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Viewing cable 09DAMASCUS179, PRESIDENT ASAD AND CODEL CARDIN DISCUSS A NUCLEAR

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
09DAMASCUS179 2009-03-10 10:10 2010-11-28 18:06 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Damascus
VZCZCXYZ0001
OO RUEHWEB

DE RUEHDM #0179/01 0691040
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
O 101040Z MAR 09
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 6078
INFO RUEHAK/AMEMBASSY ANKARA PRIORITY 5717
RUEHGB/AMEMBASSY BAGHDAD PRIORITY 1010
RUEHLB/AMEMBASSY BEIRUT PRIORITY 5090
RUEHEG/AMEMBASSY CAIRO PRIORITY 3843
RUEHTV/AMEMBASSY TEL AVIV PRIORITY 2339
RHEHAAA/WHITE HOUSE WASHDC PRIORITY
RUCQSAB/USSOCOM INTEL MACDILL AFB FL PRIORITY
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHDC PRIORITY
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC PRIORITY
C O N F I D E N T I A L DAMASCUS 000179 
 
H PASS 
SIPDIS 
 
DEPT FOR NEA/ELA, NEA/IR, NEA/IPA 
NSC FOR MCDERMOTT 
 
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