Robert Fisk: Inside Damascus - memoirs reveal the Hafez approach

Hitherto unknown information has emerged from the confidential archives of the Syrian presidency and foreign ministry

Share

“Clinton impressed Assad: a young man who appeared to want to be neutral”

What would Hafez have done? Every Syrian asks this question. Would the old lion of Damascus, whose son Bashar al-Assad became president when he died in 2000, have handled the present Syrian tragedy more harshly or more leniently? Would Hafez have allowed Syria to collapse into civil conflict so quickly? Would he have used the same ruthlessness as he did when he destroyed the Muslim Brotherhood at Hama in 1982 at a cost of up to 20,000 lives? Or would Hafez have reined in the secret police and acknowledged the original street demonstrations as an opportunity to turn away from dictatorship?

The dead cannot speak. But hitherto unknown information has emerged from the confidential archives of the Syrian presidency and foreign ministry, published in a new book by Bouthaina Shaaban, who spent ten years as Hafez’s interpreter and is still an adviser to his son Bashar.

Shaaban was in on many of the 1990s “peace process” talks between Hafez and George Bush and Bill Clinton, and between secretaries of state Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright and the then Syrian foreign minister (now vice-president) Farouk al-Sharaa – not to mention Israeli leaders. Her book, Damascus Diary, provides new insight into that most powerful and intriguing of Arab leaders, written as her country has fallen apart over the past two years.

Shaaban’s tale begins in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein in 1991, when Bush Sr’s secretary of state, James Baker, arrives in Damascus to persuade Hafez al-Assad to send a delegation to “peace” talks with the Israelis and other Arab nations in Madrid. Baker tells Hafez that the oil fires lit by Saddam “can reach as far as Iran and Turkey”. Assad smiles, replying: “There are fires that we see and others that we don’t. The invisible fires can sometimes be more dangerous than the actual ones.” It’s a response that he might have uttered – in a different context – had he been alive two years ago.

Assad demanded the return of all the Golan Heights – occupied by Israel since 1967 – based on the pre-war borders, every square foot of Syrian land in return for complete peace, an Israeli retreat before even an exchange of ambassadors. Assad demanded that the Russians and the United Nations co-sponsor Madrid. And he got his way. Baker said he agreed to UN participation, angrily claiming that he always said “yes” to Assad. His reply? “But in fact, you are not saying yes, Mr Baker ... you are saying no! I asked you to say yes to UN sponsorship ... but you said no.”

Baker said he could provide 50 per cent of what Syria wanted for the conference. “In order to reach 100 per cent, we have to take our clothes off,” Assad responded. “We have a decision in Syria never to take our clothes off!” The Syrians attended Madrid, but it was a flop. Yitzhak Shamir walked out of the talks and Syrian foreign minister Sharaa famously held up a British Mandate “wanted” poster for the “terrorist” Shamir.

Clinton impressed Assad: a young man who appeared to want to be neutral in the Arab-Israeli dispute – an illusion of course, but that’s what Assad thought. Warren Christopher told Assad that Middle East peace would be Clinton’s first priority. But Assad had personally heard the same from Nixon, Carter and Bush. “The previous administration was also serious,” he said. “But when elections started, everything related to peace came to a grinding standstill.”

Clinton and Assad negotiated what was called the Rabin Deposit, the idea of going back to the stage of negotiations reached with Yitzhak Rabin. This included the dismantling of Jewish colonies on Golan and a staged Israeli military withdrawal.

There is much more – including a fascinating phone conversation in which Clinton blamed Israel for the Shepherdstown failure – but of course, a healthy dose of salt must be added to this account. It doesn’t tally with others who were present at the talks, as Shaaban admits, but the voice of Hafez al-Assad is genuine enough. Here was one tough man who wouldn’t give an inch on sovereignty but liked Clinton and even understood Israel’s need for security.

So what would Hafez do today? Endure the Obama condemnation as Bashar has done? Fight back? Or give way to history and retire? His son has not vouchsafed his views on this. It’s the question I would like to ask him.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultants

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £Competitive: SThree: SThree Group and have be...

Recruitment Genius: Chief Engineer

£50000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chief Engineer is required to...

Recruitment Genius: Web Marketing Specialist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading Renewable Energy compa...

Ashdown Group: Data Warehouse & Business Intelligence Co-ordinator

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Required skills include SQL querying, SSRS, u...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: stupid questions in opinion polls, in the House of Commons and in job interviews

John Rentoul
 

i Editor's Letter: The demise of a Sixties monster

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?