Episode (4): Assad opened the border with Iraq and advised Saddam to “drop pretexts” to avoid an American strike

publisher: الشرق الأوسط

AUTHOR: ابراهيم حميدي

Publishing date: 2021-06-30



In the second half of 1996, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s objective was to “prevent the overthrow of the Iraqi regime.” He focused on his contacts to achieve this goal and made the decision to reopen the Syrian-Iraqi border, which had been closed since 1982.

In the correspondence between Assad and Saddam, obtained by Asharq Al-Awsat from the papers of their respective envoys, Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam and Iraqi Ambassador to Qatar Anwar Sabri Abdul Razak, it was evident that their priorities and approaches differed. Assad approached the situation cautiously and with suspicion, while Saddam was eager to cooperate, even suggesting a return to the “National Action Charter” and the “Union” between the two countries, which Assad considered as his “rival.”

On the other side of the Euphrates River, Al-Iraqi, the rival faction of the Baath Party, had torn apart the unity between the countries in 1979.

Saddam’s envoy in Damascus conveyed that “Mr. President” had sent a message to “Al-Sham” stating that if the Brotherhood was willing to discuss the National Action Charter, Iraq was in agreement. The current relations were good, and they had moved beyond the events of the past in the seventies and eighties. However, the problem was that this statement was relayed to Khaddam, who had visited Baghdad in 1979 to understand the reasons behind Saddam’s “coup” and his removal from the leadership of the regime by President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, a strong proponent of Syrian-Iraqi “unity.”

The minutes of the meetings and accompanying documents also reveal that Saddam’s choice of his deputy, Taha Yassin Ramadan, and Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz to discuss the development of relations with the Syrians did not leave Assad and Khaddam satisfied due to past experiences. In the past, several secret meetings had taken place between Khaddam, Foreign Minister Farouq Al-Shara, and Tariq Aziz, but they had yielded no results. However, as the days went by and pressure on Baghdad increased, along with Assad’s concerns about the potential fall of Saddam’s regime and its repercussions on Syria’s stability, Damascus eventually agreed to receive Aziz in November 1997, followed by Foreign Minister Mohammed Said Al-Sahaf in February 1998.

According to the minutes of the official meeting between Assad and the press, the Syrian president stated, “I have been in contact with some brothers to warn them about the consequences of aggression against Iraq. Our position has been clear in our contacts with Americans and Europeans. We believe that Iraq should abandon its pretexts and avoid missing the opportunity that they are trying to take advantage of, as the most important priority now is to prevent a military strike. If such a strike occurs, a significant part of the plan will be disrupted, even if temporarily.”

Upon Khaddam’s return from Paris, where he had met with French President Jacques Chirac, he presented the French position to President Assad. He requested a meeting with the participation of Chief of Staff General Hikmat Shihabi and Foreign Minister Farooq al-Shara to discuss the issue of Iraq. An official Syrian document outlined the following proposals: “The objectives of our action… We have decided to define the goals of our action to avoid falling into illusions regarding the Iraqi regime. The goals are as follows: ”

  1. Work towards preventing the overthrow of the Iraqi regime by the Americans, Israelis, and Jordan.
  2. Establish a conducive communication framework with the party system to foster continuous collaboration between the two countries.
  3. Send a message to the Americans and Israel to showcase our ability to create new conditions in the region.
  4. Contribute to boosting the morale of the Arab people.
  5. Safeguard Syria’s interests in Iraq and other areas.

The proposed course of action involves recalling the Iraqi ambassador to Qatar, Anwar Sabri, and informing him that the Syrian leadership will issue a statement announcing the reopening of the international border with Iraq, which had been closed since 1982. This decision should be made in a manner that aligns with Security Council resolutions.

The statement should outline the rationale behind this decision, emphasizing the suffering of the Iraqi people and the need for fraternal and national relations to alleviate their hardships. It should also mention the intention to hold a meeting between officials from both countries to discuss the arrangements for opening the borders. Additionally, the ambassador should be informed about a proposal for a political gathering to address the organization of relations between the two countries in various aspects, ensuring it does not harm either side or complicate the Arab situation. Following the political meeting, subsequent meetings of security and economic committees should be scheduled to implement the agreed-upon measures, as determined by the political meeting. These meetings should maintain a confidential nature to avoid potential harm to both countries while minimizing the risk of failure.

