violence. Asad
contended the real issues were “peace and fighting
terrorism.”

——————————-
The Middle Game: A Nuclear Iran
——————————-

¶6. (C) Senator Whitehouse raised Iran, agreeing with Senator
Cardin’s assessment of the new political terrain and
asserting: “We have a moment of opportunity for new
policies.” Whitehouse cautioned Asad that it was also “a time
for choices.” The manner in which the U.S. would proceed
depended on “honest, sustained cooperation in the region,” he
said. The senator emphasized the time-frame for this
cooperation was quite short. The one thing that could bring
it to a premature close would be Iran’s development of
nuclear weapons. “If Iran insists,” Senator Whitehorse
stated, “it will create an atmosphere challenging for
negotiations.”

¶7. (C) Asad swiftly responded, “we’re not convinced Iran is
developing nuclear weapons.” He argued Iran could not use a
nuclear weapon as a deterrent because nobody believed Iran
would actually use it against Israel. Asad noted an Iranian
nuclear strike against Israel would result in massive
Palestinian casualties, which Iran would never risk.

¶8. (C) Second, he continued, the IAEA had reported no
evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran existed.
Arguing Syria and the U.S. were actually closer than they
realized on these issues, Asad said Syria adamantly opposed
any “weapons of mass destruction” in the Middle East. But as
signatories to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear
Weapons (NPT) both Iran and Syria had the right to pursue
nuclear power for civilian purposes. Asad asserted demands
for Iran to “stop” its nuclear program were unproductive and
a violation of its rights under the NPT. Instead, he said,
“the argument should be about how to monitor their program,”
as outlined in the NPT. “Without this monitoring,” Asad
warned, “there will be confrontation, and it will be
difficult for the whole region.” Asad leaned slightly
forward and said: “Let’s work together on this point.”

¶9. (C) Senator Whitehorse replied, “I hope monitoring is
enough,” noting the difficulty of such a project in a closed
society such as Iran. Asad responded an international system
for monitoring was in place and should be followed. Senator
Cardin interjected, “we believe Iran’s goals are the opposite
of what you describe. We think they want to change the
equation” (of power in the region). Asad asked the CODEL to
put aside this point of view and focus on monitoring. Senator
Cardin said, “we agree on monitoring, but we think Iran

should give up its nuclear ambitions.” Asad reiterated
monitoring was the best institutional way to control Iran’s
nuclear program. Senator Wicker challenged Asad’s assertion
Iran was not seeking to develop nuclear weapons and that
monitoring alone would work. Asad replied his impression was
that Iran’s program was for peacful purposes with the caveat
“we have no evidence as we are not in Iran.” Senator Wicker
advised Asad the international community assessed otherwise;
the question now was what the appropriate response to Iran
should be. “Everyone wants to avoid a military reaction,” he
noted, “but it was the clear view of the former
administration and is the clear view of the current
administration that something will have to be done.” Asad
observed “you have my impression. Everything you mention is
guessing. Monitoring will make everything clear.”

¶10. (C) Representative Moore argued that while monitoring was
a mechanism appropriate to “nation states,” it would not be
effective in controlling Iran’s military proxies, Hamas and
Hizballah. She stated both Syria and Iran provided financial
support to the two groups and there was no way to rule out
categorically the possibility that Iran might provide nuclear
material to Hizballah. “The ability of the international
community to monitor Iran on NPT is understood. It’s the
role of the proxies that is the problem,” she said. Asad
replied, “if you don’t trust the mechanisms of the NPT, let’s
cancel it.” He maintained these proxies “would go away” if
there was a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement. He
asked who had created these proxies? “We didn’t and Iran
didn’t. How were they created? By conflict because Lebanon
was occupied by Israel. It’s normal to have resistance.
This is the reality we have to deal with.”

————————–
Testing The Flank: Lebanon
————————–

¶11. (C) Senator Wicker asked Asad to give his prognosis for
the upcoming Lebanese elections, the prospect of Syria
sending an ambassador, and whether Hizballah would disarm.
In a tone of resigned pessimism, Asad replied that the
Lebanese elections would not make much of a difference. In
Lebanon, he explained, any party can get a “veto third.”
Asad maintained the key issue was whether the Lebanese would
vote along political lines or sectarian lines. If the latter
occurred, then Shi’as would elect Shi’as, Christians would
elect Christians, and so on, which would result in conflict.
“If you don’t have consensus, you will have civil war. This
is how it has always been in Lebanon,” he said. Conflict in
Lebanon would preclude normal relations between the two
countries.

