US embassy cable - 99DAMASCUS4200

BASHAR'S INTRO TO THE WEST? U.S. VIEW OF BASHAR IMPORTANT TO ASAD

Identifier: 99DAMASCUS4200
Wikileaks: View 99DAMASCUS4200 at Wikileaks.org
Origin: Embassy Damascus
Created: 1999-08-09 11:55:00
Classification: CONFIDENTIAL
Tags: PREL PGOV SY
Redacted: This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.
P 091155Z AUG 99
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 7588
INFO ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE
AMEMBASSY NICOSIA 
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 DAMASCUS 004200 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/09/09 
TAGS: PREL, PGOV, SY 
SUBJECT: BASHAR'S INTRO TO THE WEST? 
         U.S. VIEW OF BASHAR IMPORTANT TO ASAD 
 
REF: A) DAMASCUS 4043, B) DAMASCUS 0997 
 
CLASSIFIED BY AMBASSADOR RYAN C. CROCKER, REASON 1.5 (B) 
AND (D) 
 
1. (C) SUMMARY.  A SOURCE CLOSE TO BASHAR AL-ASAD TOLD 
US AUGUST 5 THAT PRESIDENT ASAD HAD APPROVED A MIDDLE 
EAST INSIGHT MAGAZINE INTERVIEW WITH BASHAR, SCHEDULED 
TO BE PUBLISHED IN SEPTEMBER.  THE SAME SOURCE, A BASHAR 
LOYALIST, PROBED US ON HOW THE U.S. VIEWED THE HEIR- 
APPARENT AND SEEMED INTENT ON HEARING ABOUT HOW TO 
IMPROVE BASHAR'S IMAGE WITH THE U.S.  IF THE INTERVIEW 
COMES OFF, IT MAY SIGNAL THE BEGINNING OF A SARG- 
ORCHESTRATED "SELL JOB" OF BASHAR TO THE WEST, AND TO 
THE U.S. IN PARTICULAR.  MEANWHILE, RUMORS INDICATE THAT 
BASHAR STILL FACES SOME INTERNAL OBSTACLES, POSSIBLY 
AMONG ALAWIS.  WE SHOULD CONSIDER CAREFULLY THE 
IMPORTANCE OF OUR POSTURE ON BASHAR IN THE MONTHS TO 
COME.  END SUMMARY. 
 
MEI INTERVIEW WITH BASHAR? 
-------------------------- 
 
2. (C) AN AMERICAN-BASED, SYRIAN BUSINESSMAN WITH CLOSE 
TIES TO BASHAR AL-ASAD TOLD US AUGUST 5 THAT PRESIDENT 
ASAD HAD GIVEN HIS APPROVAL FOR BASHAR TO BE INTERVIEWED 
BY MIDDLE EAST INSIGHT (MEI) MAGAZINE, FOR THE SEPTEMBER 
ISSUE.  THIS WOULD BE THE FIRST INTERVIEW GRANTED BY 
BASHAR TO A WESTERN PUBLICATION, ALTHOUGH A LENGTHY 
INTERVIEW WITH THE LEBANESE NEWSPAPER AL-KIFAH AL-'ARABI 
APPEARED IN FEBRUARY (REF B).  ACCORDING TO THIS 
BUSINESS CONTACT, WHO STATED CREDIBLY THAT HE HAD MET 
WITH BASHAR DURING THE PRECEEDING WEEK, IT HAD BEEN 
AGREED WITH MEI THAT THE QUESTIONS WOULD BE SUBMITTED IN 
ADVANCE AND THAT THE INTERVIEW WOULD BE APPROVED BY THE 
SARG BEFORE ITS PUBLICATION. 
 
3. (C) THIS CONTACT, A BASHAR LOYALIST WHO SAYS HE WOULD 
RETURN TO WORK FOR THE SARG UNDER BASHAR'S DIRECTION, 
SAID THAT ASAD IS LOOKING FOR "CERTAIN CONTROLLED 
ENVIRONMENTS" IN WHICH TO INCREASE HIS SON'S EXPOSURE 
AND STATURE.  WHILE THIS CONTACT REMAINS CONCERNED THAT 
SYRIA LACKS THE FORWARD-THINKING TECHNO-AND BUREAUCRATS 
NEEDED TO EFFECT CHANGE HERE (REF A), HE SEEMS CONVINCED 
THAT BASHAR PERSONALLY WOULD LIKE TO MOVE TOWARDS A MORE 
OPEN AND EFFICIENT SYSTEM. 
 