On August 21, 1996, Khaddam received Anwar Sabri. According to the meeting minutes, “I informed him that we have been under significant pressure from various parties during this period, with indications of potential actions, but these pressures have not altered our stance. We have also engaged with several Arab countries and successfully convinced them of the validity of our approach. We propose that the Syrian government issues a statement announcing the opening of international borders in accordance with Security Council resolutions. Officials from both countries should convene to organize this, and a committee should be established to gradually address matters that are mutually beneficial and avoid causing concerns among others. This is not out of fear, but to safeguard our planned actions and proceed gradually, ensuring success in achieving our desired objectives for the benefit of both countries and the Arab nation. The ambassador inquired about the committee’s level, to which I replied: at the decision-making level and in close proximity to the decision center. The committee should possess the appropriate vision to propose all possible steps in the best interests of both countries.”

On August 28, according to a Syrian document from Khaddam, he received the Iraqi envoy. “He informed me that he had briefed President Saddam on the ideas he brought from Damascus. He called for a meeting of the Revolutionary Command Council and the Qatari leadership to present them with the contacts made with Damascus. He requested both groups to discuss the matter and reach a suitable decision. Following the meeting, he summoned the ambassador and conveyed the following message: The Iraqi leadership affirms its desire to establish a new pattern of relations with sister Syria, as expressed by President Saddam through his envoy Anwar Sabri and during the meeting that took place on June 3 in Baghdad.”

The leadership of Iraq believes that the best course of action is to organize a political-level meeting between the two parties to discuss potential steps, including the matter of opening borders. There are numerous issues and challenges facing both brotherly countries and the Arab nation that need to be reviewed and assessed.

In response to the Syrian leadership’s desire to establish a committee closely aligned with the Qatar leadership to address shared concerns, the leadership of Iraq is willing to assign two members of its own leadership: Taha Yassin Ramadan, Vice President of the Republic, and Tariq Aziz, Deputy Prime Minister, or either one of them, based on the preferences of the Syrian counterparts, to hold a political meeting with the individuals selected by the Syrian leadership in Damascus. The specific details, such as the date, location, and whether the meeting should be public or confidential, are to be determined by our comrades in Syria.

However, the nomination of Taha Yassin Ramadan and Tariq Aziz to engage in discussions with a Syrian delegation did not meet with satisfaction in Damascus, given the experiences from the previous meetings. Past encounters between me, Tariq Aziz, Farooq al-Shara, and Aziz did not yield the desired outcomes.

On August 31, 1996, the Syrian Vice President summoned the Iraqi Ambassador and conveyed the following message: “Considering the multitude of topics and their significance, which will form the basis of discussions between the delegations of both countries, we hope that the brothers in Baghdad will provide us with the topics they believe should be included in the agenda for us to discuss and analyze. Accordingly, the composition of the delegation responsible for the talks will be determined. The objective is for each delegation to possess the necessary authority, ensuring that the matters at hand are not constrained.”

He further remarked, “The proposal to appoint Taha Yassin Ramadan and Tariq Aziz did not meet our satisfaction, as mentioned earlier. We viewed this nomination as indicative of a lack of seriousness on the part of Iraq.”

Anwar Sabri has made repeated attempts to schedule a visit to Damascus because he has “important matters” to discuss, including the revival of the National Action Charter signed between the two countries in 1978. However, there have been delays. On February 21, 1997, Khaddam received Anwar Sabri. According to a report from Khaddam’s documents, they engaged in a public conversation about the Arab situation and the purpose of the tours that were undertaken to elucidate the sensitivity of the Arab situation and the gravity of the current stage, as well as the pressures involved.

Khaddam further noted, “Subsequently, he conveyed a message containing President Saddam’s greetings to his brother, President Hafez, and his brother Khaddam, reaffirming the stance of the Iraqi leadership and people to stand alongside Syria, utilizing all their capabilities to confront the challenges facing Arab national security during this critical phase that the Arab nation is undergoing. The message emphasized the need for the Arab nation to unite, transcending formal differences, in order to open a new chapter and thwart all attempts aimed at isolating it. This can only be achieved if the relations between our two brotherly countries are reinstated to their previous strength and effectiveness.”

In light of these discussions, Saddam’s proposals for the agenda of the proposed meeting are as follows:

  1. Discussing diplomatic relations as an important step towards restoring normalcy in the relationship between the two brotherly countries.
  2. Addressing the issue of trade exchange and the opening of oil pipelines, taking into consideration the Syrian leadership’s readiness to open borders.
  3. Establishing an assistant committee to the Supreme Leadership Committee, tasked with monitoring the implementation of agreed-upon steps to enhance bilateral relations.
  4. Any other topics of importance that the Syrian brothers wish to discuss.

