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Barack Obama’s Courtship of Bashar al-Assad

September 15, 2012 - ... The truth is that the world’s major powers, including the United States government, rather like Assad. He’s their kind of guy. He could be bargained with in geopolitical and financial matters. He was as greedy and power-hungry as they. He was and is terrible to his own people but that was their problem (and besides, what world power doesn’t use force against peaceful protesters?). He could be counted on to use the Golan Heights and the Palestinian struggle as pawns in his game. A post-Assad revolutionary Syria or a truly democratic one on the other hand might take the Palestinian struggle seriously and not use them as pawns. Particularly in the West and among the Gulf kingdoms, world leaders are lining up to abhor Assad’s slaughter but the bottom line is that nobody is doing anything to stop him but the Syrians themselves. However, those world leaders see the need to look and sound like they are doing something ....


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Barack Obama’s Courtship of Bashar al-Assad

by Clay Claiborne


September 15, 2012


I have been a Linux advocate since 1996 but today I am using the term "open source" in a new context with a new meaning. I have known it to mean computer software for which the all-important source code is freely available and generally under some degree of "copy-left" protection, but in the intelligence world, i.e. spyville, it refers to publicly available information of the sort found in newspapers, press releases and government publications; the kind of stuff we all have access to.

This history of the relationship between the Obama administration and the regime of Bashar al-Assad has been done as an investigative partnership organiszed by WikiLeaks.
I have been privileged to have access not only to the usual open source medias but also to three generally "closed source" databases highly relevant to my search, thanks to Wikileaks.

The first is the Cablegate database of secret US State Department cables published by Wikileaks. This gave me a window into what the US government was really doing and saying.

The second were the Syria files that WikiLeaks published. This collection of emails and their attachments to and from high Syrian officials, allowed me to see things from their point of view, you might say.

Finally, there are the 5 million emails of the global intelligence company Stratfor obtained by WikiLeaks. I have joined the Wikileaks  Global Intelligence Files research and publication team on this new treasure trove of information from the company commonly known as the "private CIA."

They track everything happening in world affairs and they run their own string of agents and informers, including in the highest offices in Washington, D.C. and Damascus. This source of material gave me invaluable insights into what was really going on. The material from the GI Files incorporated into this essay is being published by Wikileaks at the same time as this essay. I want to thank Pham Binh of the North Star for editing my rough draft.

Donate to Wikileaks. They deserve and need your support to make projects like these possible.

Barack Obama’s Courtship of Bashar al-Assad
President Barack Obama wasn’t thinking about Bashar al-Assad when he was being sworn in as President of the United States on 20 January 2009, but he was thinking about a second term and he knew nothing could guarantee that like a breakthrough on the Israeli-Arab front; That is why he wasted no time in naming George Mitchell his special envoy to the Middle East only two days after he took office on 22 January 2009. Less than a month later, on 21 February 2009, U.S. Senator John Kerry was meeting with the Syrian President in Damascus. Senator Kerry would become Obama’s key envoy in dealing with Assad.

The "reformer" and the "change" candidate

The main focus of peace negotiations in the Middle East has long been the need for a settlement of Israeli-Palestinian issues. The Arab position was embodied in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, while Israel continued grab more Palestinian land, oppress the Palestinian people and insist that all of Jerusalem is its capital. The two sides were as far a part as ever when Obama took office and the split between Hamas and Fatah made things even more complicated on the Palestinian side.

But there was another road to a peace breakthrough in the Middle East. Syria looked forward to a new administration in the White House and was eager to end its suffering under the Bush administration’s policy of sanctions, isolation and the threat of "regime change." Bashar al-Assad lead Obama to believe that he was now very serious about doing a peace deal with Israel and was interested in working with the US in other areas including common work in the "Global War on Terror" and cooperating to create more stability in Lebanon.

As he entered the White House, Obama saw two roads to a Middle East peace breakthrough, and since Hamas maintained its headquarters in Damascus, both roads went through Damascus. Furthermore, it was clear to Obama and anyone else that looked at the world situation objectively that Bush’s policy of lumping Syria together with Iran and attempting to isolate it had been a dismal failure. So Obama hit the ground running with a new policy of engagement with Syria, and that meant engagement with al-Assad.

As a matter of fact, Obama didn’t even wait until he was sworn in as president to begin that process. On 12 November 2008, just a week after he had won the election, a delegation representing President-elect Obama , met with Syrian officials at a meeting in Beirut that was very hush-hush. I wasn’t much reported in the Western media or mentioned by the Syrian press, but it was covered by Al-Ahram Weekly:

A US delegation affiliated with President-elect Barack Obama visited Syria on 12 November and met with two figures close to the Syrian government. The US delegation, comprising intellectuals, academics, and politicians from several US states, aimed to find out more about the impact of Obama’s election on the region, explore Arab reactions, and examine the future of US relations with the Syrian government.

The meeting took place at the Arab Institute for International and Diplomatic Sciences in Beirut. Syrian media made no mention of the visit. The delegation is on a regional tour of six Middle East countries, including Lebanon and Jordan to gather information about Arab reaction to Obama’s election and the prospects of peace and dialogue in the region. The US consul in Damascus briefed the delegation on Syrian reaction to US policies.
The Syrians told the US delegation that Damascus is interested in defusing tensions in the regions, is earnestly pursuing talks with Israel, and wants the Americans to sponsor and participate in these talks. Damascus holds no grudges towards the US administration and believes that the best way to sort out problems is through dialogue.

