Khaddam Files: Americans in Damascus

Joe Biden, Chuck Hagel, and Colin Powell debated with Bashar al-Assad on their intent to get rid of Saddam. In part 5 of a seven-part series, Al Majalla reveals what was discussed for the first time.

US Senator Joseph Biden (R), D-Delaware, speaks to the press in Doha 8 December 2002 as Senator Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, looks on after the two senators visited the As-Saliyah base.
US Senator Joseph Biden (R), D-Delaware, speaks to the press in Doha 8 December 2002 as Senator Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, looks on after the two senators visited the As-Saliyah base.

Khaddam Files: Americans in Damascus

When Syria’s former Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam left for Paris in 2005, he took reams of papers, reports, notes, and files with him.

A trusted insider to the al-Assads for decades, the documents give rare insight into the heart of government from Khaddam’s first-hand accounts. He died in March 2020.

Among the more intriguing geopolitical periods of his time in power was the year leading up to the United States’ invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

In the months before, the Americans had been working closely with several parties in the region, including Syria.

Joe Biden was a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before he became its ranking minority member in 1997, then its chair from June 2001 to 2003. During his chairmanship, the US invasion of Iraq was planned.

By early 2002, Washington had decided to oust Saddam in coordination with the Iraqi opposition and Damascus. That spring, President George W. Bush and his officials met Rafic Hariri and his Lebanese team and spelt out US intentions.

Today, Al Majalla reveals details of transcripts from meetings between senior American politicians and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2002.

Meeting Colin Powell

Al-Assad, who succeeded his father in 2000, met US Secretary of State Colin Powell in April 2002, almost a year before the US invasion.

After initial pleasantries, al-Assad reminded Powell that “any discourse in the region regarding peace (between that excludes Syria and Lebanon exists only on paper”.

Powell agreed that “visiting the region without engaging with Syria and exchanging viewpoints... will not advance the peace process,” adding that President Bush also wanted Syria’s take on things.

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

The senior US envoy, who died in 2021, told al-Assad that the Iraqi regime “is focusing on acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and related infrastructure materials”, adding that it was “imperative to clean the region to safeguard civilians”.

Powell said he hoped it would come before a UN vote shortly, ideally in May 2002. In the meantime, Saddam was under international sanctions.

Al-Assad replied: “With every delay... Saddam grows stronger. Currently, he holds a position of utmost significance among Arab leaders."

“It’s essential to comprehend this. I am concerned that in the upcoming elections, we may find ourselves needing his support to secure victory,” he added with a chuckle.

Powell said Saddam “remains a dangerous individual”, adding that Bush’s stance towards him “has remained steadfast”.

The Saddam I know

Powell said: “We will persist with the siege and exert pressure until international inspectors are granted access to Iraq. The President is unwavering in his belief that Iraq will continue to pose a threat.”

Here, the two men differed. Al-Assad did not think Saddam posed a threat to the United States and felt that Washington was exaggerating its concerns about the Iraqi leader, particularly regarding the WMD claims.

On the idea that Saddam had nukes, al-Assad said: “This is laughable.” Powell said: “We do not want him to acquire nuclear weapons, which is why we’re diligently working to hinder his access to such technologies."

“While he doesn’t currently possess these weapons, he is actively pursuing them. We are aware of his previous attempts to develop nuclear capabilities before the Gulf War. That’s why we’ve maintained surveillance and enforced sanctions.”

Powell added that if Saddam had nothing to hide, he should let the inspectors in since this could also help ease sanctions.

Al-Assad said Iraq’s neighbours would never tolerate him having such weapons, adding with a chuckle: “We in Syria understand Saddam Hussein better than the Iraqis, better than you, and better than the Kuwaitis.”

We in Syria understand Saddam Hussein better than the Iraqis, better than you, and better than the Kuwaitis.

Bashar al-Assad to Powell

Their discussion moved to the subject of counter-terrorism, with Powell wondering if Syria and the US could cooperate on this.

Al-Assad reminded Powell of Syria's leading regional role in confronting extremist organisations, including al-Qaeda, adding that the Syrians had helped the Lebanese Army defeat terrorism as recently as 1998.

The Syrian president said his country's importance in this area was underlined by it being a moderate state that was trusted in the Arab world and trusted by US intelligence, which had given its support.

Biden and Hagel

By 9 December 2002, with preparations for the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 well underway, al-Assad met two American senators: Joe Biden and Chuck Hagel. The latter would go on to become Secretary of Defence under President Barack Obama.

The pair were joined by officials from both sides, including Antony Blinken, the current Secretary of State, who was then the staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Biden chaired.

Biden and Hagel were in Damascus as part of a regional tour encompassing Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

Al-Assad met Biden and Hagel for two hours. The Senators commended Syria's efforts to combat al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups before the discussion turned once again to Iraq and the pending war.

Biden said Bush felt that war was inevitable based on Saddam's pursuit or possession of WMD before asking for al-Assad's views.

"What options do you believe will be available to us to fulfil UN objectives in this regard? We have numerous inquiries," he said.

