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Viewing cable 10DAMASCUS8, CODEL GREGG'S DECEMBER 30 MEETING WITH PRESIDENT

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
10DAMASCUS8 2010-01-04 09:09 2010-11-28 18:06 SECRET Embassy Damascus
VZCZCXRO0091
OO RUEHROV
DE RUEHDM #0008/01 0040932
ZNY SSSSS ZZH
O 040932Z JAN 10
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 7183
INFO RUEHXK/ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHAK/AMEMBASSY ANKARA PRIORITY 5896
RUEHRL/AMEMBASSY BERLIN PRIORITY 0241
RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON PRIORITY 0842
RUEHMD/AMEMBASSY MADRID PRIORITY 0349
RUEHMO/AMEMBASSY MOSCOW PRIORITY 0870
RUEHFR/AMEMBASSY PARIS PRIORITY 0796
RUEHRO/AMEMBASSY ROME PRIORITY 1003
RUEHSM/AMEMBASSY STOCKHOLM PRIORITY 0151
RUEHDE/AMCONSUL DUBAI PRIORITY 0265
RUEHFT/AMCONSUL FRANKFURT PRIORITY 2478
RUEHIT/AMCONSUL ISTANBUL PRIORITY 0442
RHMFISS/CDR USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL PRIORITY
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC PRIORITY
RHMFISS/HQ USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL PRIORITY
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK PRIORITY 0781
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 06 DAMASCUS 000008 
 
SIPDIS 
 
DEPARTMENT FOR NEA/FO, ELA 
NSC FOR SHAPIRO/MCDERMOTT 
PARIS FOR NOBLES 
LONDON FOR LORD 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/03/2029 
TAGS: PREL IR LE IZ SY
SUBJECT: CODEL GREGG'S DECEMBER 30 MEETING WITH PRESIDENT 
ASAD 
 
Classified By: CDA Charles Hunter for reasons 1.4 b and d. 
 
1.  (S) Summary:  In a frank one-hour meeting with Syrian 
President Bashar al-Asad, Senators Gregg, Bayh, Specter, 
Enzi, Cornyn, and Klobuchar affirmed Washington's interest in 
better U.S.-Syrian relations and pushed Asad to take positive 
steps as well.  The senators urged Syria to move forward on 
security cooperation with the U.S. on Iraq, facilitating the 
release of three detained Americans in Iran, and re-opening 
the Damascus Community School.  Asad welcomed the prospect of 
more Congressional visits and candid exchanges, saying 
diplomacy had failed to solve the region's problems during 
the last two decades. 
 
--  On comprehensive peace, Asad reiterated Syria's strong 
desire to return to Turkish-facilitated indirect talks with 
Israel as a means to establish agreed terms of reference for 
direct negotiations.  Syria's relations with Iran should not 
be linked to Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations.  Syria's ties 
to Hamas, Hizballah, and other groups could be satisfactorily 
resolved only after the achievement of a comprehensive 
regional peace, Asad maintained. 
 
--  The U.S. and Syria should use the next several months to 
improve bilateral relations so that both sides could overcome 
mutual distrust that would hinder U.S. credibility as an 
honest broker, Asad told the senators.  Later in the 
discussion, FM Muallim argued the onus for taking the next 
positive step lay with the U.S.  Syria could not move on 
issues such as the American school or the Cultural Center 
unless Washington lifted its ban on the sale of new 
commercial aircraft to Syria. 
 
--   Calling Iran the region's most important country, Asad 
said the West could improve the prospects for peace by 
acknowledging Iran's NPT-protected right to enrich uranium 
under IAEA monitoring.  Asad argued the West should accept 
Iran's "reasonable" counter-offer to ship several batches of 
low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad for enrichment by other 
countries, instead of insisting Iran ship all of its LEU at 
once.  Asad said he believed Iran was not interested in 
pursuing a nuclear weapon, but warned that an Israeli 
military strike on Iran's nuclear infrastructure would fail 
to disable the program and would only increase Iran's 
determination.  End Summary. 
 