Third, the Syrians are looking for yet another way to open up to the United States, and are laying the groundwork for what they hope will be a political rapprochement between the al Assad regime and the incoming administration led by President-elect Barack Obama. By privately demonstrating to Washington and Beirut that it is cooperating against significant militant groups in Lebanon, the Syrians are sending a deliberate message to the incoming U.S. administration that Syria is prepared and capable of dismantling militant organizations – to include Hezbollah – in exchange for normalization of relations and support in the Syrian-Israeli negotiations. The Syrians have also been exhibiting their cooperation in clamping down on insurgent traffic into Iraq toward this.

A week after this meeting between the Obama people and the Syrian official on 20 November 2008, the global intelligence firm Stratfor was reporting that "Syria throws Fateh al Islam under the bus" in internal memos obtained by WikiLeaks [214636]:

Stratfor has learned that Syria has made a decision to cut off ties with Fatah al Islam, a murky Islamist militant group operating in Lebanon whose paychecks primarily come from Syrian military intelligence. The Syrian move is intended to solidify ties with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to further Syrian interests in Lebanon. In the past, Syria counted on its militant proxies in Fatah al Islam to undermine the Lebanese army and build up a case for Syrian intervention in Lebanon. The Syrians will now focus on Saudi-backed Islamist militants in Lebanon to serve this goal as the Damascus-Riyadh rivalry continues to build. At the same time, Syria appears to be signaling to the incoming U.S. administration that it is; prepared to dismantle militant groups in Lebanon – to include Hezbollah – in exchange for normalizing relations.

So even before Obama took office the Assad regime was signaling a certain willingness to play ball.

Genesis of the US-Syrian Engagement

The hope that Bashar al-Assad would prove to be a less brutal dictator than his father has had a history in the US that goes back to when the son first took over the presidency in 2000. Even the neocon Middle-East "expert" Daniel Pipes told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as much:

"But I’m hopeful that, within the context of Syrian political life, which has been totalitarian, brutalized, impoverished — that within this context, the fresh face, fresh approach of Bashar Assad could lead to good things."

28 December 2006, Senators Chris Dodd and Kerry had wide ranging discussions with Assad in Damascus that focused on Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict according to US State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks [#06DAMASCUS5447, #06DAMASCUS5448 ]. They were there following the recommendation of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group Report on the situation in Iraq that had been released on 6 December 2006 and recommended that the US move from the Bush policy of isolation towards Iran and Syria to one of engagement. The Israeli news outlet Haaretz told of the report’s recommendations with regards to Syria:

In relation to Israel, the Baker-Hamilton panel is recommending talks along two main axes: Syria-Lebanon and the Palestinians.The committee sets the conditions Damascus must fulfill to be considered an effective interlocutor, some of which are similar to those posed by the Bush administration to the Assad regime in exchange for dialogue.

The U.S. continues to demand that Syria avoid interference in Lebanon’s domestic affairs; that it cooperate in the investigation of the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri; that it cease all assistance to Hezbollah and undertake efforts to persuade Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

At the same time, the panel concludes that Israel must return the Golan Heights to Syria as part of a peace treaty, and says that in exchange Israel will be granted security guarantees from the United States on this front.

This report was widely praised by many leading Democrats, including Speaker of the House designate Nancy Pelosi and Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN)  and a number of Republicans including Senators Chuck Hagel and Susan Collins, but the neocons hated it, the conservatives criticized it and President Bush ultimately rejected it’s recommendations, including direct talks with Iran and Syria, instead opting for escalation in Iraq and isolating Iran and Syria.

The Democrats had already taken back Congress but Bush was still in the driver’s seat with regards to foreign policy. Most objective Middle East observers could already see that his attempt to isolate Syria along with Iran was a dismal failure and was even undermining the goal that most of them agreed on: isolating Iran. While the Bush sanctions were hurting the Syrian economy, they weren’t creating a situation that threatened the regime’s grip on power. With Assad’s close alliance with Iran and through his influence with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, both of which had headquarters in Damascus, Assad made himself the indispensable player in any Middle East peace plan.

The Baker-Hamilton report expressed this view and suggested that instead of trying to isolate the Baathist regime in Damascus, they should instead follow a policy of engagement because all roads to a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement led to Damascus. Against the wishes of the Bush administration, Nancy Pelosi, now Speaker of the House, said that she had "determined that the road to Damascus is the road to peace," took a congressional delegation that included Dennis Kucinich and Dick Lugar to Damascus and met with Assad in April 2007. She said of Assad:

"We were very pleased with the assurances we received from the president that he was ready to resume the peace process."

This was the genesis of the Syria policy that Obama bought with him to the White House. It was about diplomacy and doing deals between world leaders. Whatever problems the Syrian people might have with their leadership, that was their problem; their legitimate grievances were not part of his calculus and he was blindsided when those people rose up against the government he had by then spent so much time cultivating and blew his carefully tended peace plans all to hell. While he was quicker to grasp the meaning of the Arab Spring in the other countries of North Africa and the Middle East, he was in denial for a long time with regards to Syria and I think he still holds out hope that somehow Assad will survive and the deal can be salvaged.

While he was still a presidential candidate in June 2008, Senator Obama foreign policy adviser Daniel Kurtzer took the road to Damascus and met with Assad’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. He was following in the footsteps of Obama supporter Zbigniew Brzezinski who had met with Assad in February according to the New York Sun. After Kurtzer’s stop-over in Damascus, he joined "the presumptive Democratic nominee for the Israeli-Palestinian Arab leg of his Middle East tour." Officially he went to Damascus for a conference arranged by the British Syrian Society which was described as "closely connected to the [Assad] family", and officially had nothing to do with the campaign. A spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, Wendy Morigi, said: "Senator Obama values the expertise of Ambassador Kurtzer, but he is not a paid adviser, nor is he authorized to conduct talks with any government." Bush was still the president and he would try to make anyone who took the road to Damascus pay a toll.

