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07DAMASCUS330 2007-04-03 11:27:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Damascus
Cable title:  

CODEL WOLF IN DAMASCUS: THE OPPOSITION AND THE

Tags:   PGOV PREL PTER SY 
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1. (C) Summary. Congressmen Wolf, Pitts and Aderholt met
with members of Syrian civil society, political opposition
figures, businessmen and religious leaders on their two-day
visit to Damascus. All were eager to engage the Congressmen.
Most expressed hope that the U.S. administration could be
convinced that the time is right for dialogue with Syria.
Grand Mufti Hassoun warned against driving Asad &into the
lap of the military8. Opposition leader and former
political prisoner Riad Seif blasted Asad,s regime for
corruption and its oppressive security tactics, but also
commented that the regime might respond positively to carrots
) such as the return of a U.S. Ambassador ) as well as to
sticks. End Summary.



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SOCIAL EVENTS


--------------------------





2. (C) Congressmen Frank Wolf (R-VA), Joseph Pitts (R-PA),
and Robert Aderholt (R-AL) visited Damascus March 30 ) April
1, accompanied by Wolf,s Chief of Staff Daniel Scandling.
On March 30, Embassy Damascus hosted a small reception for
CODEL Wolf at the Ambassador,s residence, where CODEL
members had an opportunity to exchange views on a range of
subjects with a cross-section of Syrian civil society. Prior
to the reception CODEL Wolf spent 45 minutes with prominent
and outspoken opposition leader Riad Seif. On March 31,
CODEL Wolf had coffee with local business leaders, who
complained that sanctions under the Syria Accountability Act
were hurting the average Syrian by denying access to
state-of-the-art medical equipment and IT connections with
the rest of the world, while not applying any significant
pressure on the regime to change its policies. The session
concluded with a request that CODEL Wolf tell the Bush
administration that dialogue with Syria is necessary to solve
regional conflicts.



--------------------------



--------------------------


THE GRAND MUFTI ON EXTREMISM, LEBANON AND PRESIDENT ASAD


--------------------------



--------------------------





3. (C) On March 31, CODEL Wolf met with Syria,s
highest-ranking Sunni religious figure, Grand Mufti Dr. Ahmad
Badr al-Din Hassoun, for approximately 45 minutes at the
Mufti,s offices in Damascus. Hassoun spoke of Syrian
society,s tolerance of all religions and his own respect for
all religious prophets. On the subject of insurgency,
Hassoun said that terrorism has no faith, but that when men
feel hopeless and cannot see a way out of their situation
they will take extreme measures, even becoming suicide
bombers, simply to be able to act. Syria, he commented, was
the victim of terrorism 27 years ago but managed to drive it
out. He added that religious extremism is, therefore,
currently more of a problem in the U.S. than in Syria, and
that the USG should look inside its own borders before
lecturing others. On hearing of the CODEL,s planned meeting
with Asad, Hassoun took several minutes to explain the
important of USG-SARG dialogue. Asad should know that
opportunities for such dialogue exist, because otherwise he
would feel hemmed in, Hassoun said. Hassoun cautioned that
the USG should be wary of reinforcing that feeling, as it
might &drive Asad into the lap of the military8, and the
chance for dialogue would pass.



4. (C) Discussing Lebanon and Israel, Hassoun said that Syria
hopes to work with Lebanon and stop any further
Israeli-Hizbollah fighting. If Israel were to work towards
resolving the Shebaa Farms and border disputes, this would
turn Hizbollah into a toothless entity, he said. He added
that Syria doesn,t object to the idea of a Hariri tribunal,
because Hariri was a friend, but rather that Syria is
concerned that some elements want to use the Hariri issue as
a wedge between Lebanon and Syria. The CODEL closed by
inviting Hassoun to the annual National Prayer Breakfast in
Washington. Hassoun responded with an invitation for
Secretary Rice to visit Syria.

SIPDIS



--------------------------


RIAD SEIF


--------------------------





5. (C) Prominent Syrian opposition leader and former
political prisoner Riad Seif described for the congressmen in
a March 30 meeting his range of negative experiences with the

DAMASCUS 00000330 002 OF 002


SARG as a businessman, during his 1994 and 1998 successful
runs for Parliament, and as a leader of the Damascus Spring
movement after President Asad took office. (Note: Seif was
convicted in the fall of 2001 on charges of &trying to
change the constitution8 for having suggested the lifting of
martial law and was released in January 2006. End Note.) He
said that his youngest son, Ead, disappeared mysteriously in
August 1996 and has never been found ) something he blames
squarely on the SARG.



6. (C) Seif addressed the common critique of the Syrian
opposition as being weak by noting that, in fact, the few
thousand members of the opposition were strong, given all of
the restrictions placed on them. Seif opined that President
Asad was strong enough to lead reforms in Syria if he chose
to do so but noted that the Syrian leader was like a mafia
figure and would only change his behavior when it was in his
personal interest. Seif suggested that Asad,s main concern
right now was the proposed formation of an International
Tribunal in Lebanon and the possibility that he would be
accused in the murder of former Lebanese PM Rafik al-Hariri.
He called on the U.S. to find a comprehensive solution to the
Middle East conflict, asserting that it would significantly
undercut popular support for Hamas, Hizbollah, Al-Qaeda and
Iran. In response to a question from the Congressmen, Seif
recommended the return of a U.S. Ambassador to Syria, saying
that he was &for giving the regime some carrots8 if in turn
the regime was successfully forced to provide in exchange an
easing up on the opposition,s freedom of expression and
movement.



7. (C) CODEL Wolf did not have the opportunity to clear this
cable before departure.
CORBIN