Saddam to al-Assad: No handshakes

Newly available private papers give details of the secret 1987 meetings between the Iraqi and Syrian presidents, including the months of painstaking preparation

 Saddam Hussein meets Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in Damascus January 28, 1979.
Saddam Hussein meets Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in Damascus January 28, 1979.

Saddam to al-Assad: No handshakes

A series of secret meetings took place between Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein throughout 1987, with mediation from Jordan’s King Hussein, the details of which have for years remained shrouded in mystery.

Now, for the first time ever, Al Majalla is able to publish details of the inside story from someone exceptionally close to the action, offering an insight into the thinking, arguments, and personalities of the leading Arab powers at the time.

The first of the meetings, between just al-Assad and Saddam, lasted 12 hours and ended at 3am with no agreement, despite months of foundation-laying by aides, including Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam.

Based on the private papers and memoirs of Khaddam, our exposé reveals the intricate groundwork and tense attitudes between the two states which, while not at war in 1987, certainly had significant misgivings about one another.

Best involve the Soviets

At the time, in early 1987, both leaders had problems: Al-Assad had just returned from an unsuccessful visit to Moscow, while Saddam was under pressure from the ongoing war with Iran, which had begun seven years earlier, in 1980.

King Hussein informed al-Assad of Saddam’s agreement to hold a secret meeting away from opposition “comrades”. Al-Assad agreed, albeit with reservations about meeting at an airport in Syria, Iraq, or Jordan. Instead, he suggested meeting in a “socialist country”.

Khaddam recalled how al-Assad sought his opinion. The vice president suggested that the meeting be held in the Soviet Union, to ease tensions. If news of the meeting leaked, he said, they could always say they were pressured into it by the USSR.

“The president summoned me to his house at 11pm and asked for my opinion on the situation in the region,” writes Khaddam. “I replied that the situation was grave and that new action needs to be taken.

A meeting between al-Assad and Saddam would be a relief to the people, but the US and some Arab states didn't want any positive developments.

"I also suggested that holding a meeting would provide a sense of relief to the people, as we are under siege and need to break it. However, some Arab countries and the US are not in favour of any positive developments in the Arab situation."

Khaddam says he advised "that we take into account the possibility of treachery and retreat by Saddam, who is subject to Western influence".

He added: "I mentioned that if the meeting takes place, it may cause the situation inside Iraq to erupt, which would be useful for us. To ensure the Soviets are at ease, the meeting must be held in the Soviet Union. If news of the meeting is leaked, we can say that we were pressured by the Soviets."

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Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam (R) receives Massoud Barzani, the head of Iraq's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Damascus 17 October 2004.

The basis for discussions

Al-Assad asked Khaddam what should be discussed with Saddam. "The political position on the Camp David treaty [between Egypt and Israel], a framework for unity and a programme to reach it [after the collapse of the Charter for Joint National Action in 1979-1978], an economic link between the two countries, and giving both sides the right of military intervention if the other side is occupied," he said.

Al-Assad told the Jordanians that the secret meeting would take place in Moscow. On 21 February 1987, Khaddam informed the Soviet ambassador of their communications with Iraq via King Hussein and asked him to "inform Mikhail Gorbachev in person".

The agenda? Camp David, a framework for unity, bilateral trade, and the right of military intervention is the other is occupied

On 26 February, King Hussein told al-Assad that Saddam "agreed to meet in Moscow, and that he thought two delegates, a Syrian and an Iraqi, should meet to prepare for the meeting a week in advance, and asked that the Syrian side inform Moscow".

The next day, al-Assad contacted King Hussein to discuss the seniority of these delegates and the nature of their preparatory meeting. He wanted to know whether they should be political officials. The King replied that the delegates would meet "to discuss the agenda" and that they "should be at the level of foreign ministers".

Khaddam relayed that information to the Soviet ambassador, asking that their hosts set a date – preferably midweek - for this foreign ministers' meeting. He added that "the Soviet Union is a friendly country and we do not wish to place any protocol burdens on it, hence please do inform us… of the day you see fit for the meeting".

