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Viewing cable 09DAMASCUS251, SYRIAN SCORE CARD: NO GRAND BARGAINS, BUT POSITIVE FIRST

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
09DAMASCUS251 2009-04-06 13:01 2011-02-11 08:08 SECRET//NOFORN Embassy Damascus
VZCZCXRO0563
OO RUEHBC RUEHDE RUEHKUK RUEHROV
DE RUEHDM #0251/01 0961301
ZNY SSSSS ZZH
O 061301Z APR 09
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 6203
INFO RUEHXK/ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHEE/ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHMO/AMEMBASSY MOSCOW PRIORITY 0787
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK PRIORITY 0583
EUMEM/EU MEMBER STATES COLLECTIVE
RHMFISS/HQ USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 05 DAMASCUS 000251 NOFORN SIPDIS DEPARTMENT FOR NEA/ELA NSC FOR SHAPIRO/MCDERMOTT PARIS FOR WALLER LONDON FOR TSOU E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/05/2029 TAGS: PREL KPAL PTER IZ LE IS SY
SUBJECT: SYRIAN SCORE CARD: NO GRAND BARGAINS, BUT POSITIVE FIRST 
STEPS REF: A. DAMASCUS 192 B. DAMASCUS 193 C. DAMASCUS 194 D. DAMASCUS 195 E. DAMASCUS 196 F. DAMASCUS 198 G. DAMASCUS 227 H. DAMASCUS 218 I. BAGHDAD 847 J. DAMASCUS 206 K. DAMASCUS 245 

Classified By: CDA Maura Connelly for reasons 1.4 b and d. 

1. (S/NF) 
Summary: Four weeks after Acting NEA A/S Feltman and NSC NENA Senior Director Shapiro met with Syrian FM Muallim (refs A-F), Syria has taken some positive steps to facilitate more normal Embassy operations, named an ambassador to Lebanon, and sent Muallim to Baghdad to discuss enhanced security cooperation. But Syria has not responded positively (nor, in the near term, is it likely to do so) to U.S. concerns about Syrian arms supplies to Hizballah, Syria's continuing support of Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority, running foreign fighters in Syria, and maintaining close ties to Iran. From a Syrian perspective, U.S. "gives" include easing of export control restrictions on safety-of-flight technology, restoring more normal access to the Syrian ambassador in Washington, and making positive statements about the importance of engaging Syria. Syrian officials are waiting for signs that Washington will make Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations a priority, ease economic sanctions beyond just waiverable exceptions, and return an American ambassador to Damascus. Both sides can claim they have made positive (if token) gestures as an ante to another round of discussions, leaving ample room to pursue steps that would significantly improve prospects of acquiring a new and more secure U.S. embassy compound in Damascus. At this point, however, Syria is proceeding as cautiously as Washington. End Summary. 

-------------- 
Syrian "Gives"
 ------------- 

2. (S/NF) Keeping score with Syria can be a subjective task which may distract from two core questions: (1) what is it that we want; and (2) how do we know we're on the right track? Roughly a month into a period of re-engagement, both sides can claim they have taken positive gestures. However positive these steps might be, further Syrian actions are necessary to achieve U.S. objectives. From the Syrian side, we see some progress on: 

-- Embassy operations. On March 26, the Syrian MFA notified Embassy Damascus that the American Language Center could re-open; this "give" was in response to a specific request made by Acting A/S Feltman (Ref G). In addition, the Syrian MFA and its Embassy in Washington conducted a top-down review of some 70 pending official visa applications for U.S. CDS and TDY personnel and issued 35 of them in a short period time. These include visas for a New Embassy Compound team, which visited Syria March 23-27 and surveyed several alternative sites that were presented to the Syrian MFA. (Since the initial review, approximately 70 additional U.S. visa applications have been submitted.) 

-- Iraq: Embassy sources reported FM Muallim's plans to propose enhanced security cooperation with Iraqi leaders during a March 25-26 trip to Baghdad (ref H). According to Embassy Baghdad, Muallim pitched the idea of enhanced information sharing through established liaison channels (ref I). These actions, while positive, do not translate into actions against foreign fighter networks in Syria. Nor do they necessarily represent a desire to address key Iraqi security concerns. But Muallim's trip may provide a basis 

DAMASCUS 00000251 002 OF 005 

for exploring a trilateral U.S.-Iraqi-Syrian security dialogue. 

-- Hamas: While it is difficult to tell how much effort Damascus is expending to moderate Hamas's position in ongoing Palestinian reconciliation talks with the PA, it appears that Hamas is no nearer to adopting Quartet principles than it was on March 7. In advance of the March 29-30 Arab League Summit in Doha, the Syrian MFA was telling the Embassy informally that Syria viewed the U.S. insistence on Quartet principles as unrealistic (ref J). 

