Episode (2): Saddam offered Assad a “secret summit” in 1996… Confronting Israel’s “aggression” against Lebanon

publisher: الشرق الأوسط

AUTHOR: ابراهيم حميدي

Publishing date: 2021-06-28


The Iraqi president, in secret messages between him and his Syrian counterpart published by “Asharq Al-Awsat,” urged them to overcome the burden of the past.

Yesterday’s episode of letters between Presidents Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad focused on the initiation of communication between them, following years of doubts, disappointments, and conspiracies between Damascus and Baghdad. In today’s episode, Assad begins sending his “greetings to Abu Uday,” and the two sides are involved in reestablishing relations, reopening the oil pipeline between their countries, and making Syria a gateway for implementing the “oil-for-food” agreement with the United Nations, replacing Jordan in the mid-1990s.

“Asharq Al-Awsat” uncovers new dimensions in these letters by obtaining documents and meeting minutes that Khaddam transmitted to Paris in 2005. They conducted telephone and text interviews with Al-Qaysi to verify the information. The Iraqi president offered an urgent summit on the border in 1996 and provided support to his Syrian counterpart in the war against Israel in Lebanon. Al-Qaisi states that Saddam contacted him in the spring of 1996 during the aggression against Lebanon, instructing him to inform Syria that Iraq’s capabilities were at its disposal and that they desired a signal in this regard. Additionally, Saddam called him “before the Eid holiday” to attempt arranging a secret summit meeting between the two presidents during the holiday.

He further added, “The Iraqis believed the news about the meeting was true because President Saddam was visiting Mosul and the border areas with Syria during the week of Eid. They were all elated by this news as they held great affection for Syria and believed that the Syrian-Iraqi agreement had rescued them from misery.”

In the nineties, Saddam became increasingly concerned about the policies of King Hussein of Jordan. In March 1996, he wrote to Assad once again, expressing his worries: “King Hussein’s recent statements prior to his visit to Washington confirm the information available to us that he is accelerating efforts to align the United States and, behind them, the Zionist enemy. This aims to establish a military agreement leading to the formation of a new regional alliance in the region, with Israel and Turkey as the main supporters. It is directed against Iraq and Syria.” An Arab envoy, who conveyed these messages, reports that Baghdad is convinced that Saddam’s brother-in-law, Hussein Kamel, returned to Baghdad as part of a plan orchestrated by King Hussein and was subsequently eliminated.

When Mana Rashid, the head of Saddam’s special security service, revealed the secret Syrian-Iraqi security meetings at the time, he stated that “Jordan and Turkey aim to trap Syria and Iraq between them.” Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, emphasized that cooperation between the two countries “will improve the regional working environment and thwart the current conspiracy orchestrated by the Turkish-Israeli and Jordanian-Turkish alliance.”

Saddam was eager to inform Assad that he was “surprised” by the accusation made by the late Minister of Defense, General Mustafa Tlass, who claimed that Saddam was involved in the assassination of Algerian President Houari Boumedien. Saddam issued a directive not to respond to ensure the preservation of relations with Syria, as stated in Khaddam’s minutes, papers, and Al-Qaysi’s accounts.

On March 1, 1996, I met with Al-Qaysi, who conveyed the following message: “Greetings from President Saddam to his brother President Hafez and to you. He expresses his satisfaction with President Hafez’s response and the alignment of views it entails. This includes the desire to open a new chapter in Arab affairs, starting with the restoration of fraternal relations, as well as the recognition of the American-Zionist plan in which Jordan has become involved.”

The message emphasizes that the current Arab situation and the deteriorating positions of certain Arab countries pose a significant threat to Arab interests and national security. It calls for Iraq and Syria to make genuine efforts in addressing these challenges by tackling issues and crises with sincerity and an open mind, while considering the urgency of the matter. It emphasizes the need to swiftly address all negative aspects and obstacles, ensuring that they do not become a focal point or distract from the initiative aimed at finding solutions.

The minutes further mention, “King Hussein’s recent statements preceding his visit to Washington confirm the information available to us regarding his acceleration in pushing the United States, along with the Zionist enemy, towards concluding a military agreement that aims to establish a new regional alliance with Israel and Turkey at its core. It is undoubtedly directed against Iraq and Syria.” Consequently, the message reiterates the importance of previous suggestions and the need to take practical steps between the two countries.

  1. Iraq, on its part, will officially announce the resumption of diplomatic relations, which will be warmly welcomed by Syria.
  2. Security talks will be held at the level of heads of the security apparatus in both countries.
  3. Opening the borders for Iraq has become a crucial matter, subject to mutually agreed controls for officials, trade, and oil.
  4. In its discussions with the United Nations, Iraq will designate Syria as an outlet for exporting its oil if an agreement is reached. This is to implement the principle of exchanging oil for food and medicine.