Finally, Iraq expresses its gratitude to Syria for its role in facilitating the release of Iraqi diplomats in Lebanon.”

Upon concluding the letter, Anwar Sabri stated, “President Saddam informed me that if the Brotherhood wishes to discuss the National Action Charter, we are willing to engage. Our current relations are positive, and we have moved beyond the past.”

Khaddam responded, “Throughout our Arab and international engagements, Iraq remains a prominent presence. We have actively encouraged France to take positive steps. Despite the absence of formal relations, we have made considerable efforts, including thwarting several plans against Iraq.”

He further remarked, “Had this been the case since 1978, the Arab situation would not have deteriorated to its current state. There were those who, through their scheming, managed to undermine the National Action Charter and subsequently dragged Iraq into a war against Iran.”

Anwar Sabri made repeated attempts to schedule a visit to Damascus due to “important matters” he wished to address, including the need to revisit the National Action Charter signed between the two countries in 1978. However, there was a delay in arranging the visit. On February 21, 1997, Khaddam received Anwar Sabri, during which a discussion took place regarding the Arab situation and the purpose of Sabri’s tours. The aim was to emphasize the sensitivity of the Arab situation, the critical stage it was going through, and the mounting pressure it faced, according to a report from Khaddam’s records. Khaddam further conveyed a message he received from President Saddam, which extended greetings to his brother, President Hafez, and Khaddam himself. The message affirmed Iraq’s commitment, as a nation and leadership, to stand alongside Syria, utilizing all available capabilities, to address the challenges and safeguard Arab national security. It stressed the need for Arab nations to unite, transcending formal differences, in order to counter attempts at isolating the Arab world. This unity could only be achieved if the relations between the two brotherly countries were restored to their previous strength and effectiveness.

Consequently, the proposals put forth by President Saddam for the agenda of the upcoming meeting were as follows:

Ambassador Anwar Sabri indicated that his president intended to make significant changes within the party and the state. However, these changes were contingent upon the restoration of relations with Syria, and they would have an impact on key positions.

Khaddam presented two proposals for the restoration of relations. One of the proposals stated: “Taking into consideration the significant and shared interests between the Republic of Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic, as well as the historical ties that bind them, and in light of the prevailing circumstances of national action and the state of relations between the two countries, and in light of the previous contacts that have taken place between them, the Government of the Republic of Iraq has decided to fully restore diplomatic relations with the brotherly Syrian Arab Republic at the ambassadorial level, effective from 1996.”

On February 26, 1997, the Syrian Vice President received the envoy of Saddam and conveyed the following message: “We are in the process of preparing an Arab initiative aimed at rectifying the current state of affairs within the Arab world and replacing outdated methods and approaches in Arab action. This initiative will define specific obligations and their corresponding guarantees, providing reassurance to all parties involved and paving the way for genuine cooperation based on sound principles.”

The Vice President then proceeded to read a message to the envoy, expressing greetings from the President and extending greetings to President Saddam Hussein. The message highlighted the discussions held thus far, wherein Ambassador Anwar addressed the Arab situation and the various risks confronting the Arab nation, particularly the Israeli threats and the objectives pursued by Zionism in the region. It also emphasized the challenges posed by foreign dominance, ambitions to control Arab resources and wealth, and the shared responsibility of both Syria and Iraq in addressing these pressing issues. The message acknowledged the significant progress achieved in bilateral relations, transitioning from a phase of crisis and hostility to a stage of mutual understanding on several key matters that concern the entire Arab nation. Furthermore, it commended Syria’s resolute response to the conspiracies aimed at undermining Iraq’s unity and national security, serving as a clear example of steadfastness and solidarity.

If we take certain actions in Qatar under the guise of an excuse, and if others interpret it as a justification to respond to American pressure for normalizing relations with Israel, we should consider that rectifying such actions and minimizing their consequences may prove challenging (…). Some Arabs find themselves in a precarious position aligned with Turkey and external powers from outside the region, whereas we stand on the other side (…). Syria’s message is clear in its willingness to cooperate with Iraq in facing the risks and adopting an objective perspective of the current reality, free from the formalities of diplomatic relations that could elicit unfavorable reactions detrimental to Syria, Iraq, and our efforts to enhance the overall climate of Arab relations.”

Evidently, the Iraqi leadership has misconstrued the message from Damascus.