--------------------------------------------- -- 
Doctor Asad:  Treat, Don't Condemn, the Illness 
--------------------------------------------- -- 
 
2.  (S)  A confident President Asad greeted the six visiting 
senators and accompanying staff of CODEL Gregg on December 30 
with a call for frank discussion of "the facts" rather than 
an exchange of opinions.  Only the facts, he said, would 
enable both sides to focus on the critical issues of common 
interest and lead to a process of identifying solutions to 
shared challenges.  The international community had failed 
for two decades to solve the region's problems.  Now, there 
were new challenges on top of these that required direct, not 
diplomatic, solutions.  He welcomed the delegation, saying he 
hoped for more meetings with Congressional groups. 
 
3.  (S) Senator Specter expressed the delegation's 
condolences after the death of the President's younger 
brother Majd and recalled his numerous meetings with 
President Asad since their first meeting in 2000 at the 
funeral of former Syrian President Hafez al-Asad.  Senator 
Specter referred to his earlier discussions with Syrian 
officials about Israeli-Syrian peace talks and suggested 
 
DAMASCUS 00000008  002 OF 006 
 
 
Israel would benefit from peace with Syria.  The U.S. 
recognized Syria's deep and long-standing ties to Iran, but 
it also saw dangers if Iran acquired nuclear weapons. 
Stipulating that the Israeli government would have to make 
its own decisions on how to proceed in peace talks with Syria 
without U.S. pressure, Specter suggested the U.S. would 
positively view Syrian efforts to use its influence to alter 
Iranian policies.  Iranian policies currently opposed the 
achievement of peace between Syria and Israel, even as Syria 
recognized such a development would have a positive impact on 
defusing other regional tensions. 
 
4.  (S)  Asad asserted he wanted peace with Israel, but the 
issues were complex and required an organized frame of 
reference.  Both sides might agree on the shared objective of 
peace, but they differed on preferred approaches.  Calling 
for a fact-based approach to identifying the obstacles to 
peace, Asad likened the process to how a doctor should treat 
cancer.  Condemnations and mutual recriminations might be 
self-satisfying, but the cancer still grows unless the doctor 
is able to treat the root illness.  Syria, Asad continued, 
had begun indirect peace talks with Israel in May 2008 under 
Turkish auspices.  In roughly eight months, these talks had 
achieved more than several years of direct negotiations with 
Israel in the 1990s.  The U.S. and Europeans needed to 
support the Turkish track, argued Asad.  They also should 
convince Israel that only peace will protect Israel. 
Israel's military superiority would not secure it from attack 
against missiles and other technologies.  President Obama's 
tenure might represent the last opportunity for peace, Asad 
told the senators. 
 
----------------------------------------- 
Asad on Necessity of Indirect Peace Talks 
----------------------------------------- 
 
5.  (S)  Senator Gregg asked why Syria insisted on pursuing 
indirect peace talks via the Turks.  Why couldn't Syria and 
Israel move to direct talks brokered by the U.S., while Syria 
helped on issues important to the U.S., such as Hizballah, 
Hamas, and relations with Iran?  Asad replied Hamas and 
Hizballah should be a part of the peace, but not organizing 
principles for conducting peace discussions.  Syria, as 
demonstrated by then-lead negotiator Muallim's efforts in the 
1990s, had no problems with direct negotiations.  But those 
negotiations failed; failing again might foreclose future 
opportunities.  U.S. ambitions to push the peace process 
forward only resulted in spoiling the process because of the 
lack of "rules of negotiation."  Indirect talks represent the 
best way to establish terms of reference similar to those 
reached by Secretary Baker during his intense shuttle 
diplomacy in 1991.  While no one called these talks indirect 
negotiations, they functioned comparably to Syria's indirect 
talks under Turkish auspices. 
 