This didn’t stop Republican presidential contender John McCain from trying to make hay of the trip:

"If one of Senator Obama’s advisers has been to Damascus, we just wonder how many have been to Tehran."

Obama’s Courtship Begins

After Obama became president, Assad told the Guardian:

"We have the impression that this administration will be different and we have seen the signals. But we have to wait for the reality and the results,"

Between 17 – 22 February 2009, a Congressional delegation consisting of Benjamin Cardin, Howard Berman and John Kerry visited Damascus. The Damascus Embassy told them From [09DAMASCUS132] obtained by WikiLeaks:

You should expect an enthusiastic reception by government officials of the Syrian Arab Republic (SARG) and from the media, who will interpret your presence as a signal that the USG is ready for enhanced U.S.-Syrian relations. Your visits over the course of February 17 – 22 form a trifecta that Syrians will spin as evidence of the new Administration’s recognition of Syria’s regional importance. The Syrians will look for your assessments on the possibility of reversing U.S. sanctions policy, and they will gauge your views on the probability of returning a U.S. ambassador to Damascus. The SARG may also seek your views on a U.S. role in the Golan track with Israel. While we hope the SARG might reveal a tangible side to their positions, our recent experience (and that of the French) has shown that the Syrian government’s positive rhetoric yields little result over time. Already, the SARG has begun to link potential movement on issues of operational importance to the Embassy — like identifying a plot of land for a new Embassy compound — to major bilateral issues, including their fervent desire to see U.S. economic sanctions lifted. On Syria’s relationship with Hizballah, Hamas, and Iran, we expect President Asad to defend the necessity of ties to these actors because of Israel’s continuing occupation of Arab land. We view your visits as an opportunity to educate senior Syrian leaders on Washington priorities in the region and how Congress views Syria in the context of the United States Government’s new policy of engagement. (They are not always clear on the difference between Congress and the Administration.)

Middle East OnLine reported that this was the second congressional delegation to visit Syria in the first month of the Obama presidency:

The Cardin-led delegation is the second congressional team to visit Syria in less than a month and John Kerry, foreign relations committee chairman, is expected to make the country one of his stops on a current Middle East tour.Assad described the visits as "important" and a "good gesture," but said he hoped Washington would send an ambassador to cement these ties.

The United States pulled it ambassador from Syria after the February 2005 assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in a car bomb attack blamed on Syria. Damascus has denied any involvement.

The CONDELS and pre-presidential contacts were more like foreplay, just copping a feel. The real courtship began with the meeting of Senator John Kerry and President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on 21 February 2009. Reuters reported on the meeting:

Senator Kerry: Syria willing to help achieve Palestinian unity

After meeting President Assad, Kerry says "this is an important moment of change’ for the Middle East."

Syria has indicated it is willing to help achieve a Palestinian unity government that could restart peace talks with Israel, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry said on Saturday.

Syria, which is under U.S. sanctions, hosts the exiled leadership of Hamas and has influence on the Palestinian group.

"Syria could be, in fact, very helpful in helping to bring about a unity government," Senator John Kerry told reporters after meeting President Bashar Assad.

"If you achieve that, then you have made a major step forward not only in dealing with the problems of Gaza but you have made a major step forward in terms of how you reignite discussions for the two-state solution … I think that Syria indicated to me a willingness to be helpful in that respect."

Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is expected to take part in Egyptian-sponsored unity talks between Palestinian groups on Wednesday. Washington supports Cairo’s mediation, although it regards Hamas as a terrorist group.

The Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has historically been on poor terms with Damascus.

Abbas broke off peace talks with Israel during its 22-day offensive against Hamas in Gaza but later criticized the Islamist group for what he described as reckless decisions that invited the invasion.

Syria backed Hamas during the conflict, deepening the rift between Damascus and U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Kerry, one of several Democratic lawmakers to visit Syria since President Barack Obama took office last month, said Syria had an opportunity to take advantage of the new administration in Washington.

"I believe very deeply that this is an important moment of change, a moment of potential transformation, not just in the relationship between the United States and Syria but in the relationship of the region," Kerry said.

Assad had emphasized Syria’s desire to have a dialogue with the Obama administration after years of tension with the United States when George W. Bush was in power.

Damascus supports the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Washington has accused Syria of allowing rebels to infiltrate Iraq.

"What I heard is great willingness to share, with respect to Iraq…I heard strong language about the hopes for Lebanon and the possibilities of providing stabilities," said Kerry, who is close to Obama.

"My hope [is that] in the next days things will begin to emerge that can begin to signal that kind of different possibility."

Journalist Seymour Hersh talked to Kerry after his meeting with Assad and wrote about it in the New Yorker:

These diplomatic possibilities were suggested by Senator John Kerry, of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who met with Assad in Damascus in February—his third visit since Assad took office, in 2000. "He wants to engage with the West," Kerry said in an interview in his Senate office. "Our latest conversation gave me a much greater sense that Assad is willing to do the things that he needs to do in order to change his relationship with the United States. He told me he’s willing to engage positively with Iraq, and have direct discussions with Israel over the Golan Heights—with Americans at the table. I will encourage the Administration to take him up on it."Of course, Syria will not suddenly move against Iran," Kerry said. "But the Syrians will act in their best interest, as they did in their indirect negotiations with Israel with Turkey’s assistance—and over the objections of Iran."

The US Embassy in Damascus passed along the following CONFIDENTIAL assessments of that meeting in three cables. Obama needed Assad’s cooperation in fulfilling his campaign pledge to bring US troops home from Iraq. Assad was in a position to throw a real monkey wrench into that, so that was at the top of the agenda. From [09DAMASCUS158] obtained by WikiLeaks.