During the Arab League session on March 29, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Said Al-Sahaf conveyed the following message to Syrian Foreign Minister Farooq al-Shara: “President Saddam extends his greetings to President Hafez… We have taken keen interest in your letter received by Anwar Sabri from Khaddam in February. We wish to affirm that the reason behind our initial contact with you in the autumn of 1995 was our recognition of the risks that pose a threat to the Arab nation as a whole, including those affecting Iraq and Syria. At the time, we expressed our belief that the events unfolding around us pose a danger to both of us and to the entire nation. If you share this assessment as well, we are ready to engage in a joint discussion regarding the measures that we should and can undertake.

Your response was positive, indicating your agreement with our analysis and conclusion. Subsequently, our contact continued, and two meetings took place between our Foreign Ministers in Cairo and New York, namely Al-Sahaf and Sharia (…). Regardless of the past phase, the leadership in Iraq holds the view that what is crucial now is to gain a clear understanding of the present circumstances and future prospects: What are the current threats facing the nation? What risks can be anticipated in the upcoming phase? What are their sources, and how should we address them?”

We assure you that in our opinions and proposals, we have never intended, right from the beginning, to pursue a unilateral or isolated bilateral action that excludes the broader efforts to improve relations with all Arab countries without any exceptions (…). Our expression of opinions and analysis should by no means be interpreted as an attempt to pressure or compel you into taking a step that you may not deem appropriate at this particular stage, based on your own judgment.”

Two years after the initiation of the border opening process between the two countries, the Syrian government, under the guidance of President Assad, made the decision to officially open the border starting from June 2, 1997. This decision contributed to fostering a positive atmosphere, and trade delegations from Syria and Iraq commenced visits to each other’s capitals.

As the Iraqi crisis escalated in October and November 1997, Syria issued a statement rejecting American threats and calling upon Arabs to stand against these threats. In mid-November, Tariq Aziz expressed his desire to visit Damascus to provide an update on the situation’s developments to Syrian officials. President Hafez agreed and requested Khaddam to receive him and listen to his briefing. On November 22, Tariq Aziz’s aides were received in the presence of Shara .

After exchanging pleasantries, Khaddam inquired about Tariq Aziz’s tour. He responded, “In conclusion, we have achieved something positive. Our cause had been dormant and neglected, and our Russian and French allies have engaged in discussions with us, although they have not put an end to the Americans’ problematic behavior decisively. Nevertheless, the Russians have expressed their willingness to assist us in rectifying the prolonged situation that lacks a clear resolution. In recent days, there have been attempts and promising words that could aid us. We have successfully concluded the work of the Special Committee, which operates independently from American influence. The issue of lifting the economic blockade has been raised (…).

During our previous conversation, our message to you was that the danger does not solely threaten Iraq but extends to everyone. Your response was positive. Hussein’s (King) attempt is to destabilize the region, establish a federation, and create separate Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish states. However, the region comprises both Sunnis and Shiites, so the intention is to fragment the entire area (…).”

Tariq Aziz inquired about what Iraq could do for Syria. Khaddam replied, “We have expressed our goal of improving the Arab climate. We do not wish to take official steps that would further complicate the Arab situation and prove detrimental to all parties, including Syria, Iraq, and other Arab entities susceptible to foreign pressure, particularly from the United States. We appreciate your sense of national responsibility in dealing with matters concerning Iraq. Communication channels exist between us, and you are currently here. In my view, we have made significant strides, addressing crucial issues and achieving noteworthy progress. We used to refrain from openly discussing Iraq, but now we are engaging in open dialogue.”

Aziz responded, “We have taken positive steps. Our relations are amicable, and there is a mutual understanding. We have initiated business interactions, and people are content. However, we need to focus on the practical side. The economic aspect necessitates regulating the relationship between traders and individuals on a regular basis. This entails the presence of diplomatic missions between our two countries to facilitate visa procedures and assist our citizens. We are not pressuring you, but we believe it is worth considering. We should take a step further from what we have achieved and establish diplomatic exchanges. If you are hesitant about establishing ambassadorial relations, we can adopt a situation similar to Egypt’s.

Egypt has an interim president, but in practice, it functions as an embassy. Our mission to the Arab League and our mission in Cairo practically serve as embassies. Our representative there engages with ministers and official figures, granting us full representation without an official embassy designation. Let’s contemplate this and determine an appropriate time. I would like to mention that several indirect contacts were made to facilitate my visit here.”

Khaddam recorded, “The intensity of American pressure on Iraq has escalated, evident through increased air operations over the north and south. Al-Sahaf requested a visit to Damascus and was received by Shara on February 9, 1998.”