Aziz-Sharaa Meeting

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz met on 17 March to set an agenda for an upcoming Saddam-al-Assad summit.

Sharaa proposed topics such as bilateral relations, the Arab situation, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Gulf War. Aziz objected to the order and the final agenda was agreed as: bilateral relations, the Iraq-Iran war, the Arab situation, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Then Aziz asked Sharaa to share Syria's point of view on each agenda item.

"Tariq Aziz said, 'the two presidents must be aware of each other's views in advance, so that when they meet they aren't surprised by anything you and I haven't seen coming,'" recalled Khaddam. "Our [Syrian] foreign minister insisted on his position, according to the orders given to him, so the meeting was postponed until the next day."

Tariq Aziz then said both presidents needed to know each other's views in advance, so they weren't surprised by anything we hadn't seen coming.

At this meeting, Aziz presented written ideas - a reiteration of previous Iraqi positions - to Sharaa, but Sharaa refused to read them. Aziz then handed them to King Hussein. On 19 March, Sharaa went to Amman to inform King Hussein of the Moscow meeting.

The king was surprised by Aziz's position and expressed concern about Aziz being an agent of the Gulf states and of the US. He decided to discuss the matter with Saddam directly and dispatched a delegate to Baghdad to do so.

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Arab League Summit in Amman, Jordan on November 11, 1987.

Debating the discussion points

On 28 March, Jordanian Foreign Minister Zaid Al-Rifai arrived in Syria, sent by King Hussein. He was received by Assad while Khaddam was there. Al-Assad expressed disappointment at the Iraqis' stubbornness and their attempts to disrupt the meeting.

He also discussed the message sent by King Hussein, which included the Iraqi side's views on Syrian-Iraqi relations and the Iran-Iraq war.

The Iraqis wanted to normalise bilateral relations [between Iraq and Syria], restore diplomatic relations, work together within the framework of the Arab League and the Joint Arab Defense Charter, end adverse media campaigns against each other, and restart the pumping of Iraqi oil through Syria.

The Iraqis wanted to normalise relations, work together through the Arab League, and have Syria allow Iraqi oil through… al-Assad was unimpressed.

On the Iraq-Iran war, Saddam said he wanted to end the fighting, withdraw to international borders, and sign a peace treaty "that would allow both Iraq and Iran to play a positive role in the security of the region".

Al-Assad was unimpressed, asking where the benefit was for Syria. He noted that these new Iraqi suggestions differed from what Saddam had told King Hussein in February, about wanting strategic relations with Syria, and asked for Khaddam's opinion.

Khaddam said that he felt the message gave no new Iraqi position and that Saddam was evading responsibility, but that face-to-face discussions could change things and serve Syrian interests. However, he said it was a risk, because the Iraqis were unreliable and unlikely to change their position based on logic and reason alone.

After lengthy discussions, al-Assad highlighted "our own understanding on the topics of bilateral relations and the Iraqi war", which he planned to discuss with Saddam.

The big day finally arrives

On 26 April 1987, al-Assad, Khaddam, and Sharaa flew into Jordan for the secret meeting after difficult talks with Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR. On landing, they were surprised to be met by not just by King Hussein, but by an honour guard and a pack of media reporters and photographers. It was supposed to be a confidential meeting.

Still, at 3pm, al-Assad and Saddam talked behind closed doors until 3.30 am the next day. According to Khaddam, when the two presidents came face-to-face, Saddam said: "There will be no handshakes and no greetings because we are at odds. If we reach an agreement, there shall be peace between us."

President Hafez laughed at how Saddam began the meeting in such a tense and tactless manner. They then agreed that each would outline to the other how they viewed past Syria-Iraq relations, stating that this would be no impediment to future relations.

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Saddam Hussein Attending Arab Summit

Iraqi view of Syria

Saddam began. He started talking about his - and Iraq's - services to Syria, his role in reorganising the party in Syria during the era of unity, and his part in the March Revolution, which was led by the party.

He discussed Iraq's participation alongside Syria in the October 1973 war against Israel, and the role that Iraqi forces played in defending Damascus. He then accused Syria of conspiring against Iraq in July 1979, and of stopping the flow of Iraqi oil through its lands by implementing an agreement concluded by Khaddam with the Iranians.