Summary: Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator John Kerry told President Asad that he believed progress was being made in Iraq and the U.S. wanted to withdraw its troops as soon as possible. The recent provincial elections in Iraq had been the first real, positive sign that Iraq was moving forward and the first demonstration of the legitimacy of the GOI’s authority, Asad said, but the U.S. should give the Iraqi leadership "more space" or they will be labelled American puppets. Before the U.S. leaves Iraq, Asad said, it must ensure that it won’t allow federalism to fragment the country. If Iraq were to break down into federal states, the Sunni state, Asad predicted, would be governed by al-Qaeda and the Shi-ite state by Iran. The Kurds will end up fighting with Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Syria and Iran see Iraq differently from each other. Asad advised that the U.S. must view Iran as a Persian state, more than as a Shi-ite state ) the cultural identity, he implied, is more important than the religious identify. "Don’t bet on Khatami’s candidacy (in Iran’s June presidential elections)," Asad warned. "You can make deals with Ahmadinejad more (readily) than you can with Khatami
. . .
Never mind the rhetoric, Ahmadinejad has political power." Kerry expressed concern over Iran’s continued pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability and Asad responded by saying there should be a mechanism for monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities; states do not operate on trust. Asad said it is necessary to shift discussion from Iran’s right to nuclear technology to means of monitoring its activities. By attacking Iran’s right, Asad said, "you unify Iran." End Summary.

and the situation in Lebanon is important. From [09DAMASCUS159] obtained by Wikileaks:

Summary: Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator John Kerry asked President Bashar al-Asad February 21 about Syria’s activities in Lebanon in the lead-up to Lebanese elections in June. Asad, clearly primed, demanded, "Saudi Arabia has spent millions of dollars in Lebanon for the elections . . . are you against this (too)?"Asadrefused to yield to pressure to quickly name a Syrian ambassador to Beirut, calling it a "sovereign issue," and implying that the French had railroaded him unwittingly into making a commitment to send an ambassador before the end of 2008. "Every step has a meaning," he said, declaring that he knew whom he would appoint and when he would announce the appointment, refusing to share the information before then. Asad alleged the Saudis were "paying out money, approaching the elections like a political war." If the line that ultimately separates Lebanon’s political opponents is sectarian, then, Asad warned, the seeds of the next civil war will have been sown. Asad’s overt anxiety over trends in Lebanon, and his particular concern over Saudi interference, demonstrates yet again that Syria views Lebanon as its vulnerable underbelly and is still preoccupied by the perpetual concern that civil war could once again erupt there. End Summary.

And finally there was the all important question of the Middle East Peace process. From [09DAMASCUS160]:

Summary: Syrian President Bashar al-Asad told Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator John Kerry that the U.S. position on the Middle East peace process is Syria’s most important concern. Kerry said there was consensus among President Obama, Secretary Clinton, APNSA Jones and himself on their hopes for the Middle East. The U.S. needs to talk respectfully and frankly with the parties in the Middle East. Kerry then advised Asad that the perception he got from other regional leaders is "Bashar al-Asad says one thing and does another . . or he says he will do something and then doesn’t do it." Asad demanded specific examples: "I need to know this," he said. Absolving himself of credibility gaps, Asad said he wanted better relations with the U.S. He cited counter-terrorism, a unified Iraq, and peace with Israel as areas where the U.S. and Syria have common interests. Senator Kerry asked Asad what he could take back to Washington as an indicator of Asad’s good will. Asad deflected the question by asking what is the U.S. willing to do? Is it willing to revive the peace process, for example? And that seems to be the main stumbling block in restoring a U.S. ) Syrian dialogue: the Syrians are unwilling to make concessions, convinced as they are that they were ill-used and unappreciated by the Bush Administration. Having apparently made a tactical decision against it, the SARG did not raise the Syria Accountability Act. End Summary.

As the courtship progressed, on 26 February 2009 Syrian ambassador in Washington, DC was invited to meet the acting head of the Near Eastern Affairs bureau, Jeffrey Feltman, who had been U.S. ambassador to Lebanon. "We see this as an opportunity to explore those areas where we have potential for progress," the official told Reuters which also reported the Syrian view of this meeting:

Syrian embassy spokesman Ahmed Salkini said no reasons were given by the State Department for the meeting but Syria hoped for an end to the "dictation" policies of the past administration of President George W. Bush. "We hope we will see new policies, a new approach and a new vision over what we had over the past eight years," said Salkini of a possible thaw in ties between the two nations.

An internal Stratfor email gives us a clue as to why Assad’s terrible human rights record played no part in the discussions, and also spoke about the beginnings of intel sharing that didn’t make the official reports. Reva Bhalla wrote: [1198916]:

according to one of my sources, the syrians also gave them the middle finger and said they dont have to cooperate when the US is committing human rights violations through its occupation in iraq, etc. at the same time, there has been some 'low-level intel cooperation’ (which jibes with the insight ive been getting through a source in syria and what we wrote about).

now with bashar going to saudi we could see things move quicker

CNN reported that there also was a meeting between Secretary of State Hilliary Clinton and Syria’s foreign minister Walid al-Moualem at about this time:

Clinton and Moualem met briefly in March 2009 on the sidelines of an international donors conference on rebuilding the Gaza strip after the December 2008 Israeli offensive. They spoke by phone earlier this year about improving the U.S.-Syria bilateral relationship.