Al-Assad told his guests that there was a great deal of scepticism in the region regarding America's role in the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis, the Iraqi issue, and the fight against terrorism, all three being interconnected.

Al-Assad said a loss of trust or failure in one area would inevitably result in a loss of trust or failure in all, adding that Syria's priority was fighting terrorism.

US Senator Joseph Biden (R), D-Delaware, speaks to the press in Doha on 8 December 2002 as Senator Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, looks on after the two senators visited the As-Saliyah base.

Al-Assad said the US must "rebuild trust with countries capable of aiding them " and urged his guests "to clearly articulate the priorities" for the Americans.

"For instance, President Bush's current priority is Iraq. In his speeches, he consistently emphasises that Saddam poses a threat and underscores the danger posed by WMD. However, this is not believable."

"The true menace to the world and the United States is, unequivocally, the issue of terrorism, surpassing all other concerns."

Avoiding war

The discussion progressed after Biden noted how "this war can be avoided". Al-Assad said: "Well, that's promising. It signifies the beginning of a more realistic perspective on the region."

"As you've noted, we will be directly impacted as a neighbouring country of Iraq. What military options are being contemplated by the US?"

Aerial bombardment was "feasible", said al-Assad, "but (it) entails killing hundreds of thousands before achieving your goal, as the Iraqi army is now situated within cities, not in open areas".

The Syrian leader said: "The alternative would be to invade Iraq. Many who harbour antipathy towards the US hope this occurs so that America becomes entangled in a conflict that may prove more challenging than Afghanistan and Vietnam."

Al-Assad said Damascus was experienced in dealing with the Iraqi opposition but said they "have no significance" within Iraq itself while making the point that America would need support from the Iraqi populace for an invasion.

"If the Iraqi people are not aligned with you on this matter, then no one can achieve the goal you are discussing. Conversely, lifting the siege on Iraq may lead to the regime's collapse automatically."

Biden said the consensus in the US was that failing to oust Saddam would allow him to get nuclear weapons "within 3-5 years", with grave repercussions for the region. Invasion was, therefore, a "precautionary measure".

The region is sceptical of the US role in the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis, the Iraqi issue, and the fight against terrorism, all three being interconnected.

Bashar al-Assad to Biden and Hagel


Biden then addressed Syria's support for groups like Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad in the context of an undeclared war against Israel aimed at getting Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights and Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.

Biden then raised "the smuggling of weapons and the trade of Iranian extremists" through Syria. It drew a fiery retort from al-Assad.

"So, you're suggesting that Iran ships weapons to Syria, and from there, these weapons reach Hezbollah due to our shared border with Lebanon?"

"Let me ask you this: How do these weapons find their way into the heart of Palestine when Palestine is encircled by Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, with Israel imposing a blockade at sea?"

"How do these weapons reach it?" Biden replied: "Four thousand years of Arab ingenuity!" This prompted laughter from al-Assad.

"Hezbollah possesses the same ingenuity. They don't rely on Syria or Iran, whether we support them or not. So, to understand how Hezbollah gets its weapons means understanding how the Palestinians get theirs."

Using careful language, Biden said: "I believe you might partially acknowledge that if you were to reach a peace agreement with Israel, you could potentially curtail Hezbollah's activities and operations against Israel.

"Perhaps you may not entirely halt them, but I believe you could restrict such actions against Israel. Hezbollah won't vanish, nor will Islamic Jihad."

Even if you were to declare war tomorrow, they would persist, and I understand that. However, you may exert a more positive influence on their activities if you wield that influence."

After an extensive discussion, al-Assad told his guests about four years earlier, when the Syrians fought in Lebanon alongside the Lebanese army against al-Qaeda, elements of which were hiding in the mountains.

"Hezbollah actively assisted the Lebanese state in rooting them out, even participating in the siege. Therefore, this linkage is entirely incorrect."

Al Majalla
The Khaddam files have been exclusively obtained by Al Majalla.

Hagel's 'what ifs'

On Iraq, Hagel doubted whether anyone could fully understand the complexities that would follow such a military operation, emphasising the unpredictability of the future. He added that Saddam was "no fool."

He asked if al-Assad thought there was a chance that the Iraqi leader might voluntarily depart to save a war. Al-Assad did not dismiss the possibility but emphasised that Saddam was an unpredictable character.

The Syrian president said his answer might have been "yes" just a few months ago, but the way the US had handled the issue had garnered significant sympathy for Saddam from certain countries and the Iraqi populace.

This had bolstered his position and made him "a stronger figure now", he added.

"Following his occupation of Kuwait and its subsequent liberation, his reputation hit rock bottom domestically, across the Arab world, and on the international stage.

"As I mentioned, we had long-standing disagreements with him. Syrian-Iraqi relations initially evolved into commercial ties in 1998. The pressure came from Syrian citizens."

"In 2000, during Secretary Powell's visit to Syria, I pointed out that the US, through its policies, inadvertently bolstered Saddam Hussein's position over time."

