Exclusive: How Syria and Iran plotted over a post-Saddam Iraq

New details have emerged around the American's pre-war meetings in the region, including with Kurdish leaders.

Damascus and Tehran wanted invading US troops to get stuck in a 'new Vietnam' and set up an operations room headed by their top lieutenants to cause havoc, never-before-published documents show.
Al Majalla
Damascus and Tehran wanted invading US troops to get stuck in a 'new Vietnam' and set up an operations room headed by their top lieutenants to cause havoc, never-before-published documents show.

Exclusive: How Syria and Iran plotted over a post-Saddam Iraq

The latest instalment of Al Majalla’s groundbreaking series from the Khaddam Cache shows how Syria’s president and Iran’s Supreme Leader wanted George W. Bush to get bogged down next door.

New details have emerged around the American’s pre-war meetings in the region, including with Kurdish leaders and the demands of the US for Iraq after Saddam.

They come from the pen of the late Abdel Halim Khaddam, the former Syrian Vice President, who served Hafez al-Assad for years before leaving for Paris in 2005, several years after his son Bashar assumed the presidency.

The papers he took with him helped build first-hand accounts of key behind-closed-doors meetings in the crucial period leading up to the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003. More than 20 years later, the region is still dealing with the aftermath.

Those documents—aka the ‘Khaddam Cache’—reveal the private conversations of senior figures from the US (including former Secretary of State Colin Powell), Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Iran amidst the drumbeat of war.

Ironically, although Khaddam was critical of American military action in Iraq, disapproving of Bush’s stubborn determination to remove Saddam regardless, he later advocated for foreign intervention in Syria.

The background

After America was attacked by al-Qaeda in September 2001, with the loss of thousands of lives, US President George W. Bush and his team were always heading back to the Middle East. The unknown factors were when, where, and how.

Two of Iraq’s most important neighbours—Syria and Iran—were (and remain) allies, with Syria having supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq War throughout much of the 1980s.

For the first time, Khaddam’s official documents and archives expose the clandestine agreements forged between Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the run-up to the invasion.

Neither wanted the Americans next door, but both knew that they could not defeat the US Armed Forces militarily, so their pact aimed to disrupt US efforts through "suicide operations" to make Iraq a quagmire akin to the Vietnam War.

Khaddam's papers also reveal the CIA's meetings with Kurdish leaders, as well as the 'surrender demands' that former US Secretary of State Colin Powell presented to al-Assad in Damascus after Saddam's fall.

Sara Loane

Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), told Syrian leaders (including Khaddam) how the Central Intelligence Agency was trying to get rid of Saddam Hussein a year before the 2003 invasion.

Back then, the current US President, Joe Biden, was a Senator. He met al-Assad in late 2002, warning that "if we do not overthrow Saddam, he will acquire nuclear weapons", evidencing the urgency and seriousness of the Americans.

Khaddam's insights reveal an intricate web of diplomacy, covert operations, and international relations that shaped the prelude to the Iraq invasion.

In short, they offer readers a detailed account of one of recent history's most pivotal moments.

Syria and Iraq

In 1990, just days after Saddam invaded Kuwait, the United Nations Security Council imposed a comprehensive embargo on Iraq. This stifling set of sanctions remained in place throughout the decade, only ending in 2003.

Although Syria had supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq War from 1980-88, an ageing Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad, latterly sought to normalise relations with Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the late 1990s.

This period saw a flurry of covert communications, the reopening of borders, burgeoning trade relations, and oil exchanges in what became known informally as a "campaign to break the siege" of Iraq.

This helped thaw relations, marking a significant shift from decades of estrangement, accusations, distrust, and plotting that overrode sporadic attempts at rapprochement.

One such attempt was a secret meeting facilitated by the late Jordanian King Hussein in 1987, but it failed to achieve its objectives and find common ground between the ruling Ba'ath Parties of Damascus and Baghdad.

Khaddam's documents expose the clandestine pre-war pact between Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. 

Hafez al-Assad's alliance with Tehran had been steadfast ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and throughout the war.

Furthermore, he gave his backing to Iraqi opposition factions who wanted to topple Saddam's regime and endorsed the US-led efforts to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991, a noteworthy stance against Saddam's rule.

This pro-Iranian policy trajectory has been largely sustained under Hafez's son, Bashar, who succeeded his father in June 2000.

After the First Gulf War, however, Syria had been left disgruntled by the United States' imposition of a blockade on Iraq and the establishment of a no-fly zone in the north. It saw them as both inadequate and a betrayal.

As seen from Damascus

Khaddam's papers reveal how Damascus was talking to both friends and foes, as evidenced by al-Assad deepening Syria's political and economic ties with Saddam.

A particularly revealing disclosure from these documents is the early communication between the United States and Iraqi opposition groups about the US intent to "change the regime" in Iraq, pre-dating the events of 11 September 2001 (known as 9/11).