Also in March 2009 Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the ruler of Qatar, told Seymour Hersh in Doha that "Syria is eager to engage with the West." Hersh wrote about this and other observations in a major New Yorker piece, Syria Calling, on 6 April 2009:

A former American diplomat who has been involved in the Middle East peace process said, "There are a lot of people going back and forth to Damascus from Washington saying there is low-hanging fruit waiting for someone to harvest." A treaty between Syria and Israel "would be the start of a wide-reaching peace-implementation process that will unfold over time."

Many Israelis and Americans involved in the process believe that a deal on the Golan Heights could be a way to isolate Iran, one of Syria’s closest allies, and to moderate Syria’s support for Hamas and for Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group.

A major change in American policy toward Syria is clearly under way. "The return of the Golan Heights is part of a broader strategy for peace in the Middle East that includes countering Iran’s influence," Martin Indyk, a former American Ambassador to Israel, who is now the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, at the Brookings Institution, said. "Syria is a strategic linchpin for dealing with Iran and the Palestinian issue. Don’t forget, everything in the Middle East is connected, as Obama once said."

For negotiations to begin, the Syrians understood that Washington would no longer insist that Syria shut down the Hamas liaison office in Damascus and oust its political leader, Khaled Meshal. Syria, instead, will be asked to play a moderating role with the Hamas leadership, and urge a peaceful resolution of Hamas’s ongoing disputes with Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Syrians were also told that the Obama Administration was reëvaluating the extent of Syria’s control over Hezbollah.

During the long campaign for the White House, Obama often criticized Syria for its links to terrorism, its "pursuit of weapons of mass destruction," and its interference in Lebanon, where Syria had troops until 2005 and still plays a political role. (Assad dismissed the criticisms in his talk with me: "We do not bet on speeches during the campaign.") But Obama said that he would be willing to sit down with Assad in the first year of his Presidency without preconditions. He also endorsed the Syrian peace talks with Israel. "We must never force Israel to the negotiating table, but neither should we ever block negotiations when Israel’s leaders decide that they may serve Israeli interests," he said at the annual conference, last June, of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). "As President, I will do whatever I can to help Israel succeed in these negotiations."

But just when the re-engagement with Syria seemed to be getting off swimmingly, it started to hit some rapids when the US renewed sanctions against Syria, according to this Stratfor GI File [77025] dated 26 May 2009 and obtained by WikiLeaks:

PUBLICATION: background/analysis
ATTRIBUTION: Source in Syria
SOURCE DESCRIPTION: Adviser to Bashar al Assad
ITEM CREDIBILITY: 3-4My source says U.S. President Barack Obama*s decision to renew the sanctions on Syria has shocked his Syrian counterpart Bashar Asad, who now thinks his advisors and the architects of his foreign policy have misled him. Asad seems to have resolved himself to reshuffling his team of advisors and policy implementers. Asad was given the false impression that the U.S. has accepted a major role for him in the region, and that it sees no harm in his return to Lebanon. Asad came to understand from his
country*s diplomats in the US and ministry of foreign affairs that Washington has waived its precondition to resuming normal relations with Syria that it [Syria] first disengages itself from Iran and Hamas.

My source says Obama was enraged by Asad*s decision to host in Damascus Iranian President Ahmadinejad two days before the arrival of the Feltaman-Shapiro team to Damascus. Asad apparently wanted to play a game, that turned crude, with the U.S. to the effect that the improvement of his country*s relations with Washington will not come at the expense of those with Iran.

My source says the Obama administration was particularly enraged by Asad*s decision to prevent Lebanese President Michel Suleiman from forming his own third wave (between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions) parliamentary bloc that would serve as a swing player in Lebanon*s highly polarized politics. Instead, Asad has moved in the wrong direction by promoting the candidacy of the March 8 parliamentary contestants.

My source says the U.S. has made gestures towards Damascus, but the latter misinterpreted them, such as allowing the sale of Boeing spare parts to the Syrian national carrier, and authorizing the Iraqi government to receive Syrian prime minister Naji al-Utari to Baghdad and concluding an agreement that allows for the resumption of the flow of Iraqi oil through the Kirkuk-Banyas pipeline.

My source says the Obama administration grew fed up with the Syrian style of mercantile negotiations, which they could not understand. Eventually, talks between the two countries amounted to a dialog of the deaf.

Two days after this analysis was filed, on 28 May 2009, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was telling Senator Edward Kaufman and Congressman Tim Waltz at a meeting in Damascus that [09DAMASCUS377]:

he is looking for the Obama Administration to put forward a "road map" outlining a way forward in the U.S.-Syrian relationship, and that Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim would float the idea with Secretary Clinton during their planned June 1 telephone conversation. Asad wondered about U.S. thinking on the sanctions issue, and asked rhetorically whether one goal of U.S.-Syrian re-engagement might be the removal of these "obstacles." He expressed irritation with a recently released Country Terrorism Report re-identifying Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism, and questioned how the USG could take such a step while sending an envoy to Damascus to ask for security cooperation.

Two weeks later, on 14 June, Obama’s Middle East special envoy George Mitchell made his first official visit to Damascus, "breaking the diplomatic cold that prevailed between the two countries since 2005″ by meeting with Assad according to Le Monde. The next day, 15 June, U.S. envoy Fred Hoff left Israel for Damascus July 15 to meet with Syrian
Foreign Minister Walid al Moallem, according to a Stratfor report obtained by Wikileaks. [378139] This may have been to prepare for Mitchell’s second visit to Damascus on 26 July 2009, in any case, Fred Hoff was with him on that trip. AP reported on that meeting:

President Obama’s special Mideast envoy arrived Saturday on his second visit to Syria since he took up his post in the latest U.S. diplomatic outreach to a country deemed a state sponsor of terrorism.Last month, George Mitchell became the highest-level U.S. administration official to visit Damascus since 2005. He acknowledged Syria’s clout, declaring Damascus has a key role to play in promoting Mideast peace.