After the Iraqi ambassador presented these points to me, I responded as follows: “Indeed, there are circumstances that have caused delays in our actions… We are keen to establish Arab contacts to prevent the situation from further complicating. We believe that King Hussein is genuinely committed to his initiative, so we are cautious not to provide Iraqi cover. Therefore, we urge all Iraqis abroad with whom we have contacts or influence to refrain from forming any counterproductive alliances.”

I specifically mentioned our efforts to engage with the Iraqi opposition, as we have agreed with Iran to organize a conference for the Iraqi opposition. This is to ensure that our actions with Baghdad are not misconstrued as a mere maneuver. During the conversation with the Iraqi ambassador, I gathered that they perceive a potential threat in Mosul, Basra, or Kirkuk, and they have taken all necessary measures to suppress any such movements. If external action is taken, strategic weapons will be employed. They have reactivated death cells to target any conspirators and possess a well-equipped emergency force, in addition to the Republican Guard. “According to their viewpoint, Hussein Kamel returned to Baghdad as part of King Hussein’s plan, which led to his elimination, along with the confiscation of all the land and property his family had acquired.”

At the conclusion of the meeting, I informed him that I would present the letter to President Hafez. On March 3, 1996, Al-Qaysi visited me, and I conveyed the following message: “President Hafez sends his greetings to President Abi Uday and extends his greetings to you. Due to various reasons I mentioned in our meeting two days ago, such as King Hussein’s visits to Arab countries, the Emir of Kuwait’s visit to Washington, the visit of the Iranian vice president to Damascus, and the visit of the President of Sudan, as well as the occurrence of Eid, we have been engaged in establishing contacts to determine the dates of visits to several concerned Arab countries. We believe that through these contacts and direct meetings, we can improve Arab relations and facilitate the realization of our shared goals, whether regarding the overall Arab situation or countering the American-Israeli plan… We consider this approach to be the least detrimental, as surprising them with a direct step would not only complicate the situation further but also cause us to contact you to schedule the meeting.”

Yahya Bakour, the Director General of the Arab Organization for Agricultural Development, provided Khaddam with a report on his visit to Baghdad between May 31 and June 4, 1996. According to the minutes, obtained by Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Qaysi visited Bakour in his room and emphasized “the significance Iraq places on restoring relations with Syria at this stage in response to the orchestrated attack by America and Israel, in collaboration with Jordan and Turkey, targeting both Iraq and Syria.”

Here, Al-Qaisi reports that President Saddam contacted him in Qatar “during the aggression against Lebanon” and instructed him to inform Syria that Iraq is ready to offer its full capabilities and seeks a signal of cooperation in this regard. President Saddam also reached out to him in Qatar before the Eid holiday with the intention of arranging a meeting between President Hafez and himself, aiming to hold it during the holiday period. President Saddam expressed hope that circumstances would allow for the meeting to take place, given its significance at this stage. According to Al-Qaysi, President Saddam was confident that convening the meeting alone would lead to the resolution of all pending issues. The Iraqi people, believing in the authenticity of the news about the meeting, expressed their joy as President Saddam visited Mosul and the border areas with Syria during the Eid week. They were delighted with the news, considering their deep affection for Syria and the belief that the Syrian-Iraqi agreement had saved them from hardship.

During that time, the Iraqi leadership conveyed to Damascus, as per Sabri’s account, that they had duly taken note of the contacts and exchanged messages, highlighting Iraq’s initiative, President Hafez’s positive response, and Syria’s approval of allowing the passage of Iraqi oil through its territory. “This brought great satisfaction to all loyal individuals.” Iraq seeks to take steps with Syria to reduce the level of its relations with Jordan, particularly in the commercial aspect, and it is confident that such measures would serve the interests of both Syrian and Iraqi nations.

Al-Qaisi reveals that Saddam reached out to him in Qatar to inquire about the purpose and motives behind the visit of the American Chief of Staff to the region. He mentions that he has come across a letter addressed to Saddam, signed by President Bill Clinton, proposing the establishment of a Middle Eastern Security Council. This council would consist of countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Qatar, Egypt, and others, with the mission of combating terrorism, managing regional affairs, and penalizing nations that support terrorism.

According to Bakour’s report, “On the second day (Saturday), the agenda included meetings with the Minister of Agriculture. The Undersecretary informed me that Mr. Tariq Aziz was waiting for me. The meeting took place in his office, with the presence of Mr. Anwar Sabry Abdul Razak only. Mr. Aziz initiated the conversation by reminiscing about the pleasant days he spent in Syria and expressing warm regards to the late Minister of Information, Ahmed Iskandar Ahmed. He inquired about your well-being, health, and the health of Mr. Farouq Al-Sharia, and expressed his affection for Damascus and its people.”