According to the meeting minutes, the Iraqi minister expressed his pleasure in accepting the visit as an envoy from the Iraqi leadership and President Saddam, aiming to inform Syria and our brothers about the latest developments and provide them with the genuine details of the crisis between us and the United States of America. The purpose was to exchange views, listen to your perspective, and present the situation as it stands, along with the available possibilities. Additionally, we recently became aware of a Turkish initiative. We were visited in Baghdad by the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ismail Cem. It was crucial for us to inform you about what he conveyed. Therefore, we can confirm that what he shared with you aligns with what he communicated to us.”

Shara remarked, “The Turkish minister’s statements were surprising. The Turkish Embassy informed us of his desire to visit Syria, but he neither visited us nor shared his ideas with us. Undoubtedly, Iraq is facing immense pressure. The Syrian leadership is fully aware of the scale and objectives of these pressures. Even before the incident involving Saddam’s brother-in-law, Hussein Kamel, and his subsequent embrace by certain factions, who portrayed him as a savior for the Iraqi people, Syria was deeply concerned but not passive. We expressed our concerns publicly, but our extensive communications, particularly with Egypt, alerted us to the gravity of the situation in Iraq, specifically the exploitation of Hussein Kamel as a tool. President Hafez, in particular, exerted significant efforts to thwart these schemes. The objective was not limited to Iraq’s internal affairs or the governance within Iraq. Its aim was to alter the foundations of the Iraqi structure, and thus, its impact would extend to the entire Arab nation.”

Shara continued, “We also perceive the dangerous role played by Turkey in this matter. Turkey effectively holds a presence in northern Iraq and exercises control over matters that significantly impact Iraq’s sovereignty, with clear encouragement from the Americans, and it is now evident that even the Israelis are involved. There are Israeli personnel present in northern Iraq, operating either as experts or under the pretext of combating terrorism, or to employ advanced technological tools, similar to the security belt in southern Lebanon.”

Additionally, our relations with Turkey have deteriorated. Honestly, due to this reason, they abstained from engaging in bilateral or trilateral meetings with us while we were with Iran. There was a certain level of concern about the situation in northern Iraq and the potential for its exploitation by others. We understand Turkey’s perspective, as their objective aligns with ours. Turkey is apprehensive about the establishment of a Kurdish state, just like Iran. This shared concern is a strong basis for the three countries to prevent the division of Iraq, as there is a common threat.

They halted the activities of the Tripartite Commission when we launched an attack on them while entering Iraq. If you refer to the statements, you will find that it was the reason. We informed them that our meetings were intended to provide a warning, not to harm Iraq’s unity. How could any one of us enter Iraq? That was the final meeting in Tehran two years ago. They claimed that there was a security void and that the Kurds were fighting.”

The Iraqi minister inquired about who had created the security void. The Syrian minister continued, “Regardless, our position was clear. I can tell you that in recent years, for the sake of Iraq, for all of us, and for the nation, we have paid a heavy price. Currently, our relations with Turkey are extremely strained. Due to this strained relationship, they have opted to isolate themselves and establish a military alliance with Israel, which they justified. Similarly, our relations with Jordan have been affected. There was an initiative for communication, but after the Hussein Kamel incident, that initiative was severed. They were the ones who initiated contact with us.”

“The second point: we believe that the implementation of the Security Council resolutions or the Special Inspection Commission should have a specific timeframe and not remain open-ended. It should not last for ten or even a hundred years.”

The following day, President Al-Assad received the Iraqi minister. After conveying Al-Sahaf’s message from the Iraqi president and providing an overview of the situation, its developments, and their analysis of the crisis’s causes, while also commending Syria’s stance, Assad reassured him with the following:

“1. Syria comprehends the objectives of the crisis and takes into account the broader Arab context. We cannot limit our perspective to temporary circumstances between our two countries alone, as the foreign objective is significant, primarily aligned with Israeli interests. Hence, our position remains unequivocal.

  1. The current events are unrelated to Kuwait but rather pertain to Israeli and American interests. Their scope encompasses the entire region.

Therefore, I have initiated contacts with certain counterparts to caution them about the repercussions of aggression against Iraq. Our position has been explicit in our interactions with both Americans and Europeans.

  1. We believe that Iraq should discard any pretexts and seize the opportunity they are attempting to exploit, as the utmost priority now is to avert a military strike. In the event of such an occurrence, a substantial portion of the plan, albeit temporarily, would be disrupted.”