Mitchell did not speak to reporters after his arrival at Damascus airport Saturday.

He is to meet Syrian President Bashar Assad on Sunday to discuss bilateral relations and the prospects of reviving Syrian-Israeli peace talks. Mitchell later travels to Israel as part of U.S. efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

The Obama administration had a series of meetings with Syria and hopes the diplomatic outreach will encourage Damascus to play a positive role in both the Middle East peace process and also in Iraq.

Syria is seen as a major player in this process because of its support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, its backing for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its intermittent peace talks with Israel.

Turkey has said it is prepared to resume mediating peace talks between Syria and Israel.

Syria also maintains close links with Iran, whose disputed nuclear program is a matter of international concern.

Mitchell’s visit to Syria follows two separate trips in the past few months by senior U.S. officials Jeffrey Feltman, acting assistant secretary of state, and Daniel Shapiro, a Middle East expert at the White House, as part of talks about improving relations with a country shunned by former president George W. Bush.

Ahead of Mitchell’s visit, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his country is working to rebuild its diplomatic relationship with the United States. The U.S. withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005 to protest alleged Syrian actions in Lebanon. The Obama administration said last month it plans to send an ambassador to Syria, though no date has been set.

Al-Moallem, speaking in London after talks with his British counterpart David Miliband Friday, said Syria is looking forward to Mitchell’s visit as "the first step of dialogue."

From the Medea press review for the week from July 27 to 31, 2009:

This week US Middle East envoy George Mitchell toured widely in the region visiting one after another Israeli, Syrian, Egyptian and Palestinian authorities.During his visit to Damascus, George Mitchell said that President Obama had decided to work for a "comprehensive peace in the Middle East which includes Israel and Palestine, Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon and normal relations with all countries in the regions," said Nouvel Obs.

The comeback of Syria on the regional scene Le Monde highlights the feat : despite a clear position in favor of the Iranian regime and of Hezbollah and Hamas, Bashar al-Assad has been able to restore Syria in the role of a regional actor that cannot be ignored. The daily commented the failure of the French policy which was trying, by resuming diplomatic relations, to take Syria away from its Iranian ally. On the contrary, Syria has managed to use the blank check offered by France to revive its relations with Washington.

For the second time in just over a month, the U.S. special envoy for the Middle East visited Damascus. Le Monde reminds that on June 14, George Mitchell visited the Syrian capital, breaking the diplomatic cold that prevailed between the two countries since 2005.

Following this visit, Washington has announced the gradual lifting of the economic sanctions imposed to Syria, said AFP. Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House nevertheless warned that « to change the U.S. sanctions would require coordination and close consultation with Congress ». AFP also reminds that Washington also announced on pas June 24 the sending of a new ambassador to Damascus.

According to Israeli news agency Guysen news, as they have done with Iran, the United States try to find a compromise with Syria in order to "make Damascus a new bridge between Islamists and Arab moderates, particularly between Hamas and Fatah."

Le Monde also notifies that Syria is a central player in the palestinian inter dialogue: The Syrian capital is hosting the headquarters of Hamas and Hezbollah, while Mahmoud Abbas is coming there regularly to consult his Syrian counterpart.

The day after Mitchel’s second visit, the US lifted an embargo on information technology products and aviation industry goods to Syria, according to a Stratfor email released today by WikiLeaks. [1679601]"Nice little sign of faith" was the comment of a Stratfor analyst [5464098].

Things seemed to be moving along so well that by 12 August 2009, the US was sending a military team to Damascus for talks. Ynet News reported:

A US security delegation will visit Syria on Wednesday in a sign of growing cooperation between the two countries since US President Barack Obama started talking with the Damascus government, diplomats said.

That same day, Stratfor analyst Reva Bhalla summarized the changes in an email [986090] that didn’t waste any words:

Syria offering intel cooperation on AQ, Iran, HZ
Syria facilitating March 14 win in Lebanon
Saudi pouring money into Syrian coffers
US and Saudi rewarding Syria with diplomatic recognition (notice how quiet everyone is about Lebanon)
Signs that Syria is moving forward — big Syrian military/intel reshuffles; Iran threatening to destabilize the Syrian regime; HZ anxiety
this is all covered in our analysis

From an attachment to an email from hans-georg.mueller[@]gtz.de  and sent to fadl.garz[@]planning.gov.sy of the Syrian government and published by WikiLeaks as part of the Syria files, we have this further report on that meeting:

A senior US delegation visited Damascus, the Syrian capital, on August 12th-13th, led by Major General Michael Moeller, the Central Command’s director of strategy, plans and policy, and including Frederick Hoff, the deputy to the US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell. This followed a series of US delegations in April-June. The US State Department said that the main purpose was to follow up on initial discussions about curbing the infiltration of foreign fighters and military equipment into Iraq, although Mr Hoff’s presence suggests the Arab-Israeli conflict was also covered.

The day after the US military delegation left Damascus a Stratfor source was reporting [1699977]:

The Syrian regime is preparing to dismantle two major Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) bases in Lebanon, a STRATFOR source reported.

The source added that the Syrians are making it more difficult for PFLP-GC and Hamas officials to move around in Damascus, where each group has a base of operations. For each meeting they hold inside Syria, these Palestinian militants allegedly require a special permit from the director-general of Syrian intelligence.Syria’s apparent clampdown on Palestinian militants operating in the Syria-Lebanon domain is yet another indicator that Damascus’ ongoing negotiations with the United States and Saudi Arabia are making real progress. According to the source, the Israelis told the Syrians through U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell that closing down these two bases was a critical precondition to resuming peace talks between Israel and Syria.