¶12. (C) On the subject of a Syrian ambassador to Lebanon,
Asad characterized the delayed appointment as being part of a
deliberate political process. Asad pointed out Syria had
opened an embassy and staffed it, actions they would not have
taken if they did not fully intend to send an ambassador.
Asad argued an appointment like this was a political step
requiring the proper timing. He added “we know who and when,
but we’re not going to announce it today.” Senator Wicker
deftly rejoined “we could make news!” eliciting laughter from
everyone, including Asad.

¶13. (C) Regarding the disarmament of Hizballah, Asad argued
“Hizballah has no specific interest in Israel besides
securing Lebanon’s borders and preventing threats to
Lebanon’s integrity, like Israel’s daily violations of
Lebanese airspace.” Asad noted Hizballah was the most
powerful political party in Lebanon, was democratically
elected, and if peace in the region were to be achieved, “the
small things” with Hizballah and Hamas would disappear.
“Let’s talk about the peace. This is the big picture that
will solve everything.” Asad likened the U.S.’s approach to
Hizballah to trying to patch an old suit when a new suit was
needed. Senator Cardin countered that peace would very
likely go forward if Syria would stop the arms flow to
Hizballah. The senator noted many countries thought Syria
was concerned about possible repercussions with Iran if it

were to take the initiative on stopping arms to Hizballah.
Asad responded Syria had been in negotiations with Israel
with no concern for Iran’s opinion. He told the story of how
Iranian President Ahmedinejad called him just before the
Annapolis conference and implored him not to send anyone,
that it was a “bad meeting,” but that they sent a
representative anyway. “I told him I know it (Annapolis) is
just a photo op. But I am sending someone anyway. We do
what we think is good for our interests; it’s not dependent
on Iran,” he contended.

——————————
A New Tempo: The Peace Process
——————————

¶14. (S) Senator Tom Udall asked what message Asad wanted the
CODEL to deliver to the new administration. Asad replied he
saw two key common interests between Syria and the U.S.:
peace in the region and combating terrorism. Asad argued
Syria had been at the forefront of fighting terrorism ever
since it put down the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982. He claimed
that in the mid-1980s, Syria had sent a delegation to Europe
to articulate the need for a coalition to fight terrorism,
but nobody had listened. Asad said Syria wanted to know when
the U.S. would adopt a new approach toward terrorism, adding
that “it’s not a question of how much you can destroy, but
how much dialogue you can make.” The Europeans, Asad
continued, knew more about the region than the U.S. and he
urged the CODEL to turn to them for guidance. Asad stated
the U.S. and Syria shared a common interest on “70 percent”
of the issues at hand, the difference was all in “point of
view, principles, culture, and approach.” Keen to press the
topic of engagement, Asad attempted to refute the idea that a
new dialogue would only make Syria stronger: “No, you make
yourselves stronger because you have interests in the region.”

¶15. (C) Agreeing that dialogue was crucial and an essential
component of the Helsinki Commission, Senator Cardin advised
Asad that if he were serious about engagement, he would expel
Hamas leaders from Syria. Asad replied, “What if Hamas
supported peace?” Senator Cardin explained Hamas was a
symbol–it launched rockets into non-military areas and this
was the definition of terrorism. Asad replied Hamas was an
uninvited guest; it was really the very Muslim Brotherhood
organization Syria had combatted through the 1980s. “If you
want me to be effective and active, I have to have a
relationship with all parties. Hamas is Muslim Brotherhood,
but we have to deal with the reality of their presence.”
Senator Cardin pointed out not expelling Hamas sent a signal
to the international community that Iran, given its support
for Hamas, might be making the decisions in Damascus.

——————————–
En Passant: The DCS, ACC and ALC
——————————–

¶16. (C) When confronted with Senator Cardin’s observation
that the SARG’s closure of the Damascus Community School
(DCS), the American Culture Center (ACC), and the American
Language Center (ALC) had hurt Syrians more than Americans,
Asad assured the CODEL that this was merely a public
relations gesture on his part. “We were attacked by the U.S.
army,” Asad replied, “Seven civilians were killed. I had two
choices: fight the U.S. army or do something symbolic. It’s
something temporary. You’ll open it next year.” Senator
Cardin told Asad he understood “symbolic gestures, but not
when they hurt your own people.”

——————————
The End Game: Foreign Fighters
——————————

¶17. (C) “What interest does Syria have in letting foreign
fighters go to Iraq?” Asad pointedly asked in response to
Representative McIntyre’s question about why Syria had not
done more to monitor and staunch the flow of transiting
fighters across the Syria-Iraq border. Asad continued: “Can
you stop the immigration of Mexicans into the U.S.? No. All

borders are porous. There is no army on the border; you
don’t have soldiers on the border. Do your homework. My job
is to protect my people, not your soldiers. We have
terrorists. Two months ago there was a car bomb in Syria and
that car came from Iraq.” (NOTE: We assume Asad is referring
to the September 27, 2008 car bomb attack against a SARG
military facility, though Syrian Military Intelligence has
reportedly stopped several cars rigged with explosives since
then. END NOTE). Asad noted that the lack of cooperation
with military forces in Iraq contributed to the problem.
With Turkey, he said, the border was more complicated and the
terrain worse, but because Syria enjoyed better cooperation
it was less porous.