6.  (S)  Syria, Asad continued, saw the indirect talks as a 
way to institutionalize the process and reach agreed terms of 
reference on which to base direct negotiations.  This basis 
was absent in the 1990s and explained why the direct 
negotiations ultimately failed.  Referring to the "elephant 
in the room," Gregg asked whether it would be possible to 
reach peace with Israel without first resolving the Iranian 
nuclear issue.  Asad cautioned against linking Iran's nuclear 
program to an Israeli-Syrian peace deal, arguing such a link 
would only complicate both sets of issues.  "Too many cooks 
spoil the meal," he said.  Later in the conversation, however 
(in the context of a request for Syrian intervention with 
Iran to free detained American hikers), Asad noted every 
person and nation was key in bilateral and regional dynamics. 
 
DAMASCUS 00000008  003 OF 006 
 
 
 Syria had cut relations with the U.S. after the 1967 
Arab-Israeli conflict, but bilateral relations had improved 
markedly after President Nixon visited Syria in 1974 to 
discuss peace with Israel.  "That's our issue," he stressed, 
noting that the Golan track had been active under President 
Carter but then dormant through most of the 1980s and the 
early part of the current decade. 
 
--------------------------------------------- --------- 
Iraq: Political Cooperation, Then Security Cooperation 
--------------------------------------------- --------- 
 
7.  (S)  Senator Bayh observed that many things in Syria had 
changed for the better since his 2002 visit.  Now, there were 
positive indicators that bilateral relations might be on the 
upswing as well.  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.  Perhaps now was 
a propitious moment to consider re-establishing intelligence 
ties, Bayh suggested.  Asad concurred with the idea of 
overlapping U.S.-Syrian interests in Iraq.  He noted, 
however, that the main obstacle to increased U.S.-Syrian 
security cooperation stemmed from the absence of political 
cooperation.  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. 
 
8. (S)  Syria, Asad explained, had refused to cooperate with 
President Bush because it did not trust him and because the 
Bush Administration had wrongfully accused Syria of 
supporting foreign fighters.  When President Obama assumed 
office, Syria tried to be positive.  Asad he had proposed to 
Special Envoy Mitchell the idea of a border security 
cooperation initiative with Iraq as a first step.  (Post 
Comment: Asad's recollection is both selective and 
inaccurate.  U.S. officials first proposed a border security 
cooperation initiative to a reluctant FM Muallim in May 2009. 
 President Asad agreed to participate after meeting S/E 
Mitchell in late July 2009.)  "This was a small step for me, 
but big for you," Asad argued.  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. 
 
9.  (S)  Asad said Syria required a positive first step prior 
to resuming intelligence cooperation, a position that Senator 
Mitchell had accepted.  Syria had succeeded in convincing 
Iraqi PM Maliki on August 18 to reverse its opposition to the 
trilateral border security initiative and was ready to 
participate.  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 
 
DAMASCUS 00000008  004 OF 006 
 
 
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." 
 
---------------------------------------- 
Asad:  Door Open to Iranian Nuclear Deal 
---------------------------------------- 
 
10.  (S)  Senator Cornyn commented the most dire threat to 
regional peace stemmed from Iran's nuclear aspirations. 
Syrian interests could well suffer if there were a conflict 
between Israel and Iran and possibly others.  Asad replied no 
one could predict the course of a conflict; therefore, it was 
better to avoid one.  The Bush Administration took a 
political approach to Iran instead of dealing with the 
nuclear issue in the context of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. 
 Under the NPT, Iran enjoys the right to enrich uranium, 
provided there is IAEA monitoring.  Instead of trying to stop 
Iran's program, the international emphasis should shift to 
ensuring proper monitoring.  Iran had accepted the principle 
of enriching uranium outside of its borders.  Now the 
challenge was how to meet Iran's concern that shipping all of 
its LEU at once would risk not receiving any in return.  Asad 
claimed Iran sought only to enrich its uranium to 20 percent, 
well bellow the 95 percent threshold necessary for 
weapons-grade material.  If the international community 
agreed to divide Iran's shipments into four or five parts, 
Iran would be flexible, Asad argued.  In the meantime, Israel 
had to forget about attacking Iran.  Such a move would only 
encourage Iran to follow the path of India, Pakistan, and 
others in seeking a nuclear weapon.  Syria opposed this 
outcome, but viewed the only solution was to recognize Iran's 
rights and demonstrate flexibility in foreign enrichment, 
Asad said. 
 