September 2009 marked the end of the first six months of the Obama administrations re-engagement with Syria and to mark the occasion, a discussion paper, with the Subject: Re-engaging  Syria: Toward A Six-month Plan, and graded SECRET from the Damascus Embassy was circulated on 10 September, according cable [09DAMASCUS671] obtained by Wikileaks.

Summary: March 2010 will mark the end of the first year of U.S.-Syrian engagement. As reported reftel, this period poses a series of formidable challenges. Syrian policies continue to impede government formation in Lebanon, support foreign fighters going into Iraq, maintain close ties with Iran, Hizballah, and Hamas, and reject calls from the IAEA to cooperate. Our engagement efforts have established relationships that will enable us to discuss these subjects, but Syrian officials remain less willing to accept their responsibility in addressing core issues.

¶2. (S/NF) With the trilateral border assessment initiative now all but dead, we need a replacement to demonstrate the ability of both sides to work together constructively. Beyond our focus on national security issues, we should be considering how to expand our contacts in other technical areas in which initial U.S.-Syrian contacts could lead to more routine interaction. Syrian interest in judicial and law enforcement reforms, expanding educational contacts, water management issues, urban planning, and NGO development provide just a few examples of areas in which U.S. government and private sector contacts could dramatically expand our access and influence. We need to frame these initiatives in broader terms of choices facing the Syrian regime and the need for concrete Syrian actions on Lebanon and Iraq for our engagement to continue. We also need to dangle what the Syrians really want — relaxation of sanctions and visits by high ranking officials to expand our dialogue on core issues — as a payoff once Syria has demonstrated its intent to utilize these contacts to build a more solid foundation. If we can advance these ideas over the next six months, we may increase our ability to persuade senior Syrian leaders that their country’s interests is better served by more constructive policies that would bring even closer U.S.-Syrian ties. End Summary.

28 September 2009, AP reported:

A senior Syrian official has been invited to Washington for talks, a U.S. Embassy official said Monday, in the latest signal of the Obama administration’s efforts to improve relations with a country deemed a state sponsor of terrorism.The upcoming visit by Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Fayssal Mekdad, is the first in about five years and is part of U.S. efforts to improve strained relations with Damascus.

Mekdad, who is currently in New York as part of the Syrian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly meetings, will fly to Washington on Monday for talks with U.S. government officials on a range of issues, the embassy official said.

The Syrian diplomat’s visit is part of a continuing dialogue with the Syrian government that began in March, the official said, without giving details. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations

Kuna.net made this further report:

Assistant Secretary of State for public affairs P.J Crowley told reporters that this visit is "part of a continuing dialogue that we’ve opened with the Syrian government, again, earlier this year with visits by Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman and NSC Senior Director Dan Shapiro." He added that "Obviously there also have been visits by U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell." He indicated that a wide range issues are discussed but refused to detail them.

Stratfor emails obtained by Wikileaks [1711150] also claim that when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris on 11 November 2009, he gave Sarkozy a message to be relayed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was expected in Paris the next day for a two day meeting with Sarkozy and other French leaders. The French newspaper La Figaro on 13 November 2009 quoted Assad as saying that US President Barack Obama represented a weak point in the efforts to renew negotiations:

"The American godfather needs to draw up a plan of action and take his own initiative, not wait for others," said the Syrian President.

Still things did seem to move along, as this 3 February 2010 memo from Seymour Hersh about intelligence sharing seemed to indicate:

One note: a transcript of our talk, provided by Assad’s office, was generally accurate but it did not include an exchange we had about intelligence. A senior Syrian official had told me that, last year, Syria, which is on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, had renewed its sharing of intelligence on terrorism with the C.I.A. and with Britain’s MI6, after a request from Obama that was relayed by George Mitchell, the President’s envoy for the Middle East. (The White House declined to comment.) Assad said that he had agreed to do so, and then added that he also has warned Mitchell 'that if nothing happens from the other side "in terms of political progress" we will stop it.’

President Obama nominated Robert Ford to be the first US ambassador to Syria in 5 years on 17 February 2010 but thanks to Republican stonewalling of Obama’s appointments, he would not be able to take up the post in Damascus at this critical time for another eleven months. That is a real shame because once he did get to Damascus on 16 January 2011 after a recess appointment, he soon became well known for his out spoken support for the protest movement. As Reuters was to write on 13 September 2011:

U.S. ambassadors are usually the most measured of professionals, weighing each word in a delicate dialogue to advance America’s interests with a minimum of public fuss.But Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, is taking an undiplomatic tack — flouting government travel restrictions, courting opposition figures and taking to Facebook to publicly denounce Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on unarmed protesters.

One of the State Department’s top Arabists, Ford arrived in Damascus in January with a very different brief.

As the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in five years, he was expected to implement a policy of gradual rapprochement in hopes of prising the Assad government away from its alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and other Islamist groups and facilitating cooperation on new peace moves with Israel.

The soft-spoken envoy proceeded to radically redesign his mission to become one of the most outspoken critics of Assad now operating in Damascus.

When news of the appointment hit Stratfor, apparently it was a surprise to some but not to others, sparking discussions like this [1115772]:

On Behalf Of Peter Zeihan
Sent: February-17-10 8:51 AM
To: Analyst List
Subject: Re: discussion3 – US/SYRIA- Obama names first US ambassador to
Syria in 5 yearswhat’s changed? what’s the plan?
i don’t ask questions for my health

Kamran Bokhari wrote:

Nothing has changed now. It has long been in the making. Goes back to the U.S. need to pull Syria out of the Iranian orbit and they have been working with the Saudis in order to accomplish this. DC has also been interested in getting Syria to move forward on the peace process with Israel. The idea is that if you can get Syria on your side that could put some distance between Iran and Hezbollah. The Bush admin’s move to isolate Syria was an anomaly.

