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Viewing cable 09PARIS286, ENGAGING SYRIA: INSIGHTS FROM JEAN-CLAUDE COUSSERAN

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
09PARIS286 2009-02-26 15:03 2010-12-07 21:09 SECRET Embassy Paris
VZCZCXRO3569
OO RUEHDBU RUEHFL RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHNP RUEHROV
DE RUEHFR #0286/01 0571549
ZNY SSSSS ZZH
O 261549Z FEB 09
FM AMEMBASSY PARIS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 5631
INFO RUEHXK/ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 02 PARIS 000286 

SIPDIS 

E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/24/2024 
TAGS: PREL PGOV FR SY
SUBJECT: ENGAGING SYRIA: INSIGHTS FROM JEAN-CLAUDE COUSSERAN 

REF: A. DAMASCUS 142 
B. DAMASCUS 125 
C. DAMASCUS 120 

Classified By: Political Minister-Counselor Kathleen H. Allegrone, reas 
ons 1.4 (b) and (d). 

1. (S) Summary: Veteran Middle East troubleshooter and former French Ambassador to Syria (among other posts) Jean-Claude Cousseran assessed that recent improvements in Syrian behavior constituted a tactical shift rather than a strategic change of behavior; nevertheless, he felt the West should exploit that shift while it lasted. He characterized trying to split Syria away from Iran as "a nice idea" that would never work, and argued that if the U.S. were to engage 
Damascus, it should "get something tangible" and appoint a 
heavyweight ambassador. End summary. 

2. (C) Jean-Claude Cousseran is arguably the most distinguished French Arabist of his generation. A former ambassador to Syria (1993-96) and to Egypt (2002-2005), Cousseran was the director of the DGSE, France's external intelligence service, during 2000-2002. He also served as President Chirac's Special Envoy for Lebanon and as the MFA's Director for the Middle East and North Africa (NEA A/S 
equivalent). He is currently the Secretary General of France's Academie Diplomatique Internationale, a foreign policy think tank established in the 1920s, and a member of the MFA's nine-person Foreign Affairs Council. The veteran of innumerable diplomatic missions to Damascus, in particular during the 2007 effort to help the Lebanese elect a successor to Emile Lahoud, he is the ultimate "eminence grise" when it comes to France's relations with Syria. 

Is Syria's Change in Behavior Real? 
----------------------------------- 

3. (S/NF) In a recent meeting with Post's NEA Watcher, Cousseran said the Syrian regime has clearly chosen to change the tone of its dealings with the West and has made a number of gestures to President Sarkozy to demonstrate that Damascus can play a positive role in the region. Cousseran interpreted this Syrian move as a tactical shift rather than a strategic change of behavior. Nevertheless, he argued that the change -- whatever its meaning -- was tangible and had diminished the influence of hardliners in President Bashar al-Asad's inner circle, such as former FM Farouk al-Shara. 

4. (S/NF) The trick for the West, he continued, is to determine how best to exploit this opportunity while it lasts. Splitting Syria from Iran is a nice idea but would never work. "This is a secular regime that sees itself  belonging to the Shia universe, and has been trying for more than twenty years to demonstrate its Shia characteristics. The Alawites know that even if they have good relations with the Saudis and the Lebanese, and even if they make peace with Israel, at the end of the day the Sunnis will still hate them. If it comes to violence, they know the only power that will stand with them is Iran," said Cousseran. He added that the regime's hatred of the late Yasser Arafat and Rafik Hariri reflected this fundamental distrust of Syria's Sunni neighbors. 

Two Bits of Advice 
------------------ 

5. (S/NF) Cousseran offered two bits of advice in the event 
that the U.S. were to engage with Damascus. First, he urged 
that Washington should "get something tangible" from the 
Syrian regime. He cautioned that the Syrians were masters of 
avoiding any real concessions and were adept at showering 
visitors with wonderful atmospherics and delightful 
conversations before sending them away empty handed. On the 
other hand, he also warned against over-reaching. "If the 
U.S. were to aim for something too difficult, such as urging 
Syria to sever its ties to Hamas or Hizballah, than it would 
get nowhere," he said. Second, he urged that Washington send 
a powerful ambassador to Damascus. "You need someone like 
Edward Djerejian or Chris Ross, someone who can be a real 
player. Remember that there is a very tiny circle of  advisors around Bashar, and it contains both hawks and  moderates. The U.S. ambassador needs to be a player so that  he or she can be one of those voices influencing Bashar,"  said Cousseran. 


PARIS 00000286 002 OF 002 


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