Reporting from Beirut — Syrian President Bashar Assad described Hamas as an "uninvited guest" in his country in confidential conversations with American lawmakers, and appeared to suggest he would be willing to give up the alliance in exchange for incentives, according to several documents contained in the trove of leaked diplomatic cables posted online by the website WikiLeaks.
But even as Assad appeared willing to downgrade ties with the Palestinian militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, he brushed off pressure to change the dynamics of his friendship with Iran. He argued against his government putting pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program in exchange for a peace deal between Syria and Israel.
"Too many cooks spoil the meal," he is quoted saying in a January 2010 cable.
The leaked cables shed new light on international efforts to forge a Syrian-Israeli peace accord and on private meetings involving the leader of Syria's secretive government.
Assad shows himself in the leaked correspondence to be a shrewd negotiator. He told the American delegation visiting Damascus that he could help secure the Iraqi border against the flow of foreign fighters into Syria's neighbor. But he said he wouldn't do it "for free," asking the U.S. to lift sanctions that banned the sale of commercial airplanes and their parts to Syria.
"In the U.S., you like to shoot [terrorists]," he said. "Suffocating their networks is far more effective."
Diplomats and analysts view Syrian cooperation as crucial to ensuring the security of Iraq, Lebanon and Israel as well as isolating Iran.
Although Syria has forged strategic alliances with ideologically driven, Iranian-backed movements such as Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and Hamas, Damascus continues to view the rise of political Islam as one of its primary internal threats. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal has resided in Damascus since 2001, but such a blunt assessment of the group by Assad hasn't been made public before.
"Hamas is Muslim Brotherhood, but we have to deal with the reality of their presence," Assad told another group of American lawmakers in March 2009, according to an additional leaked cable, calling the Islamic movement an "uninvited guest" and likening it to the same Muslim Brotherhood his father, Hafez Assad, brutally uprooted from Syria in the 1980s.
In none of the dispatches does the younger Assad explicitly say that he would cut ties with Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran in exchange for the return of the Golan Heights, which was seized by Israel during the 1967 Middle East War. But he emphasized in the more recent meeting with U.S. lawmakers that the Golan Heights "is our issue," according to the January 2010 confidential dispatch.
The documents also reveal an unsuccessful push by U.S. and regional leaders to persuade Israel to return the mountainous occupied region.
According to the documents, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reportedly told the ruler of Qatar in February 2010 that Israel should "work the return of the Golan Heights into a formula for peace" with Israel.
Other regional leaders recognized Syria's willingness to negotiate. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf urged the U.S. to seek Syrian cooperation on Iraq and Lebanon. "If you want [Assad] to play ball, he needs comfort on other fronts — namely, the Golan Heights," Musharraf told a high-ranking congressional delegation in April 2007, according to the WikiLeaks disclosures.
Israel has in recent years refused to negotiate a full withdrawal from the Golan. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told U.S. lawmakers that giving up the heights would only result in assurances that Syria would later "tear up," according to a February 2009 cable.
Lutz is a special correspondent.