Syrian is ready to cooperate with America again over Iraq but only at a price and flatly refuses to link an Israeli deal with Iran’s nuclear capability. These are the key messages revealed in one of the top secret cables published by Wikileaks this weekend. The cable “10Damascus8, Codel Gregg’s December 30 meeting with President” discusses “a frank one hour meeting” between Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad and six visiting US Senators Judd Gregg, Evan Bayh, Arlen Specter, Mike Enzi, John Cornyn and Amy Klobuchar on 30 December 2009. (Photo credit not known, sourced here)
Asad began the talks by saying he wanted a return of Turkish-facilitated indirect talks with Israel but said Syria's relationship with Iran should not be linked to Israeli peace negotiations. Syria's ties with Hamas and Hezbollah could be “satisfactorily resolved” only after peace was achieved. Asad said he wanted to see better relationships with the US but his foreign minister Walid al-Muallim said the ball was in the Americans’ court for taking the next positive step.
Asad called Iran the region’s most important country and said the West should acknowledged Iran's NPT-protected right to enrich uranium under IAEA monitoring. Instead of insisting Iran ship all of its Low Enriched Uranium at once as the West demands, Asad said Iran’s counter-offer to ship several batches of LEU for enrichment abroad was "reasonable". Asad said Iran was not interested in pursuing a nuclear weapon, but warned an Israeli military strike on its nuclear infrastructure would fail to end the program and would only increase Iran's determination.
Asad also refused to link Iran’s nuclear program with Israeli talks, arguing it would complicate both issues. Asad said eight months of indirect peace talks in May 2008 with Israel under Turkish auspices had achieved more than several years of direct negotiations with Israel in the 1990s. Direct talks failed because of the lack of "rules of negotiation." He said indirect talks represented the best way to establish terms of reference similar to those reached by James Baker in 1991. Asad urged the US and EU to support the Turkish initiative. “Israel's military superiority would not secure it from attack against missiles and other technologies,” he said.
Asad then bristled at suggestions Syria was allowing extremists across its borders into Iraq. Asad blamed the situation on the absence of political cooperation with the US. The Americans possessed a "huge information apparatus" but lacked the ability to analyse this information successfully. "You're failing in the fight against extremism,” he told the Senators. “While we lack your intelligence capabilities, we succeed in fighting extremists because we have better analysts.”
Asad said Syria had refused to cooperate with President Bush because it did not trust him and because his administration had wrongly accused Syria of supporting foreign fighters. When President Obama assumed office, Syria tried to be positive. Asad said he had shared the idea with Special Envoy Mitchell of a border security cooperation initiative with Iraq as a first step (the CIA analyst disputed this saying it was an American suggestion to which Syria reluctantly agreed).
Asad also compared the difficulty of patrolling the large Iraqi border with similar issues on US-Mexico border. "In the US you like to shoot (terrorists),” he said. “Suffocating their networks is far more effective.” Asad blamed “US mistakes in Iraq" for trouble in the region. The report said despite a shared interest with the US 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," Asad told the Senators.
The Senators had two other agenda items they wanted Syria to address: to facilitate the release of three detained Americans in Iran, and re-open the Damascus Community School. Asad said he was unfamiliar with the detained Americans issue but was “ready” to reopen the school after he shut it down in response to a US military attack in 2008 that killed seven Syrian civilians.
The cable went into a great more detail of the discussions than was revealed by Senator Specter’s account of the CODEL in the February congressional record. While Specter mentioned the Turkish solution and the "decoupling" of Iran he made no mention of the LEU offer or what Asad requested of the US in exchange for intelligence support.
The report is one of 15,000 Top Secret classified documents released by Wikileaks on the weekend. On Sunday they began the painstaking task of publishing over a quarter of a million leaked US embassy cables. The cables date from 1966 to February 2010 and contain confidential communications between the State Department and 274 embassies in countries throughout the world.