BASHAR NEEDS U.S. BLESSING 
--------------------------- 
 
4. (C) DURING OUR EXCHANGE, THIS CONTACT ASKED AS 
BLATANTLY AS WE HAVE HEARD THUS FAR HOW THE U.S. VIEWED 
BASHAR, AND ASKED FOR OUR ADVICE ON WAYS BASHAR'S IMAGE 
COULD BE PROMOTED IN THE U.S.  WE ANSWERED THAT A 
CONSIDERED OPINION WAS IMPOSSIBLE SINCE FEW AMERICANS 
HAD EVER MET HIM, MUCH LESS EVALUATED HIM AS A FUTURE 
PRESIDENT.  HE ASKED FOR OUR OPINION ON THE UPCOMING MEI 
INTERVIEW, WHICH WE SAID WOULD BE USEFUL (AS WALID 
MU'ALLIM'S HAD BEEN) IF IT PROVIDED "REAL QUESTIONS AND 
REAL ANSWERS," AND NOT OBVIOUSLY PRE-PACKAGED 
STATEMENTS. 
 
A LEGITIMACY "VACUUM" 
-------------------- 
 
5. (C) SEVERAL PRO-BASHAR AND/OR U.S-LEANING 
INTERLOCUTORS HAVE INQUIRED MORE SUBTLY THAN THIS 
ARTICULATE BUSINESS CONTACT ABOUT U.S. VIEWS TOWARD THE 
HEIR APPARENT, APPARENTLY LOOKING FOR POSITIVE SIGNALS 
FROM US ABOUT OUR FUTURE RELATIONSHIP WITH HIM.  A 
FORMER MP WHO MAINTAINS REGULAR CONTACT WITH US AND THE 
BRITISH EMBASSY EXPANDED ON THE THEME IN A RECENT 
CONVERSATION.  HE SAID THE REGIME IS CLEARLY WORRIED 
ABOUT A "VACUUM IN LEGITIMACY" AFTER AN ANTICIPATED 
PEACE AGREEMENT WITH ISRAEL, SINCE SO MUCH OF ASAD'S 
INTERNAL AUTHORITY AND INTERNATIONAL STANDING STEMS FROM 
THE CONFLICT WITH ISRAEL.  IN THE ABSENCE OF THIS 
CRUTCH, ASAD IS INTENT ON SECURING FOR BASHAR THE KIND 
OF SUPPORT THAT JORDANIAN KING ABDULLAH RECEIVED FROM 
THE U.S. AFTER THE DEATH OF HIS FATHER.  SUCH SUPPORT 
WOULD WIN FINANCIAL GAINS, AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, 
INTERNATIONAL LEGITIMACY FOR THE NEW BASHAR REGIME, 
AMELIORATING BOTH INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL THREATS. 
 
STILL LACKING SOME CREDENTIALS 
------------------------------ 
 
6. (C) MEANWHILE, CONTACTS INDICATE WITHOUT ELABORATING 
THAT BASHAR STILL FACES SOME RESISTANCE AMONG THE ALAWI 
ELITE, SOME OF WHOM DOUBT THAT BASHAR IS CAPABLE OF 
MAINTAINING THE SYSTEM THAT HAS LONG BENEFITED THIS 
RULING MINORITY. (INTERESTINGLY, CHRISTIANS AND MOST 
OTHER RELIGIOUS MINORITIES HAVE EXPRESSED OPEN SUPPORT 
FOR BASHAR IN THE FERVENT HOPE THAT HE WILL MAINTAIN 
ASAD'S "LIVE AND LET LIVE" APPROACH TOWARDS MINORITY 
RELIGIOUS GROUPS.)  WHILE IT IS NO LONGER TABOO TO SPEAK 
OPENLY ABOUT BASHAR AS A SUCCESSOR TO HIS FATHER, EVEN 
SUPPORTERS FRET THAT HE STILL LACKS A TITLE AND AN 
OFFICIAL PLACE IN THE GOVERNMENT/PARTY STRUCTURE.  THE 
COMMON WISDOM IS THAT A REGIONAL COMMAND MEETING 
SOMETIME IN THE FALL WILL FINALLY ELECT BASHAR INTO THE 
BA'TH PARTY LEADERSHIP, BUT PREPARATIONS FOR SUCH A 
MEETING ARE STILL NOTICEABLY ABSENT.  WE NOTE AS WELL 
THE PERSISTENT RUMORS THAT BASHAR HAS NOT LIVED UP TO 
EXPECTATIONS WITH HIS HANDLING OF THE LEBANON FILE, AND 
THAT VP KHADDAM IS STILL PERFORMING HIS TRADITIONAL ROLE 
AS ARBITER AMONG THE LEBANESE LEADERSHIP.  FINALLY, IT 
IS CLEAR THAT BASHAR CONTINUES TO BE EXCLUDED FROM PEACE 
PROCESS RELATED ACTIVITY, WHICH REMAINS AN ASAD-SHARA 
AFFAIR. 
 