Saddam said Syria disrupted the flow of the Euphrates, harming the Iraqi economy and agriculture, and accused Syria of siding with Iran in its war with Iraq, providing military aid to the Iranians at significant harm to Iraqis. Finally, Saddam said he felt that Syria's goal was to destroy and dismantle Iraq, and that it would use Iraq's enemies to do so.

Syrian view of Iraq

Khaddam said that, in response, al-Assad discussed various topics, ranging from the events in Amman in September 1970 [when Syria supported Palestinian fedeyeen] to Syria's attempt in 1971 to improve relations with Iraq and establish bilateral unity.

Al-Assad also brought up the issue of unity between the parties and establishing unitary relations between the two countries, but Iraq's response was negative, acting as if the two countries were at war, with Iraq wanting to emerge victorious over Syria.

al-Assad felt that Iraq was acting as if the two states were at war, with Iraq hoping to emerge victorious over Syria.

Al-Assad also talked about the October war [against Israel], the meetings with Iraqi leaders beforehand, Iraq's withdrawal which left an exposed gap, and Iraq's refusal to lend Syria 300 tanks that Syria would have compensated Iraq for after Soviet aid arrived.

The Syrian president further discussed efforts to mend relations between the two countries being stymied by Iraq, plus Iraq's attempted dismantlement and circumvention of the Union of Arab Republics, and the Syria-Iraq water dispute. Al-Assad felt that Iraq had shown stubbornness in reaching a fair agreement.

A full list of grievances

The list went on, and so did al-Assad. He mentioned Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem and his initiative to reconcile with Iraq which was rejected, Iraq's refusal to join the Steadfastness Front, and the bloody actions carried out by Iraqi intelligence agents in Syria which left hundreds of Syrian citizens dead.

Then it came to the crunch issue: the ongoing Iraq-Iran war. Al-Assad discussed how Iraq got involved in it, and the efforts he presented to Saddam and former Iraqi president Ahmad Hasan Bakr back in November 1978 to establish relations with Iranian leaders by meeting Khomeini in Damascus - plans Iraq rejected.

He talked about Syria's position on the Iran-Iraq war and the reasons behind this, denying that Syria gave any military aid to Tehran. Al-Assad emphasised Syria's Arab national history, saying it prioritised Arab national interests over domestic interests, such as with the appointment of Nouri Al-Saeed as governor of Damascus in 1920.

Additionally, he talked about how Syria participated in the Iraqi revolutions in 1920, 1924, and 1940, stood alongside Iraqi forces in 1963 to suppress the revolution of Mustafa Barzani, and offered to provide military aid to Iraq in 1972 during tensions with Iran. Finally, he stressed the need for Iraq to end the war and stem the losses.

From the past to the future

After discussing their different interpretations of the past, al-Assad expressed Syria's willingness to join forces with Iraq to face shared dangers and resume the relationship they had begun to have in 1978-1979. He proposed a path of unity between the two countries that would benefit both.

Saddam rejected it. Instead, he suggested that they stop their respective media campaigns, restore diplomatic relations, and that Syria stand by Iraq against Iran, and open its oil pipelines to Iraqi oil.

Saddam rejected a path to unity. He wanted a one-sided agreement that favoured only Iraq. Al-Assad felt a fair balance was needed.

Al-Assad pointed out that this was one-sided in favour of Iraq. He felt that a fair balance between the interests of both countries was necessary. He believed that by restoring unity, Syria would safeguard its national interests, but despite extensive talks into the night, no agreement was ultimately reached.

The following day, King Hussein suggested a tripartite agreement between Jordan, Syria, and Iraq, with unity a way to resolve the crisis. Al-Assad accepted, on the basis that it was serious.

King Hussein gets involved

Details, such as the capital, the presidency, and the constitutional form, were all discussed. Al-Assad suggested a confederal form and a rotating presidency, but Saddam insisted that he should be the president, for historical and strategic reasons.

