Khaddam Files: Powell hands al-Assad list of demands

The US wanted Syria to abstain from meddling in Iraqi affairs, deny refuge to former Saddam loyalists, expel Palestinian organisations from Syria, and withdraw Syrian military forces from Lebanon

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 May 3, 2003 in Damascus.
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 May 3, 2003 in Damascus.

Khaddam Files: Powell hands al-Assad list of demands

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.

Khaddam was a trusted insider to the al-Assads for decades. The documents, including the minutes of important meetings, give a rare insight into the heart of government from his 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 this final instalment of the Khaddam Cache, Al Majalla reveals how America’s Secretary of State Colin Powel presented Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with “impossible demands.”

Meanwhile, Akbar Rafsanjani, an experienced leader who was Iran’s president from 1989 to 97, urged Syria not to “cower.”

Powell’s surrender terms

Contrary to the expectations of Syrian and Iranian leaders in 2002, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime collapsed relatively rapidly after the American invasion began in March 2003.

On 3 May 2003, two months after US forces first entered Iraq, Powell met al-Assad in Damascus. By this point, Saddam had already been toppled.

Khaddam’s paperwork includes the “surrender terms”, with Powell delivering to al-Assad a set of American demands in the wake of Saddam’s defeat.

The US wanted Syria to abstain from meddling in Iraqi affairs, deny refuge to former Saddam loyalists, expel Palestinian organisations from Syria, and withdraw Syrian military forces from Lebanon.

Syrian soldiers march toward their trucks during a farewell ceremony at a Lebanese army airport in Rayaq on 26 April 2005.

Ever the diplomat, Powell said his visit was not a threat but intended “to relay specific American requests regarding Middle Eastern policies.” Reviewing the document, Al-Assad was unimpressed.

“These are America's demands, but what about Syria's demands and interests?” he asked. We do not aim for conflict with your nation, yet we have our own rights, demands, and interests.”

Friend of foe?

Syria’s president told Powell that the Golan Heights “remains our paramount concern.” He added that Syria worked with the first President Bush, engaging in initiatives such as the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991.

“Those efforts bore no significant outcomes. You’ve made quick decisions regarding Lebanon and have taken swift actions concerning Syria and Lebanon. What we need are definitive and explicit commitments.”

Powell said, “After addressing the Palestinian matter, we will focus on terrorist groups within Syria and Lebanon... President Hafez al-Assad had previously opted out of concluding all negotiation rounds with Israel.”

Al-Assad noted the importance of achieving a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel and explained that some of Powell’s points were already in hand.

“We have sealed our borders with Iraq and have not sheltered any Iraqi leaders. You have captured some, so the facts are clear to you.”

Powell raised concerns about the smuggling of weapons, “jihadists” and other volunteers into Iraq from Syria to fight US forces.

“Any forthcoming government in Iraq must establish friendly relations with Syria,” Powell said. “Additionally, the possibility of restarting oil production and pumping could be considered in future discussions.”

Regarding the shuttering of Palestinian factions’ offices, the Syrian President was non-committal, saying it was “open for discussion”.

On 3 May 2003, two months after US forces first entered Iraq, Colin Powell met al-Assad in Damascus to deliver "surrender terms".

Hosting the Palestinians

After listening to Al-Assad recall the details of the visit, Khaddam made his own notes, saying it was apparent that Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa had met Palestinian organisations prior to the visit.

"They declared their willingness to adhere to any Syrian requests," he wrote. "In my opinion, the foreign minister meeting with these groups was not the right approach.

"They should have initiated direct conversations among themselves, acting independently without pushing Syria into the spotlight. The President agreed with my view and questioned who could manage this situation.

"I recommended Mr. Talal Naji (the then Secretary-General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command) and Khaled Meshaal (then head of Hamas's Political Bureau), both of whom were understanding of the context.

Al-Sharaa later assured them that "the (American) demands to close Palestinian offices were declined by us".

He added: "We dismissed demands for withdrawing from Lebanon and disbanding Hezbollah. The issues concerning Palestinian offices, Hezbollah, and Lebanon are non-negotiable for us".

On the US demand that Syria withdraw from Lebanon, al-Assad told him that "we redeployed, we have a presence in the Beqaa (valley)."

"As a military man, you grasp the strategic significance of positions near Damascus. The Israelis had advanced to within 25km of the Syrian capital."

Syrian troops man a military position off a main road in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley 20 February 2005.

Head down, keep quiet

The Palestinian leaders in Syria had told two former Syrian military intelligence heads (Gen. Asef Shawkat and Maj. Gen. Hassan Khalil) that they were flexible, al-Assad told Khaddam.

There was "a consensus on halting the operations of Palestinian organisations," especially since Powell had demanded office closures and expulsions.

Khaddam later detailed a "three-hour evening meeting" with Ahmed Jibril and Talal Naji, two senior leaders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command.

