In the second half of 1996, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s objective was “to stop the overthrow of the Iraqi regime.” He focused his contacts for this purpose and reopened the Syrian-Iraqi borders, which were closed since 1982.
The correspondence between Assad and then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein - which Asharq Al-Awsat obtained from the documents of Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam and Iraqi ambassador to Qatar Anwar Sabri Abdel Razzaq – revealed a convergence in the priorities of the two Arab leaders.
Assad was patient and suspicious, while Saddam was rushing to cooperate, to the extent that he suggested a return to the National Action Charter and the “union” between the two countries.
Upon his return from Paris, where he met with President Jacques Chirac, Khaddam conveyed the French position to the Syrian president. He requested a meeting with the participation of Chief of Staff General Hikmat al-Shihabi and Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, to discuss Iraqi. According to an official Syrian document, the conferees agreed on the following proposals:
1- Working to stop the overthrow of the Iraqi regime by the Americans, the Israelis and Jordan;
2- Creating a suitable atmosphere for communication between the party apparatus that guarantees a continuous basis for work between Syria and Iraq;
3- Conveying a message to the Americans and Israel about the ability to create new conditions in the region;
4- Promoting a reassuring atmosphere for the Arab population;
5- Securing Syria’s interests in Iraq and elsewhere.
It was agreed that the Iraqi ambassador to Qatar, Anwar Sabri, be summoned and informed that the Syrian leadership would issue a statement declaring the opening of the international borders with Iraq, which were closed in 1982, in a manner that does not contradict Security Council resolutions. The diplomat would also be informed of a proposal to hold a political meeting to discuss the means to organize the bilateral relations in their various aspects, in a way that does not further complicate the Arab situation.
On August 21, 1996, Khaddam received Anwar Sabri.
He recounted in the minutes of the meeting: “I informed [Sabri] that during this period we were subjected to great pressures from various sides, which did not change our position. We spoke with a number of Arab countries and we were able to convince them of the rightness of our approach.”
Khaddam continued: “We suggest that the Syrian government issues a statement declaring the opening of the international borders in line with Security Council resolutions, and that officials from the two countries gather to organize this step. We also propose that a committee meet to discuss, in a gradual way, matters that are in the interests of the two countries and do not provoke the others.”
On August 28, Khaddam received the Iraqi envoy, who said: “Iraq’s leadership believes that the best move would be to hold a meeting at a political level to discuss what steps can be taken. There are many issues and challenges facing the two brotherly countries and the Arab nation that require review and evaluation.”
Anwar Sabri tried to set a date to visit Damascus, because he had “important matters” to raise, including a return to the National Action Charter signed between the two countries in 1978, but there was always a delay.
In one of his documents, the Syrian vice-president said he received Sabri on February 21, 1997, and “a general discussion took place, in which I explained the sensitivity of the Arab situation.”
The Iraqi envoy, for his part, presented Saddam’s proposed agenda for the expected meeting between the two countries:
“1- Discussing diplomatic ties as an important step to restore normal relations;
2- Reviewing trade exchange and opening oil pipelines in light of the willingness of the Syrian leadership to re-open the borders;
3- Forming an auxiliary committee for the Higher Leadership Committee, to follow up on the implementation of the agreed steps;
4- Any other topics that the Syrian brothers would like to discuss.”
“President Saddam told me that if our brothers want to discuss the National Action Charter, we agree. Now the relations are good, and we have overcome the past,” Sabri was quoted as telling Khaddam.
He also stressed that his leader “will make basic changes in the party and the state, but he is waiting for the relations with Syria; these changes will affect key positions.”
On February 26, 1997, the Syrian Vice President received Saddam’s envoy and told him: “We are preparing an Arab initiative to correct the situation and set new methods that would define commitments and guarantees, reassure the different sides and pave the way for serious cooperation based on sound rules.”
Then he read the following message: “Greetings from the President and my greetings to President Saddam Hussein. Since we began exchanging ideas through Ambassador Anwar about the Arab situation and the dangers facing the Arab nation, especially the Israeli dangers […] and foreign domination, progress has been achieved, and we have moved from the stage of stalemate and hostility to the common understanding of a number of major issues of concern. Syria’s response to conspiracies targeting Iraq’s unity and national security is a clear example […]. Syria obviously desires to cooperate with Iraq in the face of dangers, and within an objective vision, away from the formalities of diplomatic relations that could provoke reactions, which will not serve Syria, Iraq or our efforts to improve the Arab climate.”
Two years after the beginning of the talks, the Syrian government took a decision - under the directives of Assad - to reopen the borders on June 2, 1997. This move helped create a positive atmosphere, and Syrian and Iraqi trade delegations began exchanging visits.
As the Iraqi crisis worsened in October and November 1997, a Syrian statement was issued rejecting the US threats, and calling on the Arabs to adopt the same stance.
In mid-November, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz requested a visit to Damascus to brief its officials on the developments. On November 22, Khaddam received him in the presence of Al-Sharaa.
The Iraqi envoy asked what could Iraq do for Syria, and Khaddam replied: “We told you that our goal is to improve the Arab climate, and we do not want to take a step of an official nature that would complicate the situation and be harmful to us and to you and to all Arab parties that are sensitive to foreign pressures, especially the American pressure. We deal with the Iraqi issue with a national responsibility, and there are channels of communication between us.”
Aziz responded: “We have made good steps; the relations between us are relaxed and we have started business relations […]. We want the practical side. The economic aspect requires regulating the relationship between merchants and individuals on a regular basis, and this necessitates the presence of diplomatic missions between the two countries, in order to obtain a visa and even serve our citizens. We don’t pressure you, but we ask that for thought.”
Khaddam recounted that as American pressure on Iraq increased, [Iraqi Minister Mohammed] Al-Sahhaf requested a visit to Damascus. Sharaa met with him on February 9, 1998.
On the following day, Assad received the Iraqi minister, who conveyed a message from his president, in which he presented the situation and the causes of the crisis. According to the minutes of the meeting, the Syrian president replied:
“1- Syria is aware of the objectives of the crisis, and it deals with the entire Arab situation. We cannot stop at passing circumstances between the two countries, because the foreign goal is bigger; it is primarily an Israeli goal, so our position was clear.
2- What is happening has nothing to do with Kuwait, but rather with Israeli and American interests, and it targets the entire region. Therefore, I made contacts with some brothers warning of the consequences of the aggression against Iraq.
3- We believe that Iraq should remove the excuses and avert the opportunity they are trying to exploit, because the important thing now is to avoid a military strike. If this happens, a large part of the plan will be disrupted, even if only temporarily.”