2011-01-31 US state cables on Syria

In February, 2010, the Amir of Qatar discussed Syrian relationships with Senator John Kerry. Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, who is currently facing a potential revolution in his country, discusses U.S.-Syrian relations with six US senators in US state cable 10DAMASCUS8 from January, 2010. In the cable he stresses the absence of trust Syria has for the US and the need for the US to take steps to establish trust. The US senators request that Syria “demonstrate goodwill” by gestures such as interceding for them with Iran and reopening an international school which had been shut in 2008 in response to a U.S. military attack on Syrian soil which had killed seven innocent civilians.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.”

Iran represented the most important country in the region, Asad assessed, ranking Turkey second and Syria third.

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.

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).

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.

Cable 10DAMASCUS168 from February, 2010 records the Syrian Vice Foreign Minister (V/FM) Miqdad “Flatly denying any Syrian role in the supply of weapons to Hizballah … while Israel violated Lebanese sovereignty on a daily basis.”

Miqdad commented that it was “strange” the U.S. had chosen to deliver “harsh words while we’re trying to build better relations.” He promised to convey the message to his superiors but reiterated Syria’s desire to avoid escalation. “You may hear about weapons going to Hizballah,” he claimed, “but they are absolutely not coming through Syria.” The real threat to stability was coming from Israeli officials who had threatened recently to attack Damascus and to change the Syrian regime. “Please convey to Washington, while we take note of your demarche, this message should be directed at Israel,” he said.

He then contended the provision of U.S. weapons to the region represented a destabilizing factor. “The most sophisticated weapons are coming to Israel, to be used against whom?” he asked. When the U.S. pressed Israel to stop threatening its neighbors, the situation would stabilize. “We want peace. It’s the only solution. We are the ones who are threatened,” he declared. Charge replied the whole region was threatened. Miqdad said the U.S. and Syria needed to worked toward peace. “You should address your message to the people who don’t want peace,” he added.

Other cables from the Damascus embassy are here.

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