-- Iran: Asad continues to assert the importance of Syria's relations with Iran and even tried to promote Iran's friendly intentions toward the Arab world during the March 29-30 Arab League Summit in Doha. At the same time, Syria has clearly pursued a strategy to reduce intra-Arab tensions over Iran by acquiescing in a very public reconciliation with Saudi Arabia and with Bashar al-Asad's tour of Gulf states after the Doha summit. 

-- Lebanon: The March 25 announcement of the appointment of a Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon (and Lebanese agrement) represented an overdue payment of President Asad's September 2008 commitment to French President Sarkozy to send an ambassador to Lebanon by the end of 2008. Otherwise, the picture remains mixed. In several press interviews, Bashar's rhetoric has not varied far from the markers established by FM Muallim on March 7: Syria supports a sovereign and independent Lebanon and favors June 7 legislative elections be held on time, in a peaceful and democratic manner. Hizballah, Bashar maintains, represents a legitimate resistance movement and cannot be disarmed absent a comprehensive peace framework. While there is anecdotal evidence suggesting Syria is trying to restrain Hizballah from revenging Imad Mugniyah's February 2008 assassination, there are also signs that Syria is facilitating delivery of weapons to Hizballah that could provoke Israel to strike. Some observers have cast Bashar's recent remarks on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (politicization of the Tribunal will result in destabilization of Lebanon) as a (barely) concealed threat. Syrian officials continue to argue in favor of a national unity government as the only guarantee for post-election stability in Lebanon; they claim French, Saudi, Egyptian, and UK support for this position. 

-- Peace talks with Israel: Syria continues to express an interest in resuming indirect peace talks with Israel, but Bashar has remarked in a recent interview that any future peace deal with Israel would not extend to matters outside Syria's borders. Hizballah, Hamas, and Iran, he said, would have to be dealt with in comprehensive peace talks. At the March 29-30 Arab League Summit, Asad proposed language that would "de-activate" the Arab Peace Initiative (API) until Israel accepted it. This plan failed to gain support, but represents ongoing dissatisfaction with continuing to hold out the API in the wake of the Gaza crisis. 

-- Murad Case: In response to Acting A/S Feltman's request for Syrian attention to this case, the MFA head of Consular Affairs received Charge and CONGEN in the first such meeting in four years (ref K). Though previous U.S. ambassadors have raised this case with FM Muallim, and the Department with Syrian Ambassador to the U.S. Imad Mustafa, the most recent Syrian response is "this is the first time we have heard of this case." Post will continue to pursue the matter and believes the MFA opening offers an opportunity, but thus far the Syrian government has shown little inclination to do more than going through the motions on this case. 

-------------------------- 
Syria's View of the Ledger
 -------------------------- 

3. (S/NF) Syrians, too, are keeping a tally of "asks" and

 DAMASCUS 00000251 003 OF 005 

"gives," exercising care not to attach too much value to U.S. gestures or do anything that would drive up the price of what they want. Syrian officials credit the Obama Administration's positive rhetoric, including towards Iran, with establishing a more constructive environment. MFA officials have told us that Syrian Ambassador Moustafa's more regular contacts with NEA have made it easier to grant Embassy appointment requests (e.g., to discuss consular issues, like the Murad child abduction case.) Charge's request to make an introductory call on D/PM Abdullah Dardari, a normal ambassadorial-level contact, was deflected with an MFA-engineered appointment with a lower-ranking official. (Charge is holding out for Dardari.) Acting A/S Feltman's follow-up on a pending export license matter related to a safety-of-flight request was happily received (and MFA officials acknowledge the action is now in their court, a rarity in and of itself.) 

4. (S) While Syrian officials are wary of mentioning it, Embassy contacts suggest that the government here is waiting for more substantive gestures from Washington, such as: 

-- Further discussions on how to revive the Golan track. While official rhetoric has sought to play down Syria's eagerness, we have heard informally that there is a strong desire for the U.S. to signal its willingness to engage on renewed Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Some Embassy contacts suggest the regime is waiting to see whether and how the U.S. broaches this subject with the new Israeli government as an indicator of Washington's real intentions. Many Syrians see the absence of a stop in Damascus on Senator Mitchell's initial "listening" trips to the region as a contradiction of the President's statements regarding engagement. While Syrians have not asked for a Mitchell visit explicitly, the lack of one has become even more irksome after Special Envoy Holbrooke's recent hand-shake with his Iranian counterpart in the Hague. 

-- More flexibility on export licenses: The Embassy has seen a dramatic upswing in the number of Syrian and foreign businesses seeking our advice for medical equipment and software, primarily Oracle software. 

