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05ISTANBUL403 2005-03-14 12:18:00 UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY Consulate Istanbul
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Tags:   PREL SY TU 
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1. (SBU) Summary: A delegation of Marmara Group (Strategic
and Social Research Foundation, founded in 1985) members
visiting Damascus February 20-24 was impressed with President
Assad's stated interest in promoting positive relations with
Turkey and the U.S., but sensed the Syrian bureaucracy was
resistant. Briefing CG Arnett March 4 on the delegation's
visit to Damascus on Feb. 20-24, Foundation President Suver
said President Assad flatly denied responsibility for the
Hariri assassination and rejected labelling Syria as a
terrorist state. In contrast to Assad's apparent openness to
the West, Suver noted that the Syrian bureaucracy resembled
that of a former Iron Curtain country. The Turkish
delegation was also struck by the relatively undeveloped
infrastructure, contrasted with the seemingly advanced social
climate, including young single Syrian women smoking water
pipes and drinking wine in public, coed cafes. End summary.

2. (SBU) Dr. Akkan Suver, President of the Marmara
Foundation, accompanied by Foundation member Ogan Soysal,
briefed CG Arnett March 4 on the February 20-24 trip to
Damascus of a Marmara Foundation delegation, ostensibly to
participate in a university conference. The group included
four MPs: AKP MPs Yuksel Cavusoglu (head of the parliamentary
friendship group), Sait Acba, and Hikmet Ozdemir, and CHP MP
Abdulaziz Yazar; Bilgi University Professor Ilter Turan;
former MP and Higher Education Minister Ambassador Ertugrul
Kuyumcuoglu; Sabah correspondent Yavuz Durat; and Yeditepe
University professor Nedret Kuran Burcoglu. The Syrian
Consul General in Turkey had organized the trip. Prior to
their trip on February 18, CG had briefed delegation
participants on issues relating to Syria, emphasizing U.S.
concerns regarding Syria's support for terrorism, failure to
control the border with Iraq, and Lebanon. Suver confirmed
to the CG March 4 that the delegation had pursued all three
issues during their visit and their meeting with President

3. (SBU) Suver described at length the group's meeting with
President Assad, who spent an hour and a half with the
delegation. Marmara Group characterized Assad as tense,
given recent events in Lebanon, yet open to discussion with
the group and to relations with the West. Suver called Assad
a young and open man, who wants to open a new window in
international relations. According to Suver, President Assad
told a joke about a "genie," who declared in the punchline
that it would be easier to build a solid bridge between
Washington and Damascus than to reform the Syrian
bureaucracy. The Marmara Foundation delegation had the
impression that Syria was under the old Iron Curtain.

4. (SBU) Assad flatly denied that Syria was responsible for
Hariri's assassination -- just as he rejected the accusation
that Syria is a terrorist state. The delegation commented to
Assad that democracy is a good thing -- but there is a cost
for it. If Syria were truly ready for democracy, was he
ready to get out of Lebanon?

5. (SBU) Assad said directly that Syria wants to expand its
relations with Turkey -- a directness, Suver opined,
indicating that Assad may have felt guilty about the recent
events in Lebanon. Suver noted that while professing to pull
troops back in accordance with international democratic
practices, the Syrians' visa regulations, for example,
perpetuate a lack of intention to make peace with neighbors
(viz. the practice of confiscating passports of Syrians with
Israeli visas). Suver emphasized to Assad the importance of
maintaining communication with nations with which a country
has not had diplomatic relations; for example, Turkey still
is in active communication with Armenian officials, via the
lobbying office in Washington. According to Suver, Assad
listened. Assad was also concerned about PKK threats to
Syrian diplomats serving in Turkey.

6. (SBU) The delegation's tour of Damascus included a new
suburb, similar to Oran in Ankara, and a visit to the
Syrianic Patriarch Yusuf Ater in his new residence. Nearly
adjacent to the modern five-star hotel in the heart of
Damascus where the delegation stayed was a makeshift military
camp built of tin structures3w that the delegation assumed
with surprise to be the site of a terrorist training camp,
given the civilian Arab garb of the gun-toting occupants.
Suver commented that much of the city seemed a bit shabby,
similar to Turkey in the 1950's. In contrast, the delegation
found the social climate surprisingly advanced, observing
Syrian girls as young as 15 drinking wine and smoking water
pipes in cafes with men. In addition, the delegation also
learned that it was also acceptable for single Syrian women
to invite men to their homes alone.

7. (SBU) Suver noted that the Marmara Foundation had received
a similar invitation to attend an academic conference in
Tehran, and that he would call on the Consul General in
advance to discuss U.S. policy views on Iran.

8. (SBU) Comment: The Marmara Foundation delegation was
clearly struck by President Assad's openness, but detected
that his personalized and flattering reception of the group
may have been intended to hide his guilt about the recent
events in Lebanon and support for terrorist groups. Their
sense of the contradictions within Asad were mirrored by the
striking contrast they saw between the 50's era
infrastructure and the apparently liberal social mores. End