"In jest, I expressed my fear that I might need to enlist his support in future elections to garner popularity. Today, this is the reality. Saddam has significant popularity, despite him being an unstable criminal."

Saddam is very popular despite being an unstable criminal. The way the US treated him after his invasion of Kuwait made Iraqis and other Arabs sympathise with him.

Bashar al-Assad to Hagel

In response to Hagel's question, al-Assad said, "Any such possibility, if it indeed exists, appears exceedingly slim" that Saddam would willingly exit."

"This is primarily due to the profound weakness of the Iraqi populace resulting from the prolonged sanctions.

"The lifting of the embargo could have provided at least some economic relief to the Iraqi people, thereby potentially empowering them to initiate change from within."

"Additionally, it would have facilitated smoother and more favourable relations with Iraq from the standpoint of neighbouring countries. However, under the current circumstances, this prospect appears immensely challenging."

Would Saddam step down?

Al-Assad said lifting the embargo would "diminish sympathy" for Saddam, but the United States' refusal to cooperate with the United Nations only fuelled animosity towards Washington.

States aligned themselves with Saddam solely because the United States opposes him, the Syrian president explained.

Hagel cross-checked his understanding of al-Assad's position: that if Iraq adhered to UN resolutions and sanctions were lifted, Saddam would fall. Al-Assad said: "The likelihood would increase. But Saddam is adept at handling coup attempts.

"The matter is not as straightforward as it seems... There is someone watching everyone all the time… Individuals are always watching each other in Iraq."

Hagel asked what if Saddam obstructed the work of UN inspectors in Iraq, thereby violating international resolutions.

"Would the US still bear the brunt of the blame for initiating military action against Saddam? And how might this impact the region and counter-terrorism efforts?"

A picture of President Saddam Hussein hanging on the burning Ministry of Building and Construction building in Baghdad, April 9, 2003.

Al-Assad replied that Saddam would "undoubtedly" shoulder the primary blame if that were the case but reiterated the lack of trust in the US.

He added that this would solidify the belief that Washington was not only uninterested in implementing UN resolutions but also sought to acquire oil through foreign intervention.

"Therefore, they will oppose the US for diverse reasons. However, it would be simpler than if the US were to unilaterally launch a war disregarding the United Nations. This is why I emphasised the importance of credibility."

Liberators or invaders?

Biden responded by acknowledging that if Saddam were to adhere to UN resolutions, the United States would find itself in a highly awkward position if it failed to lift the embargo and terminate sanctions on Iraq.

However, the American senator asserted that it was apparent to everyone that Saddam harboured no intention of complying with international resolutions.

Biden noted that intelligence reports from various countries, including those within the region, indicate that Saddam was popular among Iraqis.

"I recall being informed that if we intervened in Afghanistan, the Arab street would rise against us, yet upon our arrival, the Afghans welcomed us without any significant reaction from the Arab street," said Biden.

Al-Assad said there was a difference between Saddam's lack of popularity and people's inclination to sympathise with him. "If I were opposed to Saddam, I would currently align with him due to my opposition to the United States."

US intelligence reports indicated that American troops would be seen as liberators rather than invaders upon entering Iraq, noted Biden, while also expressing personal apprehension that this would be the case if Americans prolonged their presence.

Biden said he, Hagel, and other US politicians opposed the idea of occupying Iraq post-Saddam, as he foresaw dire consequences for both the region and the US.

Lifting sanctions on Iraq would "diminish sympathy" for Saddam, but the US refusal to cooperate with the UN only fuelled animosity towards Washington.

Bashar al-Assad to Hagel

Unanswered questions

Al-Assad said it was far more complex and that the Americans still had questions. "Where will this war ultimately lead?" he asked.

"What about the prospect of Iraq being divided? How do you intend to accomplish your objectives? If the goal is to oust Saddam Hussein, how will you achieve it? What is the proposed strategy? What about the welfare of innocent civilians?

"These questions cannot be resolved solely through military superiority and force. The Kurds in the north, for instance, are unlikely to align with the US."

"Their primary concern lies solely with the northern region... Baghdad holds little significance for them... Furthermore, if there is a regime change, they, like any other Iraqi faction, will have vested interests."

"They will not engage in combat, nor will they, under any circumstances, assume governance over Baghdad."

Al-Assad said the situation is "somewhat analogous for the Shiites in the south… Moreover, due to factors inherent to the nature of the regime, it is challenging for the Sunnis in the central region to mobilise... There is no one to mobilise."

"Consequently, you won't have an alliance in the north (as the US had in Afghanistan), where you conduct air strikes while they advance."

"Instead, as Americans, you'll find yourselves engaged in combat with Iraqis, including factions within the opposition who currently align with you for varying reasons."

"Additionally, you'll contend with Arab fighters (jihadists) who will flock to Iraq to confront you, potentially plunging the region into turmoil."


Next: Minutes of the al-Assad and Khamenei meeting: Security committee headed by Qasim Soleimani and Mohammed Nasif to "resist" the Americans.

font change

Related Articles