The Syrians were worried about "the critical nature of the situation, the severity of American threats against Syria, and the need to avoid giving pretexts". They said, "Safeguarding Syria from potential dangers was of paramount importance".

Khaddam reflected that the discussion was "lengthy, intense, and filled with concern". Jibril was trying to argue against closing the offices. In the end, Khaddam told them to keep their heads down but not to pack their bags just yet.

"Remove the signs, continue your activities quietly, and avoid making public statements from Syria," he told them. "It should only last a few months." Jibril agreed and said he would convince the other Palestinian groups to do the same.

At the same time, efforts were made to secure the Syria-Iraq border against unauthorised crossings from Iraq, which was not easy given its 600km length.

Coordinating the opposition

Damascus sought to use its soft power, firstly by inviting Iraqi delegations and tribes to a discussion aimed at healing divisions and promoting stability.

For pragmatic reasons, Syria also recognised the new Governing Council of Iraq and hosted meetings for its members.

In the months after Saddam fell, there were signs of persecution driven by sectarian grievance, in particular against Saddam's Ba'athists. Violence and destruction between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis increased as scores were settled.

Khaddam told the Iranians that they should thwart the establishment of a US 'chain' from Turkey to Iraq, Jordan, and Israel.

This deepened the rift between Sunnis and Shiites, which led to alarm in Damascus and other Arab capitals.

"Given the critical nature of these developments in Iraq, there was a unanimous decision for my visit to Tehran to discuss the crisis, understand its severity, and seek ways to halt the violence and foster a national dialogue among the Iraqi people," wrote Khaddam.

Khaddam in Iran

On 29 September 2003, Khaddam flew into Tehran and met Iranian President Muhammad Khatami. The pair agreed that this was "a challenging phase."

Khatami said the two "must maintain constant communication. We have always stood together during times of adversity… It is crucial for us to stand together. You are on the frontline of confrontation."

He said: "America has been in the region for a while due to Saddam Hussein's misguided policies… this poses a threat to us, to you, and the entire region.

Syria and Iran wanted to "determine their own destiny," he said. "We cannot allow this nation (Iraq) to serve as a base for foreign entities and adversaries of Arabs and Muslims… Syria and Iran bear a greater burden of pressure in this regard."

"It is imperative for us to collaborate and engage in dialogue with the region's countries. Our objective is liberating Iraq and establishing stable, popular governance within it."

Khaddam said Iran and Syria "stand as one," adding that there were "three forms of American occupation: military, economic, and the occupation of will."

He added: "We all opposed the Iraq War, (but) not out of concern for Saddam. Iran and Syria collaborated extensively to topple Saddam. The objective of regime change was a consistent aim for both Iran and Syria."

Avoiding a US 'chain'

Khaddam continued: "In 1995, American movements began to oust Saddam's regime and install a pro-US government in Iraq."

A US Marine covers the face of a statue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with an American flag in Baghdad, April 9, 2003.

"President Hafez (al-Assad), may he rest in peace, visited Tehran. An agreement was reached: Syria and Iran would thwart the establishment of any pro-US government because this would create a chain from Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Israel."

"At present, there is no pro-US government in Iraq. Instead, America itself is entrenched there."

"America didn't wage war solely to remove Saddam; Saddam had rendered invaluable service to the Americans through an eight-year war against Iran."

Khatami said Iran and Syria had no "fundamental disagreements" since America "has consistently posed a threat to us, and this threat escalates when it maintains a presence in the region".

The Iranian president said two critical objectives now had to be pursued: the ending of the occupation and the establishment of a liberated regime in Iraq.

Rafsanjani eases fears

That same day, Khaddam met Rafsanjani, head of the Expediency Discernment Council.

"Surrendering means death," said Khaddam. "We are aware of the US designs in the region (yet) although the Americans have waged war on Iraq, ousted Saddam, and prepared plans, they currently find themselves in a predicament."

"Sheer power is not everything," continued Khaddam. "The Americans are grappling with a dilemma. The crucial task is to capitalise on this for our own salvation."

He proposed convening an Iraqi national conference comprising representatives from all segments of Iraqi society and forming a Syria-Iran committee to decide who to invite.

The objectives, he said, should be strengthening Iraq's national unity, calling for the withdrawal of occupying forces, and urging the UN to temporarily administer Iraq before elections could establish a legitimate government.

Surrendering means death. We are aware of the US designs in the region.

Khaddam to Rafsanjani

Rafsanjani said he was confident that the Americans "will not be able to maintain a prolonged presence in Iraq," adding: "They have made numerous promises. They would have no reason to stay if they fulfilled their duties and gave them the right to self-govern."

If they fail to deliver, anti-US sentiment will rise, he said. "The Americans have opted to manage Iraq's affairs through their mercenary proxies."

The Iranian leader said the US decision to dissolve the Ba'ath Party and intelligence services was "a significant mistake… that cannot easily be rectified".