-- The possibility of waivers under existing sanctions: FM Muallim and others warmly received Acting A/S Feltman's pledge not to use safety-of-flight technology as a political lever. Now, however, Syrians with a working knowledge of Syrian Air's desperate need for new planes are asking how far away the USG might be from considering waiver requests to the Syria Accountability Act's ban on sale of products with more than 10 percent content of U.S. origin.

 -- An ambassador: Though FM Muallim studiously avoided any mention of the return of a U.S. ambassador to Damascus in March 7 discussions with Acting A/S Feltman, many Syrian contacts view this deliverable as the key to unlocking more normalized relations, which would include re-opening the American Cultural Center, the Damascus Community School, and permission to purchase land and build a New Embassy Compound. 
–
------------------------------------------ 
No Grand Bargain, But Positive Steps Possible -------------------------------------------- 
5. (S/NF) Given the length and bitterness of the U.S.-Syrian stand off, the relatively short period that has passed since renewal of engagement, and Syria's propensity to withhold deliverables from even its friends until the last possible moment, Washington would be wise to manage its expectations about Syria's intentions. At the same time, given Syria's potential to assist and/or damage U.S. regional interests, there is value in continuing to explore how far the Syrians are willing to go. 

6. (S/NF) Since March 7, both sides can point to positive 

DAMASCUS 00000251 004 OF 005 

gestures they have taken as indicators of their good will. Both sides can also point to valuable deliverables held in reserve by the other in order to guard against taking premature steps that the other side might pocket without reciprocity. From the Embassy's admittedly parochial, security-focused perspective, the easiest and least politicized next steps would involve further normalization of operations of embassies in Damascus and Washington. Showing a willingness to expand Ambassador Mustafa's access, demonstrating greater flexibility on application of export licensing requirements under current sanctions, and moving forward with the selection process for an ambassador would signal our seriousness. We believe Syria should understand Washington's intent to initiate these moves in exchange for a restoration of normalcy here (to include cooperation in selecting and buying a site for a New Embassy Compound, fully re-opening the Cultural Affairs Center, and, under specific conditions, re-opening the American School.) Once the outlines of such a deal become clear, we fully expect the Syrian regime to complicate the discussions by introducing new demands that will require high-level Washington attention. 

7. (S/NF) Substantively, the Syrians are trying to convince us and Baghdad that the door is open to greater security cooperation, and we should pursue test cases to probe their seriousness. Though we should not expect the Syrian regime to comply with all of our requests, the U.S. might propose a trilateral meeting with the Iraqi government at the appropriate levels to see if a more formal mechanism might be established to strengthen border security and pursue foreign fighters. Such a proposal would be consistent with Muallim's remarks during his meeting with Acting A/S Feltman and Senior Director Shapiro. 

8. (S/NF) Beyond Iraq, we doubt Syria is willing to do more than talk about Hizballah, Hamas, and Iran. We can and should use our expanded access to Syrian officials to raise concerns about potential destabilizing consequences of Syria's harmful association with these actors. The U.S. can do more to press Syria to use its influence as a restraint on specific destabilizing actions by Hizballah and Hamas (e.g., avenging Imad Mughniyah's death and ending rocket attacks in Gaza).
 
----------------------------- 
Bigger Carrots, Bigger Sticks 
----------------------------- 

9. (S/NF) Our best estimate is that, beyond regime survival, the Syrian regime values most its prestige and re-asserting the regional influence it perceives itself to have lost in the last decade. President Asad's rhetoric and his private remarks suggest he attaches a high value to U.S. involvement in peace talks with Israel, and we should put this rhetoric to the test. Asad and some of his advisors continue to express a desire for better relations with the U.S. and we believe they want to avoid a return to the dark days of confrontation with Washington. We are also hearing from a range of well-connected business contacts that Syria urgently wants to purchase civilian passenger planes and would benefit greatly from a U.S. campaign to assure foreign and U.S. banks that dealing with private, unsanctioned Syrian banks is acceptable. 

10. (S/NF) We recognize it may be premature to suggest Washington consideration of whether, when, and how to deploy such incentives. We believe, however, that signaling U.S. openness to promoting a peace deal between Israel and Syria will undercut Syrian justifications for fomenting violence in the name of resistance to Israeli occupation. At the same time, promoting a substantive negotiation with Israel will provide some incentives that could act as a check on Syria's worst impulses in Gaza and elsewhere. If Washington is serious about convincing Syria to alter its relations with Hizballah, Hamas and Iran, we believe the key to success will 
DAMASCUS 00000251 005 OF 005 

be attracting the Syrian regime's attention to the unique benefits that, under the right conditions, engagement with the U.S. might ultimately produce, such as more profitable and friendly relations with Iraq, new civilian aircraft, rescinding the Executive Order designating the Commercial Bank of Syria, and ending Israel's 42-year occupation of the Golan. CONNELLY