JERUSALEM – The Obama administration did not extract any concessions from Syria in exchange for a decision last month to send a U.S. ambassador to Damascus, a top official from Syria’s Information Ministry told WND.
The official said Syria was in consultations with the State Department about the possibility of renewing an American ambassadorship to Syria in a major upgrade of relations with the Damascus regime. The official said the White House announcement on the ambassador came without Syria first agreeing to preconditions for the move.
The official claimed that Syria would not have ended its relationships with Iran, Hezbollah or various Palestinian organizations in exchange for the sending of a U.S. ambassador regardless of State Department negotiations.
“There was no concession regarding any Syrian principles for having an American ambassador,” the information ministry official said, speaking from Damascus.
“We would not accept any interfering in the Syrian sovereignty and the Syrian right to have independent foreign relationships,” said the official, referring to Syria’s military alliance with Iran.
The picture emerging from Syria seems to jibe with a Washington Post column last weekend by Jim Hoagland, who quoted diplomatic sources as stating that White House decision makers had unilaterally announced last month the U.S. would send an ambassador to Syria.
The decision – which provided Damascus a major prize – took State officials by surprise, according to Hoagland.
A U.S. official who spoke to WND last week confirmed a working group within the State Department was in the process of negotiating concessions from Syria in exchange for the appointment of a U.S. ambassador.
The U.S. withdrew its ambassador from Syria four years ago in protest against the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, an attack widely blamed on Damascus.
The U.S. official told WND the White House had hastily leaked the news of an ambassador, thus relieving Damascus of any need to negotiate or reciprocate with any concession.
‘Politburo controlling U.S. policy’
That same official, as well as other diplomatic sources, told WND last week a small group of officials working mostly from the White House are tightly controlling U.S. foreign policy, bypassing other government agencies and making decisions without employing the expertise of those agencies.
The diplomatic sources identified the White House group largely controlling foreign policy as consisting of President Obama, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, top Obama adviser David Axelrod and National Security Council Director Denis McDonough. Also involved are Mark Lippert, chief of staff of the National Security Council, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and Jim Messina, White House liaison to Congress.
Diplomatic sources now confirm that the White House member who gave out the initial damaging leak of the White House offering Syria an ambassador without concessions is McDonough, who did not immediately return WND requests for comment.
A diplomatic source added it was not clear whether Obama was informed of the decision to leak the announcement of the U.S. sending an ambassador to Syria.
The diplomatic source told WND yesterday McDonough was the source of several stories the past week that deride Hoagland as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Ben Smith of Politico last weekend contradicted Hoagland’s report on the Syrian ambassadorship, writing that Clinton and Mideast envoy George Mitchell were both in on the decision to send an ambassador to Syria. Smith cited a memo from Mitchell to Clinton and Obama recommending an ambassador to Syria after his mid-June meeting with Syrian President Assad. Smith also reported the decision was discussed in a deputies committee that included the deputy secretary of state, Jim Steinberg, as well as a Mitchell aide, Fred Hoff.
According to the senior U.S. official speaking to WND, however, Smith failed to differentiate between a recommendation for the U.S. to send an ambassador to Syria and the actual announcement of the decision to send an ambassador, which was intended to follow negotiations.
The recommendation, made in June, was to be followed by State-led negotiations to extract concessions from Syria, such as an end to Damascus support for terrorism or the insurgency against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A senior Middle East diplomatic source said Clinton recently apologized to a Mideast leader, explaining to him that U.S. policy regarding his country is being dictated by the White House and not her agency.
The diplomatic sources all confirmed Clinton has been largely cut out from the decision-making process, as have U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones and other top figures.
A senior U.S. official referred to the group as a “politburo,” using the term for the executive committee of communist political parties.
The source said the so-called politburo is making decisions that bypass other agencies.
Syria wants U.S. to facilitate ‘billions’ in business
The Syrian information ministry official who spoke to WND hinted his country would be willing to discuss scaling back alliances with Iran, Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups, only if the Obama administration helps facilitate billions of dollars in business for Syria and builds up Damascus as the primary American ally in the Arab world in place of Saudi Arabia.
WND previously reported on that Syrian proposal, which was conveyed last year to numerous visiting foreign dignitaries, including U.S. congressmen and Turkish mediators, a Syrian official said.
He said Syria also demanded as a key condition for considering altering its alliances that the U.S. cease opposing Syrian influence in Lebanon.
“Syria is the key to the Arab world,” said the official, who spoke by phone from Damascus on condition his name be withheld. “We have influence with Hezbollah and Lebanon and hold many cards in the Palestinian and Iraqi arenas. The U.S. needs to rethink the value of the investment it places in Saudi Arabia.”
The official said Syria is asking the U.S., first, to end its opposition to a trade and association agreement between Damascus and the European Union drafted in 2004 that is said to be worth about $7 billion per year for the Syrian economy. The agreement was not signed or implemented largely due to American pressure, said the Syrian official.
Syria is also asking the U.S. not to object to Syrian “influence” in Lebanon, which was occupied for nearly 30 years by Syrian forces until large-scale public protests prompted by the 2005 assassination of Hariri.
The main Syrian request is that America uphold Damascus as its main “partner” in the Arab world instead of Saudi Arabia, said the Syrian official.
He said in exchange Damascus would discuss severing “many ties” with Iran, but he would not specify which ties and whether or not Syria is willing to cut off all coordination with the Iranians.
“We are ready to significantly and deeply reduce relations with our Iranian brothers if conditions are met,” the official said.
He said Syria is willing to sign a treaty with Israel and come to some sort of accommodation regarding the strategic Golan Heights, mountainous territory looking down on Israeli population centers from which Syria has twice launched ground invasions into the Jewish state.
The official claimed the Golan was not “the biggest obstacle” in preventing a Syrian-American-Israeli agreement.
He claimed Syria would “not categorically reject the idea of leasing some sections of the Golan to Israel for up to 99 years.”