Exploiting US missteps

During this transitional period, Rafsanjani said, "new forces and groups will emerge, including the Shiites, who will eventually oppose America."

"In the current circumstances, we must refrain from taking any action that would alleviate the predicament the Americans are facing in Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq, which is draining their resources."

"Instead, we should exert pressure on the Americans in these four areas to further exacerbate their difficulties. With this approach, we should never succumb to fear."

Khaddam said the Syrians were not fearful and felt well-informed about the bigger picture and the US mindset.

He told his host: "The American legacy revolves around seizing by force, but what follows after that? They often fail to consider the ramifications. We have the potential to snatch victory from the jaws of the beast."

"Our outlook is optimistic, and it is on this basis that we advance. We are not seeking direct confrontation but aim to exploit American missteps. Our primary concern lies in destabilising the internal situation in Iraq."

"If we can maintain national unity in Iraq, America's defeat is 100% assured, and here lies the responsibility of Iran and Syria."

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami (right) receives Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam before their meeting in Tehran on September 29, 2003.

Rafsanjani told Khaddam that the Americans were "being targeted in Iraq", which could quickly become "a battleground to settle scores".

He said: "We must not overlook this opportunity. Every American killed or injured in Iraq serves as a ticking bomb within the United States."

Khaddam meets Khamenei

When Khaddam met with Supreme Leader Khamenei, the Syrian official noted that there was "a prevailing sense of apprehension among most countries in the region", which he thought "places greater responsibility on Iran and Syria".

The Americans' WMD worries—which proved to be unfounded—were not why the US invaded Iraq, said Khaddam.

"Nor did they seek to oust Saddam Hussein because Saddam had provided significant services to America (during the Iran-Iraq War)."

"Rather, they (Americans) harbour broader objectives, evident post-9/11, aimed at global control through economic dominance."

"Immediately after the war, Colin Powell declared the objective to be to reshape the political landscape in the region, but which landscape exactly?"

"In our assessment, the change will target Syria and Iran due to their adherence to principles… the United States establishing a foothold in Iraq will yield severe consequences, a scenario we must prevent."

Khamenei said Iran "attaches great importance to our cooperation with Syria, which holds a significant position in our foreign policy", adding that the groundwork for this relationship was laid by Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez.

"President Bashar is a younger version of Hafez," said Khamenei. "Therefore, we will persist in following the same path of collaboration."

The US didn't invade Iraq to oust Saddam or because of worries over WMDs. They had broader objectives aimed at global control through economic dominance.

Khaddam to Khamanei

Avoiding sectarian strife

The Supreme Leader said the biggest threat to Iraq "stems from internal conflicts among various ethnic groups—Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabs—or sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite populations" and that such conflicts should be avoided.

Khamenei said he had "suspicions" about the assassination of Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

A contemporary of Khamenei's predecessor, al-Hakim had lived in Iran for years during Saddam's tenure, returning to Najaf in Iraq in May 2003 to become one of Iraq's most senior Shiite leaders. He was killed in a bomb blast in August 2003.

"There exists a possibility that Israeli operatives, in coordination with the Americans, orchestrated this operation to sow division and discord among different factions and parties," said Khamenei.

Khaddam later noted that although Khamenei agreed to convene the Iraqi National Conference, the conference "failed to materialise" due to infighting between factions.

"Consequently, we collaborated with the anti-war factions to organise a national conference attended by a diverse array of Sunni and Shia Arabs and some Kurdish and Turkmen figures."

"This conference established a general secretariat, with Sheikh al-Khalesi at its helm and Dr Harith al-Dhari as his deputy."

American soldiers walk in front of the Martyrs' Monument, one of the symbols of the Iraqi capital, on April 9, 2003.

"The primary objectives of this conference were to quell sectarian tensions and to galvanise national unity towards the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and the preservation of Iraq's territorial integrity."

"However, the effectiveness of this conference was short-lived due to the escalation of US military operations, resistance activities, and a surge in mutual terrorist attacks perpetrated by both Sunni and Shiite Muslims."

Assessing the legacy

Damascus and Tehran continued to support various armed groups in Iraq and allowed "jihadists" over the borders to undermine and destabilise the Americans.

In 2005, the assassination of Lebanon's Rafic Hariri shook the region. Months later, Syria withdrew from Lebanon. Violence and bombings increased in Iraq. The Americans finally withdrew in 2011, which gave Iran more influence.

In 2014, American troops returned to Iraq to combat the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group. Since 2011, Syria has been shredded. Iran and Russia now support al-Assad's government, while US forces are on the ground in north-eastern Syria.

Almost everyone knew that the balance of power in the Middle East would shift significantly following Saddam's ousting. What few knew was how. To a large extent, that question is still in the process of being answered.



This is the final instalment of a seven-part series which revealed communications between regional leaders in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq.


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