¶18. (C) Asad recounted how when (then NEA A/S) William Burns
and representatives from the Army and CIA came to Damascus,
“we said we were ready to cooperate. We took the delegation
to the border, then after they left we waited for a proposal,
but nothing came of it. They didn’t want to cooperate.” Asad
added Syria lacked the financial and technical means, such as
night-vision goggles, to tighten its control of the area.
Asad then said, somewhat contradicting himself, that 80
percent of controlling the border was about controlling the
country. Representative McIntyre asked, “but are you willing
to monitor (the border)?” The president demurred, “this is a
different problem,” at which point Ambassador Mustafa
interjected with “I will brief you on the details.”

¶19. (C) The three main objectives Asad felt the U.S. and
Syria should work on were (1) Eliminating WMD in the region;
(2) pursuing a shared interest in a stable Iraq; and (3)
working for peace and combating terrorism. Asad re-affirmed
that Syria was not an enemy of the U.S., “I have saved
American lives.” In 2002, Asad explained, he passed
information to the King of Bahrain about an imminent attack
on American citizens. Ambassador Mustafa added that then
Secretary of State Colin Powell had sent the Syrian
government a letter expressing his gratitude for its
assistance. If the U.S. wished for similar coordination in
the future, Syria could not begin security cooperation
without concomitant political cooperation, Asad stated.

¶20. (C) COMMENT: Beginning with the visit of President Carter
last December, President Asad’s exposure to U.S. politicians
has steadily increased. This encounter was a good example of
how Asad has been able to hone his responses to U.S.
accusations that Syria is a bad actor in the region. At no
point in the conversation did Asad ask about the appointment
of a U.S. ambassador to Syria or economic sanctions, which
suggests to us that he is doing everything possible to avoid
the appearance of being the supplicant, despite the Syrian
press’s heavy focus on Syria’s desire to see an end to
sanctions and the appointment of a U.S. ambassador.

¶21. (C) COMMENT CONTINUED: We have heard anecdotally that
Asad was not pleased with the tenor or substance of his
meeting with the CODEL. The SARG is reportedly interpreting
the group’s position on Iran, Iraq, Hizballah, and human
rights to be a continuation of, rather than a departure from,
the previous Administration’s policy toward Syria. We note
that the CODEL’s discussion with Asad was frank but cordial.
Senator Cardin and the CODEL members aired U.S. policy
concerns publicly from their perspective as elected
legislators in press remarks, framed in the context of their
desire to explore whether cooperation with Syria is viable.
The Syrian press and many of our interlocutors have come to
view re-engagement with the U.S. as a fait accompli, as
something long-overdue and very much owed to Syria. Asad’s
displeasure with the CODEL may be his first recognition that
U.S.-Syria bilateral relations will require more on his end
than originally anticipated. END COMMENT.

————-
Participants
————-

¶22. (SBU) U.S.A.:
Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD)

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)
Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS)
Senator Tom Udall (D-NM)
Representative Mike McIntyre (D-NC)
Representative Gwen Moore (D-WI)
Charge d’Affaires Maura Connelly
Mr. Fred Turner, Chief of Staff, CSCE
Mr. Alex Johnson, PSM, CSCE
Ms. Shelly Han, PSM, CSCE
Mr. Eric Pelofsky, PSM, SIC
Notetaker Anthony Deaton

Syrian Arab Republic:
President Bashar al-Asad
Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim
Presidential Advisor for Political and Media Affairs Dr.
Bouthaina Shaaban
Ambassador to the U.S. Imad Mustafa
Unidentified female notetaker
Unidentified male palace staffer

¶23. (U) Senator Cardin did not have a chance to clear this
report as of March 10.
CONNELLY

09TELAVIV654 2009-03-19 14:02 2010-11-28 18:06 SECRET Embassy Tel Aviv

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SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/19/2019
TAGS: PREL PTER PGOV KWBG IR IS
SUBJECT: ISRAEL’S RELATIONS WITH THE GULF STATES FOCUS ON
IRAN, PERCEPTION OF ISRAELI INFLUENCE IN WASHINGTON

REF: TEL AVIV 605

Classified By: DCM Luis G. Moreno, Reason 1.4 (b) (d)