Aziz discussed the two meetings that took place in Moscow at the initiative of the Soviets, involving himself and you, as well as Sharia after he relinquished the position of Foreign Minister. He emphasized that these meetings were futile as they were driven by external motivations and influenced by Soviet pressure.

He elaborated on the magnitude of the conspiracy in the region, stating that it is extensive and not limited to Iraq alone but also targets Syria and Iran. He noted that America would play a distinct role in each Arab country individually, targeting all those who support movements seeking freedom from domination.

Aziz affirmed that President Saddam’s proposal to cooperate with Syria and address the root causes of division was genuine. Iraq firmly believes that such cooperation serves the interests of both Syria and Iraq. Iraq does not wish for its gateway to the world to be Amman, as Jordan has turned into a global hub for intelligence agencies. The Russians advised Iraq against utilizing the Jordanian route for their movements, urging them to use the Tehran route whenever possible and hoping that the Damascus route would be open to them, as it would greatly assist them.

According to the minutes, Aziz further stated, “Iraq has made efforts to build bridges with the Iranians and establish stable relations with them. Positive progress has been made in opening borders and developing trade relations, focusing on the exchange of Iranian goods with oil derivatives and Iraqi goods. This serves the interests of both countries.”

He added that the issue with the Iranians lies in the lack of unified opinions within their leadership, which is reflected in their actions and positions during meetings. The Iraqi leadership expressed satisfaction with the positive responses from the Syrian leadership regarding President Saddam’s initiative to restore relations between the two nations. Iraq’s commitment stems from its concern for joint action and recognizes the significance of Qatar in restoring Arab solidarity.

Aziz stated that if the Brotherhood in Syria is willing to allow the passage of oil through Syria, they are awaiting a signal to send a delegation and discuss the operational details, including the requirements. They would then submit a formal request to the United Nations for approval. I informed Tariq Aziz that Mr. Anwar Sabri had already been informed about Syria’s agreement to the oil passage and the operation of the pipeline. However, no further information was provided about the agreement, which created the impression that the United Nations did not grant approval for the oil to pass through Syria.

Bakour continues in his report, stating that Aziz believes that cooperation between Iraq and Syria will enhance the regional working environment and instill hope among the Arab masses. He believes that the ongoing conspiracy targeting Syria, Iraq, and Iran will ultimately fail, especially in light of the Turkish-Israeli and Jordanian-Turkish alliances, which aim to tighten the grip on Syria and Iraq. Aziz further highlighted that the Turkish conspiracy has been exposed, particularly in the context of Turkey’s offer to conduct aerial reconnaissance over northern Iraq instead of relying on American and British forces. Iraq considers this offer extremely dangerous, especially due to the Turkish-Israeli military agreement, as it would grant Israeli authorities access to the gathered information about Iraq and Syria.

Bakour’s report adds: “On Sunday morning, Anwar Sabri informed me that Mohammed Said Al-Sahaf, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, also expressed his desire to meet with me in the evening. We held productive working meetings with Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan. Al-Sahaf mentioned that the current conditions for Iraq are more favorable compared to the past, thanks to the improved international situation. They have started receiving calls from old friends with friendly speeches and winning contracts for the upcoming phase. Iraq has remained committed to what it offered to Syria through Anwar Sabri’s visits to Damascus. Al-Sahaf expressed hope for a positive response, which was appreciated by President Saddam Hussein. President Saddam hoped that positive steps would be taken to instill hope in the Arab nations.

Al-Sahaf emphasized, ‘We want our brothers in Syria to trust that Iraq is sincere in its initiative, and any threat to Syria’s security is a direct blow to the heart of Iraqi security.’ It was evident that Al-Sahaf was enthusiastic about improving relations and eager to take action in that regard, aiming to facilitate the process without creating any obstacles.

He also informed me that Anwar Sabri is ready to travel to Damascus at the earliest indication. If desired, he can bring the draft of the statement that Iraq will announce regarding the resumption of relations with Syria. This would allow the brothers in Syria to review it, express their opinions, and propose any amendments they deem necessary.”

Bakour continues in his report: “After concluding the interview with the Foreign Minister, Anwar Sabri informed me that the security advisor to President Saddam requested a meeting with me, as he is well-versed in all matters. He heads the president’s security service, and his name is Mana Rashid (Abu Anas). Abu Anas believes that the current conditions are highly favorable for announcing the resumption of relations, and the atmosphere is conducive to joint action to prevent the threats that jeopardize the national security of both Syria and Iraq. He emphasized that President Saddam Hussein deeply values President Hafez al-Assad’s firm stance. The signals received from the opposition abroad indicate that the Syrian position has thwarted the sabotage operations intended by King Hussein in Iraq initially, which could potentially extend to Syria later.”