The initial hope had been for "a coup in Saddam's palace", perhaps triggered by the effects of sanctions, but after 9/11, the narrative shifted, and the US took military action in Afghanistan.

It marked a strategic pivot by the Bush administration, which was not determined to "remove Saddam Hussein". In February 2002, Washington dispatched a secret delegation to Iraqi Kurdistan to discuss that very topic.

Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) were briefed on the plan in discussions with the CIA about the US strategy for Saddam's overthrow.

Iraqi Kurd leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Jalal Talibani in Damascus 02 November 2002. . Talibani met in the Syrian capital with Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam.

Talabani was the first to inform Damascus of these plans, pre-empting his regional competitor, Barzani. The big question soon became: what would follow Saddam?

Iran and the Iraqi opposition both rejected the 'Karzai Model' for Iraq, whereupon the Americans would plant a replacement military figure, as they did in Afghanistan with Hamid Karzai, a CIA contact.

Karzai had helped US special forces overthrow the Taliban in October 2001. In December 2001, he was appointed head of the interim committee and, by the summer of 2002, had been made Afghan president.

Behind closed doors, Syrian and Iranian leaders were discussing contenders for post-Saddam Iraq. One was Lt. Gen. Nizar Al-Khazraji, the exiled former Iraqi Chief of Staff with purported CIA links.

Among those discussing Saddam's successor was Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran's powerful Quds Force. Many expressed their desire not to substitute one dictator with another.

Amidst the nuanced positions from those with a stake in Iraq's future leadership, a consensus was emerging, and the Americans were told clearly: nobody wanted a Saddam reboot.

The view from Iran

Iran had been helping the Iraqi opposition oust Saddam. It organised a London conference to establish an alternative Iraqi leadership model and provided weapons, training, and sponsorship to Saddam's internal foes.

Yet interestingly, the transcripts show how Tehran employed different language and strategies when communicating with Damascus, compared to its interactions with Iraq's opposition and the Americans.

Talabani highlighted this in a meeting with Khaddam, telling the Syrian leader that "the Iranians communicate with us differently than they do with you".

Talabani revealed that Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, had a strong relationship with Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Al-Hakim also "maintained relations with (Iran's President) Mohammad Khatami," said Talabani.

"He coordinates with Khamenei before engaging with us, you, or others. The Iranians have separate channels for their relationships with Americans."

Tehran worked with Iraq's opposition to overthrow Saddam and with Damascus to thwart the US which hoped for the regimes in Syria and Iran to topple afterwards.

In reality, Tehran operated on two fronts: with Iraq's opposition to overthrow Saddam and with Damascus to thwart the Americans, who were hoping for a 'Domino effect,' where regimes in Syria and Iran topple too.

Indeed, this strategy was unveiled in a transcript of a meeting on 16 March 2003—just days before the invasion—between al-Assad, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, and Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Those present determined to "open the gates of hell" to the Americans and to "support the resistance".

Concocting a Vietnam

Three days before the invasion, al-Assad visited Tehran and met Khatami. "What actions can we undertake in the brief period before the war?" al-Assad asked. "How should we prepare for an extended conflict, possibly spanning years?

"I'm not suggesting the United States will settle peacefully, but if it attains stability, it may turn its attention to Iran and Syria."

Khatami said Iran "consistently contemplates these scenarios", telling al-Assad that "our diplomats, notably Mr Kamal Kharrazi, routinely discuss such matters with associates, particularly Mr Khaddam".

According to the meeting transcripts, the Iranian president said: "America's failure equates to its defeat. If we cannot defeat it, the situation must remain volatile, and we must resort to suicide operations."

In response, Iran's Supreme Leader said: "The only viable approach is resistance. I anticipate that this resistance will be protracted, akin to what happened during the conflict in Vietnam."

They agreed to establish a "joint operations room," run by the Syrian and Iranian intelligence agencies, working with "volunteers" and "Baathists" to target the Americans in Iraq.

According to Khaddam's papers, a security committee was formed to oversee operations. It was headed by Soleimani and Syria's Deputy Director of the General Security Directorate, Mohammed Nasif.

Pre-war manoeuvres

Other points of interest that emerge from the paperwork include America's initial misleading of Turkiye, a NATO ally.

Only later did it disclose its "preparations for war", as Turkish and American security and military officials met in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2002.

Elsewhere, Syrian officials are shown as sceptical that the US was sincere about removing Saddam for fear of Iraq falling under Iranian influence as a result.

The Syrians felt that a reconciliation between Iraq and the Gulf states in the spring of 2002 may have influenced the US decision away from war.

Having advocated for Saddam's overthrow for years, Damascus swiftly transitioned to supporting him when the US decided on regime change, which became apparent during a meeting between al-Assad and Powell in April 2002.

