Tariq Aziz suggested to Abdul Halim Khaddam that the Iraqi-Syrian relationship be similar to the diplomatic relationship between Iraq and Egypt in 1997

publisher: نبض

Publishing date: 2021-06-03


In the second half of 1996, the goal of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad became “to stop the downfall of the Iraqi regime,” focusing his communications on this objective. Additionally, he made the decision to open the Syrian-Iraqi border, closed since 1982.

In the correspondence between Assad and Saddam, obtained by “Al-Sharq Al-Awsat” from the papers of the presidents’ envoys, Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam and Iraqi Ambassador to Qatar Anwar Sabri Abdul Razaq, the differences in priorities and pace were evident. Assad was cautious and skeptical, while Saddam was eager for cooperation. He even proposed a return to the “National Action Charter” and the “union” between the two states, which Assad believed his Iraqi “rival” across the Euphrates and the competing wing in the Ba’ath Party had torn apart in 1979.

Saddam’s envoy stated in Damascus that “President Saddam” carried a message to “Sham” (Greater Syria), stating, “If the Brothers (Muslim Brotherhood) want to discuss the National Action Charter, we agree. Now the relations are good, and we have overcome past issues in the ’70s and ’80s.” However, this statement was made to Khaddam, who had flown to Baghdad in 1979 to learn the reasons for Saddam’s “coup” and his removal from the head of the regime by President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, who was “enthusiastic” about the Syrian-Iraqi “unity.”

Moreover, meeting minutes and documents reveal that the appointment of Saddam’s deputy, Taha Yassin Ramadan, and Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz to handle negotiations with the Syrians to develop relations did not leave “satisfaction” for Assad and Khaddam. This was due to previous secret meetings held with Tariq Aziz by Khaddam and former Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, which proved futile. However, with the passing days and increased pressure on Baghdad and “Assad’s concern about Saddam’s regime’s fall and the collapse of Iraq and its repercussions on Syria’s stability and its regime,” Damascus agreed to receive Aziz in November 1997, followed by Foreign Minister Mohammed Said al-Sahhaf in February 1998. According to the official meeting minutes between Assad and Sahhaf, the Syrian president said, “I have conducted communications with some brothers to warn against the danger of aggression against Iraq. Our position was clear in communications with the Americans and Europeans. We believe that Iraq should drop its justifications and miss the opportunity they are trying to exploit because now the essential thing is to avoid the military strike. If that happens, a significant part of the plan will be disrupted, even temporarily.”

After Khaddam’s return from Paris and his meeting 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 Al-Shihabi and Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa to discuss the Iraq issue. The following proposals were reached according to an official Syrian document: “Objectives of the Action… We saw the need to define the objectives of the action to avoid delusions about the Iraqi regime. The objectives are:

1- Work to stop the overthrow of the Iraqi regime by the Americans, Israelis, and Jordanians.

2- Create an atmosphere to communicate with the party apparatus that enables us to push for continuous work between the two countries.

3- Send a message to the Americans and Israelis about our ability to create new conditions in the region.

4- Contribute to lifting the popular Arab morale.

5- Secure Syria’s interests in Iraq and elsewhere.

The action program stipulated that the Iraqi Ambassador to Qatar, Anwar Sabri, should be summoned and informed that the Syrian leadership would issue a statement announcing the opening of the international borders with Iraq, closed since 1982, in a manner that does not contradict the Security Council resolutions. The statement includes the justifications for this decision, including the suffering of the Iraqi people, and the need for brotherhood and national relations to work on alleviating their suffering. The statement also mentions a meeting between officials from both countries to discuss the arrangements for opening the borders, with the proposal of holding a political meeting to discuss how to organize relations between the two countries in various aspects. This organization should not harm either country or complicate the Arab situation further. Following the political meeting, security and economic committees will convene to implement the agreed-upon measures. The political meeting will also define the form of communication between the two countries, proposing that the meetings be kept secret to avoid opportunities for harming both countries and prevent the possibility of failure.

On August 21, 1996, Khaddam received Anwar Sabri. According to the meeting minutes, “I informed him that during this period, we faced significant pressures from various quarters with hints of taking measures. These pressures did not change our stance. We discussed with several Arab countries and managed to convince them of the validity of our direction. We propose that the Syrian government issue a statement announcing the opening of international borders in line with the Security Council resolutions. Officials from both countries will gather to organize this, and a committee will gradually discuss matters that are in the interest of both countries without causing a stir among others. This is not out of fear but to protect what we are about to embark on. We will progress gradually, helping in success to achieve what we want, both for the benefit of the two countries and the Arab nation.

The ambassador asked about the committee’s level, and I answered: at the decision-making level, close to the decision-making center. The committee must have the appropriate vision to propose all possible steps in favor of both countries.”