According to the same report, security meetings were held as part of the border committees. We observed that the position of Mohammed Mansourah, the director of the military intelligence branch in Hasaka at that time, was positive. “We sensed that he had received new directives that align with the new atmosphere between the two countries. We are aware of all of Jordan’s movements among tribes or retired officers, and they will not pose a problem to us. We eagerly anticipate holding meetings between security officials to exchange information and opinions on security matters. We are confident that this will serve the interests of both countries and facilitate the gradual reopening of borders. Jordan and Turkey, with the support of Israel, aim to tighten their grip on Syria and Iraq. However, they will miss this opportunity.”

The report adds: “At ten o’clock on Monday morning, June 3, 1996, Anwar Sabri informed me that Al-Sahaf would accompany me to meet Saddam. Upon arriving at the President’s residence, we entered directly into the main hall, where the President was standing in the last third of it. We greeted him and took our seats, reminiscing about our previous encounters with him among Arab delegations… President Saddam expressed his admiration for President Hafez and Khaddam. He acknowledged our familiarity with all the previous contacts and their details, which have been positive and reaffirm the commitment to confront challenging circumstances and conspiracies against our two countries.

Our instructions are to continue the meetings and convene whenever necessary until the initiatives discussed among the brethren in Damascus reach maturity. We aspire to establish a renewed relationship between Syria and Iraq, one that is founded on trust and differs from our past relations. The same approach we adopt with Syria is extended to other countries as well. Our relations with any Arab nation are both positive and significant. There is no relationship that surpasses Iraq’s relationship with Syria.”

Saddam continued: “We have clearly communicated to our brethren in Syria that the possibility of establishing strong and positive relations between our two countries is both available and desirable. We have presented an initiative with specific points and have received positive and encouraging signals in response. It is now up to Syria to decide based on its own circumstances and perspectives. Sharing information with others regarding the developments between Syria and Iraq is a positive and necessary action, not a negative one. Even informing Iran is a positive step, despite it being a foreign country. Cooperation and coordination with Iran, despite their limited understanding of certain matters due to their ‘all or nothing’ approach, can be beneficial. We have made significant efforts to establish relations with them, albeit on a modest scale. We have conveyed to the Iranians that we are neighbors and that their previous judgments and actions on this matter were mistaken. We have also acknowledged our own mistakes on various issues. Currently, we seek to establish a solid relationship and give it the time needed to develop in a positive direction. However, the issue of prisoners remains unresolved, and the return of planes has not been realized despite our attempts. We have experienced both positive and negative signals from them and so on.

King Hussein’s association with foreign powers is a grave mistake. I advised King Hussein to maintain independence in his relationships and act in a way that brings happiness to his country without causing harm to Iraq. However, he chose the opposite path. I was struck by King Hussein’s letter of apology to President Assad. It is a remarkable message as it indicates a deliberate acknowledgement of his mistake and shows that he is one of those rulers who are unashamed of their actions. I hope President Hafez can find assurance that while our circumstances are challenging, we have exercised patience. Our patience has been accompanied by diligent work and unwavering determination to overcome these circumstances. Each citizen plays their role, and our citizens have demonstrated their dedication to our nation.

Saddam emphasized that the issue of oil passing through Syria is of strategic importance to Iraq. We do not view it solely in terms of profit or loss but as a crucial matter. It is essential for the oil to flow and for the pipeline to operate, even if at a modest capacity of a thousand barrels, in anticipation of future needs. We expect the flow of oil to increase continuously.” He then requested, “Please inform our brethren that we are ready to cooperate in this field and send a delegation to fulfill the necessary formalities. This delegation will also study the technical aspects and requirements essential for the preparation of the infrastructure. We hope to receive a prompt response.”

That night, Al-Qaisi informed Bakour that Al-Sahaf wished to meet him before departing for Damascus, stating that the meeting would last only half an hour. The meeting took place in Al-Sahaf’s office. “He informed me that President Saddam had come across an interview conducted by the late Minister of Defense, General Mustafa Tlass, with Al-Shorouq magazine. In the interview, Tlass disclosed details about the assassination of President Houari Boumedien and accused President Saddam of involvement. President Saddam was taken aback by this statement, which was issued on April 3, 1996, at a time when positive and encouraging contacts between our two countries were ongoing. In light of this, President Saddam’s instruction was for the press not to respond to the matter, in order to safeguard our relations with Syria. Consequently, the President did not wish to raise the issue during yesterday’s meeting. He requested that I be provided with a copy of the article to inform our brethren in Damascus and address the matter according to their discretion.”