¶1. (S) Summary. MFA Deputy Director General for the Middle
East Yacov Hadas provided PolCouns March 16 with an overview
of Israel’s relations with several of the Gulf states. Hadas
described Israel’s relations with the Gulf as a function of
the Gulf Arabs’ fear of Iran, but also as due to the Arabs’
belief in Israeli influence in Washington. Fleshing out some
of the points he had made earlier to NEA Acting A/S Feltman
(reftel), Hadas described Qatar’s shift toward the radical
camp in the region as a “game” linked to Qatari rivalry with
Saudi Arabia. Hadas believes Qatar is feeling pressure from
Israel, Egypt and the Saudis, adding that he has been invited
to visit Doha for talks about how to resume normal
Qatari-Israeli ties. Hadas noted that while the Omanis are
generally correct in their dealings with Israel, they appear
not to recognize the seriousness of the threat from Iran. He
said that while the UAE is increasingly hostile to Iran, it
remains unclear how far they are willing to go in terms of
increasing financial pressures on Tehran. Hadas said the
Gulf Arabs feel that the U.S. does not listen to them and
therefore sometimes try to pass messages through Israel.
While he agreed that progress on the Palestinian track would
make it easier for the Gulf states to be open about their
ties to Israel, he cautioned that the Gulf states use the
peace process as an “excuse not to take action” against Iran
or in support of the PA. End Summary.

¶2. (C) PolCouns called on Deputy Director General for the
Middle East Yacov Hadas March 16 to follow up on Hadas’ March
4 discussion with Acting A/S Feltman of Israeli-Gulf
relations. Beginning with Qatar, Hadas said there were signs
that various pressures on the Qataris were starting to have
an effect. Hadas noted that Qatar could only get its
humanitarian relief supplies into Gaza through Israel.
Qatari diplomats assigned to their Gaza consulate also had to
cross through Israel since Egypt would not allow them to
enter Gaza from Rafah. For now, the Israelis are not
allowing either Qatari assistance or personnel to cross into
Gaza. Hadas noted that he had been invited to visit Doha to
discuss reopening the Israeli trade office, which he saw as a
positive sign. He added that the Qataris needed to
understand that they could not expect to restore cooperative
relations with Israel without agreeing to reopen the trade
office.

¶3. (S) While Hadas was critical of the Qataris’ treatment of
Israel since the Gaza operation, he stressed that he thought
Qatar’s policies were not a matter of a shift in ideology
toward the radical camp, but linked to their rivalry with the
Saudis and, by extension, with Egypt. In private settings,
Hadas noted that the Qatari leadership harbored “no
illusions” about Iran. Prince Hamad had told the Israelis in
October 2006 that he believed Iran was determined to develop
a nuclear bomb no matter the cost. According to Hadas, Hamad
complained at the time that he felt the U.S. would not listen
to him and tended to believe what it heard from Iran.

¶4. (S) Hadas reiterated the point he had made to Feltman
regarding Oman, calling the Omanis the “most problematic” of
the Gulf states in terms of their view of Iran. With regard
to Omani contacts with Israel, Hadas said they were
“correct,” but the Omanis never fulfilled their commitment to
open an Israeli office in Muscat. He said Oman has “its own
definition” of what poses a threat to the Gulf, partly due to
Oman’s geographical location. He did not think Oman would be
willing to join the rest of the GCC against Iran.

¶5. (S) Hadas agreed that the UAE was increasingly hostile to
Iran, but there remained a question as to how far they were
prepared to go. The UAE has extensive trade and financial
relations with Iran, including money laundering, and it was
unclear whether they were ready to use these relations as
leverage. Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdallah has developed
good personal relations with Foreign Minister Livni, but the
Emiratis are “not ready to do publicly what they say in
private.” (Note: It was clear from Hadas’ remarks that
Israel’s channel to Saudi Arabia does not run through the
Foreign Ministry.)

¶6. (S) Hadas said the Gulf Arabs believe in Israel’s role
because of their perception of Israel’s close relationship
with the U.S. but also due to their sense that they can count
on Israel against Iran. “They believe Israel can work
magic,” Hadas commented. When considering a trilateral
U.S.-Israel-GCC partnership, Hadas suggested we bear in mind
that Iran’s nuclear program is the primary source of concern
to the U.S. and Israel, while the Gulf Arabs also worry about
Iran for a host of historic and sectarian reasons.

¶7. (C) PolCouns noted that Arabs say that progress on the
Palestinian track would make it easier for them to publicly
engage Israel. Hadas countered that while peace with the
Palestinians is an Israeli interest and important in its own
right, it should not be the sum total of Israel’s relations
with the Arab World. Arab League Secretary General Amre
Moussa had invented the “never-ending hurdle race” in which
Israel could never do enough to deserve a positive response.
The Israeli-Palestinian track should not serve as an excuse
for the Gulf to avoid action, whether against Iran or through
practical steps to support the Palestinian Authority.

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