5. (C) OTHER RESISTANCE MAY COME FROM BA'TH PARTY 
STALWARTS GENERALLY UNHAPPY WITH SIGNS OF CHANGE IN 
SYRIA AND ASAD'S DECISION TO PURSUE PEACE.  A MEMBER OF 
THE COMMUNIST PARTY POLITBURO CLAIMED THAT IN A RECENT 
MEETING WITH THE NATIONAL PROGRESSIVE FRONT, WHICH HE 
ATTENDED, ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF THE BA'TH PARTY 
REGIONAL COMMAND DR. SULAYMAN QADDAH MADE OPENLY 
CRITICAL REMARKS ABOUT THE PEACE PROCESS AND EVEN SPOKE 
RHETORICALLY ABOUT THE DESTRUCTION OF ISRAEL.  WHILE 
THIS FORMER MP AGREED THAT THIS SENTIMENT WOULD NEVER 
STAND IN THE WAY OF ASAD'S DESIRE TO CONCLUDE A PEACE 
WITH ISRAEL, HE SAID SUCH COMMENTS REFLECTED A CERTAIN 
ELEMENT OF "OLD THINK" THAT WAS RELUCTANT TO EMBRACE 
FORWARD MOVEMENT, EVEN WITH BASHAR. 
 
6. (C) COMMENT.  IF THE MEI INTERVIEW COMES OFF, IT WILL 
MARK BASHAR'S MEDIA INTRODUCTION TO THE WEST, A 
SIGNIFICANT DEVELOPMENT IN ITSELF SINCE FEW OFFICIAL 
SYRIANS ARE ALLOWED SUCH ENTREE.  WHILE IT MAY SIGNAL 
THE BEGINNING OF A SARG-ORCHESTRATED EFFORT TO "SELL" 
BASHAR TO THE WEST, AND THE UNITED STATES IN PARTICULAR, 
IT IS LIKELY TO BE A HIGHLY STRUCTURED AND CONTROLLED 
EFFORT.  SOME OBSERVERS HAVE SPECULATED THAT IF THE U.S. 
GIVES BASHAR (AND A NEW MINORITY ALAWI REGIME) ITS 
BLESSING, "ASAD WILL SIGN WITH ISRAEL TOMORROW."  WHILE 
THIS LINKAGE IS TOO BOLD, WE SHOULD NOT UNDERESTIMATE 
HOW IMPORTANT OUR POSTURE TOWARDS BASHAR IS LIKELY TO 
BE, IN INCREASING MEASURE, IN THE MONTHS TO COME. 
 
7. (C) THUS FAR, THE BASHAR CAMPAIGN DOES NOT INCLUDE 
ACTUAL CONTACT WITH AMERICAN OFFICIALS; THERE HAS BEEN 
NO RESPONSE TO REQUESTS BY THE AMBASSADOR AND A NUMBER 
OF CODELS FOR MEETINGS.  OUR WESTERN DIPLOMATIC 
COLLEAGUES HAVE HAD THE SAME EXPERIENCE, PRESUMABLY 
BECAUSE ASAD DOES NOT WANT POSSIBLY LESS-THAN-EFFUSIVE 
ASSESSMENTS TO REACH WORLD CAPITALS.  FOR NOW, 
THEREFORE, THE ANSWER TO PROBES ABOUT OUR VIEW IS 
SIMPLE: 
 
--THE USG HAS HAD NO CONTACT WITH BASHAR AL-ASAD. 
 
--DECISIONS ON LEADERSHIP IN SYRIA ARE FOR SYRIANS TO 
MAKE, NOT AMERICANS. 
 
CROCKER 

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