They failed to reach an agreement. Jordan said it would submit a working paper on Syrian-Iraqi relations and another on trilateral relations. After their discussions, the leaders called on their aides and officials, including Khaddam, whose greeting Saddam initially ignored, before Assad quickly dispelled any tension.

King Hussein drafted a paper highlighting the significance of the meeting and the need to establish a formula governing relations not only between the trio but between Syria and Iraq, on which their respective foreign ministers would meet to discuss.

Suddenly, Saddam stood up and left the room without shaking anyone's hand. King Hussein followed him out and walked him to his plane.

Suddenly, Saddam stood up and left the room without shaking anyone's hand. King Hussein followed him out and walked him to his plane

Upon his return, the king looked a little embarrassed, commenting on Saddam's immature behaviour.

President Hafez laughed and recounted how Saddam had told him that there would be no handshakes due to their disagreements and that they would only shake hands if an agreement was reached.

Iraqi intransigence to blame

The attempt to build better relations ultimately failed due to the shortsightedness and stubbornness of the Iraqi president, which closed the door to an historic opportunity.

Al-Assad told Khaddam to update Saudi King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz and Lebanon's Rafik Hariri, including details of the mediation and Assad's regards to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

Another trilateral meeting between Jordan, Syria, and Iraq was held on 1 May in Jordan. The Jordanians presented a working paper similar to the joint statement. It included all the Iraqi demands with no real consideration for Syria's ideas regarding unity between the two countries, or trilateral unity.

A trilateral meeting was held in May. The Jordanians presented a paper that included all Iraqi demands, with no real consideration for Syria's ideas regarding unity between the two countries, or trilateral unity.

On Syrian-Iraqi relations, the Iraqis presented a paper in Moscow that included the return of diplomatic relations, Syrian condemnation of Iran, the renewed transit of oil through Syria, and joint cessation of media campaigns.

However, Syria's foreign minister did not receive the paper, and Syria insisted on returning to the 1978-1979 agreement. On 5 June, Jordanian Prime Minister Zaid Al-Rifai arrived in Damascus with a message from King Hussein.

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Hussein Ibn Talal, King of Jordan (l) welcomes Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, 07 November 1987 at Marka military airport near Amman prior the emergency Arab summit.

The king's shuttle diplomacy

This concerned relations with Iran, Iraq's adherence to the working paper they presented in Jordan, its desire to normalise relations, and its willingness to sign a non-aggression treaty with Syria guaranteed by King Hussein and other Arab leaders.

Al-Assad said Iraq's proposal did not meet the required unity  and that Syria wanted mutual commitments to guarantee the interests of both countries in the face of threats.

Rifai sent a letter to Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz with al-Assad's proposals. In July, Aziz replied: Saddam refused to establish special or constitutional relations with Syria.

Instead, he wanted to establish normal relations in all fields and sign an agreement guaranteeing non-interference in the internal affairs of both countries, as well as a non-aggression pact, which could be guaranteed by Arab leaders.

Saddam was open to Syria's demands economic compensation due to losses from the dismantling of its alliance with Iran, and for taking a position consistent with the Arab position on the Iranian aggression against Iraq.

More efforts to mend fences

In mid-August, United Arab Emirates' President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan visited Damascus, trying to end the Syrian-Iraqi dispute, which Assad welcomed.

In November, an Arab summit was held in Amman. After mediation by Arab leaders, another meeting was held between al-Assad and Saddam, but again, it did not result in any significant changes in Syrian-Iraqi relations.

During the meeting, al-Assad said Syria had made efforts to restore relations with Iraq. Saddam insisted that Syria had to condemn Iran and stand by Iraq. Assad refused to take a hostile stance against Iran, insisting instead that Iraq needed to end the war.

They did agree to end their media campaigns and a resolution was approved condemning Iran, which Syria reluctantly signed under pressure from Arab leaders. News quickly spread that Syria had changed its policies and now sided with Iraq.

However, Damascus soon clarified in a statement that it did not agree to any phrase condemning Iran, with al-Assad also sending a message to the Iranian leadership through their ambassador in Damascus to reassure them of Syria's position.

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