On August 28, 1996, Khaddam received the Iraqi envoy. According to a Syrian document from Khaddam, “He informed me that he briefed President Saddam on the ideas he carried from Damascus. He called for a meeting of the Revolution Leadership Council and members of the Qatari leadership, presenting them with the communications that took place with Damascus. He asked the attendees to discuss the matter and make an appropriate decision. After the meeting, the ambassador was summoned and given the following message: The Iraqi leadership affirms its desire to establish a new pattern of relations with sisterly Syria. According to what President Saddam clarified through his envoy Anwar Sabri, as well as through the meeting that took place on June 3rd in Baghdad.

The Iraqi leadership sees that the virtuous step is to hold a political-level meeting between the two parties to discuss possible steps, including the issue of opening the borders. There are many issues and challenges facing the two sisterly countries and the Arab nation, which require review and evaluation. In response to the desire of the Syrian leadership to form a committee close to the leadership in both countries to discuss common issues, the Iraqi leadership is ready to appoint two members of the leadership, Taha Yassin Ramadan, Vice President, and Tariq Aziz, Deputy Prime Minister, or one of them, according to the preferences of the brothers in Syria. They will conduct the political meeting with whoever the leadership in Damascus chooses. We leave it to our comrades in Syria to determine the meeting’s date, location, and whether it should be secret or public.”

The mention of Taha Yassin Ramadan and Tariq Aziz for negotiations with the Syrian delegation did not leave satisfaction in Damascus, considering previous experiences where numerous secret meetings between Tariq Aziz and Farouk Al-Sharaa did not yield results.

On August 31, 1996, the Syrian Vice President summoned the Iraqi ambassador and informed him of the following: “Due to the diversity and importance of the topics, which will be a dialogue of discussion between the two delegations, we hope that our brothers in Baghdad will provide us with the topics they wish to include on the agenda. We will discuss and study them. In light of this, the formation of the delegation that will handle the negotiations will be determined. The goal is for each delegation to go with full powers so that matters do not remain limited.”

He added, “The suggestion of naming Taha Yassin Ramadan and Tariq Aziz did not leave us satisfied, as I mentioned before, and we considered this naming evidence of a lack of seriousness on the Iraqi side.”

Anwar Sabri tried repeatedly to set a date for his visit to Damascus because he had “important matters” to discuss, including the return to the National Action Charter signed between the two countries in 1978. However, there were delays. On February 21, 1997, Khaddam received Anwar Sabri, and “a general conversation took place about the Arab situation and the tours I made and their purpose, explaining the sensitivity of the Arab situation and the precision of the stage and the pressures,” according to the minutes from Khaddam’s papers. He adds, “Then he delivered a message including President Saddam’s greetings to his brother President Hafez and his brother Khaddam, affirming Iraq’s position, both leadership and people, in standing with Syria with all its capabilities to face the challenges of the stage the Arab nation is going through. The dangerous challenges that threaten Arab national security, and that the Arab nation is required to stand as one after overcoming formal differences to open a new page, to cut off all attempts aimed at uniqueness. This will only be achieved by restoring relations between the two sisterly countries to their previous strength and effectiveness (…). Therefore, our proposals (Saddam’s) for the proposed meeting agenda are:

1- Discussing diplomatic relations as an important step to restore normal relations between the two sisterly countries.

2- Discussing the issue of trade exchange and opening oil pipelines in light of the Syrian leadership’s readiness to open borders.

3- Forming an assistance committee for the Supreme Leadership Committee to follow up on the implementation of what is agreed upon in the Leadership Committee’s steps to develop relations.

4- Any other topics the Syrian brothers want to discuss.

Finally, Iraq thanks Syria for the role it played in releasing the Iraqi diplomats in Lebanon.”

After finishing the dictated message, Anwar Sabri said, “President Saddam told me that if the brothers want to discuss the National Action Charter, we agree. Now the relations are good, and we have overcome past issues.”

Khaddam responded, “In all our Arab and international contacts, Iraq is present, and we encouraged France to take positive steps. In addition, we have done a lot despite the absence of relations, including foiling several plots against Iraq (…).”

He continued, “If only that had been since 1978 when the Arab situation reached what it is now. Some managed to enter Baghdad through their plots to sabotage the National Action Charter, then to involve Iraq in a war against Iran.”

The ambassador Anwar Sabri pointed out that his president “will make fundamental changes in the party and the state, but he is waiting for relations with Syria, and these changes will affect key positions.” Khaddam handed over two proposals for restoring relations, one of which stated: “Based on the strong links and common interests that bind the Republic of Iraq and the sisterly Arab Republic of Syria and their peoples, and in view of the circumstances of national work and relations between the Republic of Iraq and the sisterly Arab Republic of Syria, and in light of the communications between them, the government of the Republic of Iraq has decided to fully restore diplomatic relations with the sisterly Arab Republic of Syria at the ambassadorial level, starting from 1996.”

On February 26, 1997, the Syrian Vice President received Saddam’s envoy and informed him, “We are preparing an Arab initiative to correct the Arab situation, replace new formulations with the existing methods and formulations in Arab action, determine the commitments and guarantees, provide reassurance to everyone, and open the way for a new cooperation built on sound foundations.”