WikiLeaks Syria files documents also indicate that John Kerry made a trip to Damascus in April 2010 to meet with Assad [221424]. At the time there was a big dust up about Syria supplying Scuds to Hezbullah. Stratfor made this overall assessment of the situation:

The Syrian government has been accused of transferring Scud missiles to Hizbullah in Lebanon. Despite these accusations, which Syria denied, the US’s policy of increased engagement with Syria is unlikely to be derailed.

The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and his ruling Baath party are expected to retain a secure grip on the country, supported by key elements in the security services. The core of the elite is drawn largely from Mr Assad’s Alawi sect, and any move against him would risk endangering its hold on power. However, tensions within the regime persist, accentuated by external pressures such as the UN inquiry into the killing of Rafiq Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, the ongoing investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into allegations that Syria has a nuclear programme and accusations that Syria has been supplying the Lebanese militant group, Hizbullah, with longrange missiles.

None of these analysts and diplomats seemed the least bit concerned with the internal dynamics of Syria, so this report gave a rare glimpse:

Only limited progress is expected on political reform over the forecast period. Although some promised measures may be implemented, it is hard to envisage any steps being taken that would significantly diminish the Baath party’s hold on power. Mr Assad initially advocated political reform when he came to power in 2000, but he has acknowledged that the pace of reform has been slow since then. He has pledged to increase popular participation in the political process by introducing a political parties law, which will create a second chamber of parliament, the Majlis al-Shura—in addition to the existing lower chamber (the Majlis al-Shaab). He also pledged to devise a local
administration law to bring about greater decentralisation. Although there have been no visible signs of progress with these reforms in over two years, the reduction in international pressure on Syria will make it easier for at least a few cosmetic changes to be made at home during the forecast period. However, the security and intelligence services, which are pervasive and effective, will continue to clamp down on activists demanding democratic reform. The various opposition-in-exile groups and domestic critics are unlikely to pose a substantive threat to the government…..Syria is expected to continue the gradual liberalisation of its centrally planned economy, a process that has been led by the deputy prime minister for economic affairs, Abdullah al-Dardari.

Another email, dated 19 May 2010 from the Wikileaks Syria files revealed the courting friends of the Obama administration could expect in Damascus:

Dear Bouthaina,I hope this finds you well.

Some close friends of mine will be visiting Damascus from May 25-29, for tourism. However, they are influential people in Washington and I think that you and Walid would benefit from meeting them and they would certainly benefit from meeting both of you. Jim was Chief of Staff to Vice President Walter Mondale in the Carter Administration. He has also served as Chairman of the Brookings Institution. I have appended his resume so that you will get a fuller picture. Put simply, he is very influential in the Obama White House and in the Democratic Party. His wife, Maxine Isaacs, is a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government where she teaches about the role of women in foreign policy! So you can see why I thought immediately of putting them in touch with you when they told me they were going to visit Damascus. I would be very grateful if you have the time to meet with them, and to introduce them to Walid.

With very best wishes,

Martin [Indyk]

June 2010 was a busy month for President Assad on the diplomatic front. It began with a visit by Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev on 1 June in Damascus [831135] and ended with Assad’s visit to Cuba for an official visit on 29 June. [816327] While Assad was on his Latin American tour he "declared that the Obama administration’s failure to facilitate change in the Middle East shows that it is weak." according to this assessment from the Syria files obtained by Wikileaks.

On 23 September 2010 U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the Syrian Foreign minister Walid Moualem"in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly." according to a CNN report that went on

The rare meeting comes on the heels of a visit by Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell to Damascus earlier this month. Although officials stressed the United States still has "serious concerns"about Syrian support for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, the visit provided enough common ground for discussions to move to a higher level."The secretary would not be meeting with Foreign Minister Moualem if she did not feel it was an opportunity to make progress," one U.S. official said.

On 22 October 2010, the Jerusalem Post summed up Assad’s success in overcoming the Bush era boycott:

Despite efforts to internationally isolate Syria, especially during the Bush era, it has reasserted itself as a central player in the Middle East. Following the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, the US withdrew its ambassador to Beirut, intensified sanctions against Damascus and sought to deepen Syria’s isolation from the international community. The recent array of high-level visitors to Damascus – including US officials – demonstrates that President Bashar Assad has weathered the storm of isolation and has emerged as an essential actor in resolving regional disputes, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel should now respond favorably to Syria’s call for renewed peace talks, and in so doing utilize its influence to advance peace, rather than thwart it.

Even more than his Libyan counterpart, Mummar Qaddafi, Bashar al-Assad was being brought in from the cold and welcomed back to the international community of power brokers.

On 28 October 2010 Senator Arlen Specter was in Damascus meeting with Assad and various other Syrian top-brass including Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, Presidential Political and Media Advisor Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban and Deputy, Foreign Minster Dr. Fayssal Mikdad, according to this SANA report:

Damascus,(SANA)_President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday discussed with US Senator Arlen Specter the latest regional developments, stressing the importance of finding suitable circumstances for achieving the just and comprehensive peace in the region.

President al-Assad affirmed that Syria appreciates US President Barack Obama’s desire in this regard, saying that there are no indications for achieving a tangible progress in light of the presence of an Israeli government which doesn’t want peace and doesn’t believe in it.

A Stratfor email [1002707] exchange on 9 November 2010 obt

:: Article nr. 91116 sent on 16-sep-2012 17:32 ECT


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