11.  (S)  Later in the conversation, Senator Specter argued 
Iran appeared to be blocking a deal.  Asad claimed Iranian 
diplomacy was now more flexible because the government was 
stronger and more confident after the 2009 elections.  Noting 
he had shared this assessment with French President Sarkozy, 
Asad said he judged Iran to be looking for cooperative signs. 
 Iran represented the most important country in the region, 
Asad assessed, ranking Turkey second and Syria third.  The 
U.S. had troops in Afghanistan and needed better relations 
with Iran.  Specter agreed the enrichment issue could be 
solved; Russia had offered to enrich Iranian uranium several 
years ago, subject to international monitoring.  Iran had 
answered yes, replied Asad, but the issue was how to proceed. 
 Iran's desire to divide the uranium shipments represented 
the only difference: if the West agreed, the issue would be 
solved.  There was an open door; if the nuclear issue could 
be solved, the peace process would proceed more easily.  But 
if conflict erupted, the regional context would become 
extremely complicated. 
 
------------------------------------ 
Discussion of Detained Amcits in Iran 
------------------------------------- 
 
 
DAMASCUS 00000008  005 OF 006 
 
 
12.  (S)  Senator Klobuchar commented that she had supported 
Barak Obama because of his promise to advance a new approach 
to international relations.  While there were no easy 
solutions in the region, the U.S. and Syria appeared to have 
overlapping interests in avoiding war and in ensuring a 
strong and stable Iraq.  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.  Swiss officials had visited them, but 
they were isolated and the U.S. lacked information on their 
whereabouts and any pending charges. 
 
13.  (S)  Asad replied he was unfamiliar with their case and 
requested that the Embassy send more information.  Senator 
Specter interjected later in the conversation that the 
Embassy had delivered a letter to the MFA that week from the 
Secretary.  Specter added he had personally raised the matter 
in Washington with Syrian Ambassador Imad Mustafa.  The U.S. 
would view positively Syrian efforts to secure the three 
Americans' release, Specter said, comparing the case to the 
Iranian detention of UK sailors whom Syria helped to free. 
"We'll try our best," replied Asad, saying it would be 
necessary to ask about the legal aspects of the case. 
Specter clarified there had been no charges filed.  It had 
started as a trespassing case, but U.S.-Iranian relations 
were so poor it was impossible to resolve. 
 
--------------------------------------------- --- 
Re-Opening DCS:  Syria Awaiting U.S. Steps First 
--------------------------------------------- --- 
 
13.  (S)  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). 
 
14. (S) 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. 
 
 
DAMASCUS 00000008  006 OF 006 
 
 
15.  (C)  U.S. Participants: 
 
CDA Charles Hunter 
Senator Judd Gregg 
Senator Evan Bayh 
Senator Arlen Specter 
Senator Michael Enzi 
Senator John Cornyn 
Senator Amy Klobuchar 
Mr. Paul Grove, Clerk, Senate Appropriations Committee 
Mr. Christopher Gahan, Staff Member, Senator Gregg's Office 
Mr. Michael Pevzner, Staff Member, Senate Select Committee on 
Intelligence 
Mr. Tom Sullivan, Staff Member, Senate Judiciary Committee 
Mr. Christopher Bradish, Staff Member, Senator Specter's 
Office 
 
16.  (C)  Syrian Participants: 
 
President Bashar al-Asad 
Foreign Minister Walid Muallim 
Vice Foreign Minister Faisal Miqdad 
Presidential Advisor for Media and Policy Affairs Bouthaina 
Shaaban 
MFA America's Desk Director Dr. Muhammad Khafif 
 
17.  (SBU)  Mr. Paul Grove of CODEL Gregg cleared on this 
cable. 
HUNTER