Asharq Al-Awsat reveals messages exchanged between then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in the mid-1990s, which are part of the many documents that late Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam carried from his office to Paris when he left Syria in 2005.
In 1996, Assad decided to dispatch Khaddam to Paris to meet with French President Jacques Chirac and inform him of the decision to re-open the Syrian-Iraqi borders closed since 1982.
In fact, Assad wanted to coordinate with Chirac to mitigate any violent US reaction to the attempt to break Saddam Hussein’s “isolation.”
He was also seeking to gain the French president’s trust, after succeeding in putting pressure on the US to include France in the arrangements for the monitoring of the “April Understanding”, which was concluded in 1996 following the Israeli Grapes of Wrath war in Lebanon.
Chirac met with Khaddam on July 31, 1996. According to the minutes of the meeting, the Syrian president sought to inform his French counterpart that the situation in Iraq was worrying – “a bomb about to explode” - and that reopening the borders “stop on any new adventures by the Iraqi regime.”
The French president, who wanted to keep the content of the meeting confidential, surprised Khaddam by opening another file that falls within Assad’s priorities: the Syrian military presence in Lebanon and the possibility of starting negotiations with the new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
On July 7, 1996, Khaddam recommended that Assad send an envoy to France, carrying a letter to Chirac to explain Damascus’ position. Assad agreed and Chirac received the Syrian vice president on July 31.
According to the minutes of the meeting, Khaddam told the French president: “The subject that Mr. President assigned me to convey is related to Iraq. President Chirac knows that there are old rivalries between us since the 1960s. We have borne a great deal of harm from Iraq and we have objected to the unwise policy, both in the war against Iran (1980-1988) and then in the invasion of Kuwait (1990).”
He continued: “In fact, the situation in Iraq is now worrying. It is a bomb that threatens to explode in the region due to the embargo imposed on the country. Therefore, Syria took an approach to open the borders with Iraq, which have been closed since 1982. Of course, such a move will be within the framework of Security Council resolutions. You know that the international borders between Iraq and Jordan are open, the borders with Turkey are open, so with Iran.”
Khaddam detailed the reasons behind the approach envisaged by Damascus, saying: “First, the great sufferings of the Iraqi people. The second matter is the ongoing work by outside parties to cause fighting, a civil war among some segments of the Iraqi people. If such war erupts, it will blow up the whole region.”
He added: “Third, we believe that a new and realistic atmosphere for relations between the two countries would stop the Iraqi government from taking any action that undermines security and stability in the region […] Our step curbs Saddam’s adventures.”
Chirac replied: “I need not say that for me this is good news. I am making the same analysis about the risks of this embargo. France has worked a lot at the United Nations to take a step forward with Resolution 986. Of course, one can judge as he likes the grave responsibilities, which are Saddam’s responsibilities, for what happened. But no one wants to push the Iraqi people, given their situation, to a movement that could explode the entire region. The return to normalcy between Syria and Iraq is very good news.”
The French president went on to say, according to the minutes of the meeting: “I very much welcome this decision, because it is very important for the stability in the region. Of course, neither America nor Israel may appreciate this very much, but France fully agrees with it.”
He continued: “We want to participate in the peace process, and no peace process is possible without Syria. Please be confident that France will not take any position, especially regarding the peace process, that could upset Syria […] I say this because I had a long call with Netanyahu upon his request, and he said that he would also call this week. I found him relatively more flexible than he was 10 or 15 days ago when he was in America […]He did not change his position on the principle of land for peace, but he did not say anything about the Golan. We believe that it is necessary to negotiate the Golan. He confirmed his desire to return to the peace process with Syria and Lebanon, but without saying anything about any preparations he might make.”
Chirac also said, according to the minutes of the meeting: “If the Israeli army withdraws from southern Lebanon, this assumes that the Lebanese army will take over the guarantee of the entire border. France has said that it is ready to put observers, but on the other hand, this means disarming Hezbollah, and this is of course a matter that is related to Syria and concerns it. Syria, cannot accept this for free. The question is: What is the reward? For example, withdrawing from the Golan and ensuring its military presence in Lebanon for some time after the operation? And if I say so, for two reasons:
1 - France will only act after consulting with Syria. We are keen on Lebanon and its independence, as well as the special ties between Lebanon and Syria, and we will not do anything against Syria’s interests.
2- The Israelis always try to contact those who can help them, but in the end, they make their own decisions and do not care of what others think […] Of course, we will not dictate their behavior, but what we must say is that withdrawal is not excluded.”
Khaddam said that he thanked the French president for the information and France’s stance towards Syria, adding: “In our opinion, Netanyahu is making a maneuver. In Lebanon, he does not want to withdraw according to Resolution 425. Withdrawal according to Resolution 425 is not a problem for us. The state there will carry out its tasks and assume its responsibilities. But he wants to kill two birds with one stone. He wants to sabotage the relations inside Lebanon and between the Lebanese factions. He also wants to create a rift between Syria and Lebanon.”
Here, President Chirac said: “There is an element that must be taken into account. I met Netanyahu before he came to power […] The idea I had of him at the time was that he was intelligent, young and ambitious, but not a man of convictions. The problem is that it is poorly surrounded. Some military men want and seek revenge, and religious people on the other hand, but he is young and ambitious and wants to stay in power as long as possible. Since he is intelligent, he knows that he cannot remain in the future unless he seeks peace, for a man of war is a man of the past, and a man of peace is a man of the future […] The only place where he can act is Lebanon. Lebanon costs him a lot without giving him anything. I fear that one day he will take an initiative that upsets Syria, Lebanon, and everyone else. Therefore, I say that this possibility must remain, so as not to be surprised by it.”
Khaddam replied: “Suppose we wake up one morning and see that Israel has withdrawn from the South. Trust me, no one will cry about it. But this should not be done in the context of negotiations or in a separate peace.”
Chirac answered: “They know it well, but the problem is that you wake up in the morning and see that the Israelis are gone.”
“Then we shall drink to them,” the Syrian vice president said.
Chirac asked: “But what happens later?”
“Nothing. There is an existing state, but the question now is: Will the resistance in Lebanon stop? Nobody guarantees that,” Khaddam remarked.
The French president asked again: “But can (Hezbollah) be disarmed?” The army can do this tactically, but politically it cannot. Syria can. What does Syria demand in return for this disarmament?”
He continued: “If the withdrawal takes place and (Hezbollah) is not disarmed, this will lead to provocations... But if it is disarmed, then Syria loses (something), and there must be something in return for that, which is to guarantee a Syrian presence in Lebanon. Perhaps these are dreams. What I want is for us to have a strong and intimate connection.”
Khaddam replied: “As President Chirac said, and as I said, and as President Assad asked me to say, we want to raise the level of contacts between us. We want a French presence in the region because this is a window that gives us some hope in the current international situation. This orientation requires communication, coordination and discussion. […] We want a just and comprehensive peace, and we want France to be at the center of this peace. […] we must remain wary of Netanyahu’s maneuvers. He is intelligent and ambitious, but also dogmatic. He may try to improve himself but without letting go of his beliefs.”