In this photograph provided by the Syrian news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L) talks with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on May 3, 2003, in Damascus.

Coinciding with this, another clandestine meeting occurred between Iraqi opposition figures and American officials to devise plans for Saddam's removal.

Powell visited Damascus and met with al-Assad once more after Saddam's ousting to present a list of American demands from Syria.

Biden met al-Assad in his capacity as a congressional leader just weeks before the invasion. The pretext of war was ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but al-Assad was adamantly opposed to it.

Reasons for war

At dawn on 20 March 2003, Bush blew the whistle, citing a "clear mission to remove Saddam's WMD (which turned out not to exist), end Saddam's support for terrorism, and liberate the Iraqi people".

The US said Iraq was in breach of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441, which gave Iraq until late 2002 to disarm. Much was also made of Saddam's supposed ties to al-Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11.

In September 2002, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair published a dossier supposedly claiming to provide irrefutable evidence that Iraq was still manufacturing chemical and biological weapons.

The credibility of Bush and Blair quickly dissolved amidst a lack of evidence to back the claims.

By the end of 2003, even Bush acknowledged that Saddam had no ties to al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, Western intelligence services were feeling sheepish.

In 2016, a British public inquiry led by John Chilcot concluded that Blair's claims were unfounded, adding that British intelligence should have challenged them.

Chilcot said the decision to go to war was made without fully exploring peaceful options for disarmament. Blair committed to supporting the war early on, telling Bush in July 2002: "I will be with you, whatever."

In a British official document from July 2002, Richard Dearlove, the head of the British intelligence agency MI6, was quoted after his return from Washington, saying war "had become inevitable".

He also said that Bush "intends to oust Saddam through military action, under the pretext of Iraq's support for terrorism and possession of WMD".

Having advocated for Saddam's overthrow for years, Syria swiftly transitioned to supporting him when the US decided on regime change.

The neocons

Most suspect that the true motivation was regime change in Iraq and the imposition of democracy because neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Paul Bremer were ideologically ascendant at that time.

Neoconservatives champion individual and commercial freedoms and favour military intervention abroad to advance US interests and promote democracy.

Wolfowitz, Perle, and Bremer were members of the Bush administration and among the earliest proponents of the Iraq invasion. Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also endorsed the decision.

In June 2002, Bush articulated his foreign policy principles, including "pre-emptive strikes" against adversaries, the "export of democracy" worldwide, and the maintaining of "American military supremacy".

After Afghanistan, the focus shifted to Iraq. The Bush administration established a timetable for invasion: Spring 2003. Diplomats have several months to form alliances, smooth concerns, and work with Iraqi opposition groups.

Yet, as is now known, Washington lacked a clear plan for post-war Iraq. It also faced plenty of criticism from France, Germany, various Arab countries, and factions within Britain and the United States.

Syria and Iran, which had been hosting Iraqi opposition figures, were engaged for the "day after", but as Khaddam's documents show, they had their own agendas.

Iran and Syria

Saddam's regime toppled relatively quickly. In mid-2003, several months after the invasion, Powell met al-Assad and presented a "list of demands", which were intended as "conditions of compliance".

They included measures such as renouncing support for Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah, closing the borders with Iraq, and withdrawing from Lebanon.

Khamenei and al-Assad had hoped to draw the US into a quagmire in Iraq with suicide bombings, but this did not fully transpire, and as detailed in Khaddam's documents, a rift emerged between Syria and Iran.

US President George W. Bush (L) walks from the Oval Office with Secretary of State Colin Powell (2nd L), National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice (2nd R) and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (R) in 2001.

When Syria tried to convene an Iraqi opposition conference, Iran refused to take part.

Hashemi Rafsanjani of Iran's Expediency Discernment Council told the Syrians not to worry, saying: "Every wounded or killed American is a bomb in America."

He added that Shiites would eventually stop cooperating with America in Iraq and begin to oppose them once in power in Baghdad.

To an extent, coordination between Damascus and Tehran continued, such as in their backing for Iraqi factions and by allowing jihadists across their borders to undermine and destabilise the American presence in Iraq.

Consequences of war

The Middle East has been a changed place since the US invasion. Two years later, transformative Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri was killed. Syria then withdrew from the country. This twin exit opened the door to Hezbollah.

Iraqis have witnessed a nightmarish 20 years since the war, with escalating violence and bombings. The US withdrew in 2011, only to find itself back in 2014 to combat the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.

Syria, meanwhile, has been shredded by civil war and remains an open playground for regional powers to operate in the country's north and east. To some extent, it has been a narco-state, with smuggling another boom industry.

The balance of power in the Middle East shifted significantly following Saddam's ousting. Iran and Russia have supported al-Assad's regime, while US forces maintain a presence in north-eastern Syria.

Indeed, the aftershocks are still being felt.

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