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IdentifierCreatedClassificationOrigin
08DAMASCUS48 2008-01-22 16:02:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Damascus
Cable title:  

SARG PRESSES AHEAD WITH PALESTINIAN CONFERENCE

Tags:   PGOV PREL SY IS 
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TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 4557
INFO RUEHXK/ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUCNMEM/EU MEMBER STATES COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHAK/AMEMBASSY ANKARA PRIORITY 5438
RUEHGB/AMEMBASSY BAGHDAD PRIORITY 0746
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					  C O N F I D E N T I A L DAMASCUS 000048 

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/21/2018
TAGS: PGOV PREL SY IS
SUBJECT: SARG PRESSES AHEAD WITH PALESTINIAN CONFERENCE
DESPITE LACK OF CLEAR OBJECTIVES

REF: 07 DAMASCUS 1061

Classified By: CDA Michael Corbin for reasons 1.5 B and D.



1. (C) Summary: Notwithstanding Palestinian Authority (PA)
opposition to the January 23-25 meeting of Palestinian groups
in Damascus, preparations are in place for an event in
Damascus that will likely (1) underscore the right of return
of Palestinian refugees; (2) call for reconciliation between
Hamas and the PA; and (3) condemn Israeli military operations
in Gaza. The SARG and conference organizers have portrayed
the event as a purely Palestinian initiative open to all
Palestinian groups, with limited SARG participation. Though
some participants are likely to criticize the PA for
continuing negotiations with Israel, we expect the main
thrust of conference rhetoric will be directed against Israel
and the U.S. End Summary



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


Who's Coming


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





2. (C) PLO Chief of Foreign Relations in Damascus Mohamed
al Batal told Poloffs January 17 that, despite Palestinian
Authority attempts to persuade Syrian officials to cancel the
conference, event organizers had invited all major
Palestinian political groups, Arab and some Western embassies
in Damascus, and representatives of Palestinian organizations
from all over the region in hopes of boosting attendance to
roughly 1,000 participants. Our sources remain skeptical the
event, to be held at the Syrian Sahara Trade Union Center
near the western Damascus suburb of Yarfur, would attract
more than 400-500 participants. PFLP and DFLP have decided
not to attend out of loyalty to the PA, according to al
Batal. Fatah will not officially be represented, but some
Fatah members (such as al Batal) might come as
"independents." A Western journalist told us some "old
guard" PLO members would probably attend, but Norwegian
Ambassador Hans Wilhelm Longva doubted big names like Faruq
Qadumi or Hani al Hassan would show up. On the other hand,
Embassy sources have reported unconfirmed rumors that
Hizballah, and even Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, might
participate. (Comment: Nasrallah's appearance would be a
major surprise.)



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


On the Agenda


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





3. (C) Syria's public statements have denied any desire to
undermine the Annapolis agenda or PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
According to PFLP-GC leader Talal Naji, who spoke publicly
January 21 on the conference, the event is a "popular
activity" to give Palestinians an alternative venue to
express their views. Syrian officials and Palestinian
conference organizers are publicly claiming all Palestinian
groups have been invited with the aim of forging Palestinian
unity, which they say should take priority over talks between
the PA and Israelis. Norwegian Ambassador Longva reported to
us Hamas leader Khaled Mishal had told him January 17 that
Hamas participants at conference would not seek to be
divisive. Longva indicated he would let the results speak
for themselves, but surmised this contention might be true if
the conference produced statements supportive of the Arab
peace initiative and ongoing talks between the PA and Israel.




4. (C) Other contacts predicted a more combative conference
atmosphere. Reuters journalist Khaled Oweiss suggested the
conference's main theme would be to oppose what many
Palestinians see as surrender by the PA. According to
Oweiss, President Bush's remarks regarding the possibility of
compensating Palestinians in lieu of guaranteeing their right
of return had stirred deep anger in Syria and Lebanon. In
reaction to Israeli attacks and what some Arab capitals are
calling a "siege" on Gaza, many Palestinian groups were
advocating cessation of talks with Israel. The conference
would provide Hamas and other participants a chance to echo
these comments and denounced Israeli aggression, Oweiss
maintained. Al Batal told us he expected a great deal of
internal Palestinian criticism, particularly between Hamas
and PLO old guard representatives. Hamas officials were
openly accusing the PA of collusion with Israel in trying to
assassinate Hamas leaders, he said. At the same time, some
Palestinian groups have vocally criticized Hamas for its take

over of Gaza, and there was some chance this theme would be
reflected in conference discussion.



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


Assessing SARG Motives


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





5. (C) Oweiss observed that Syria's efforts to stage the
"rejectionist" conference conveyed Syria's support to key
Palestinian constituencies, particularly Hamas, after many
had interpreted Syria's participation in the November 2007
Annapolis Conference as an endorsement of the U.S. peace
initiative. Policy analyst and MFA advisor Samir al-Taqi
predicted "there might be some venting" on Israel's military
operations in Gaza, but he maintained the SARG had no
interest in fomenting Palestinian unrest on Syrian soil.
According to al-Taqi, Syria wanted to signal to the U.S.,
Israel, and the Arab world that it remained an influential
player in Palestinian politics and that it had interests to
protect in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian
Authority. Al-Taqi added that the Syrian government sought
to avoid provoking the ire of the international community and
thus at present would be reluctant to support any calls for
an end to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.



6. (C) While the SARG had been divided in October 2007 over
whether to allow a Palestinian conference to proceed, this
time there was regime unanimity that sharp criticism from
President Bush against Syria required at least a rhetorical
response, asserted al-Taqi. Allowing the conference to go
forward would also represent Syria's desire to smooth over
tensions with Iranian officials who had openly criticized
Syria for attending Annapolis and not allowing the
Palestinian conference to take place in Syria or Iran.
(Comment: On the subject of Syrian-Iranian tensions,
Norwegian Ambassador Longva suggested that Iranian officials
continued to be annoyed that Syria, not Iran, was hosting the
event. That said, we have heard reports that Iran was
financing the event, a rumor PFLP-GC leader Naji denied
categorically in his January 21 press conference.)



7. (C) Al Hayat journalist Ibrahim Hamidi opined the timing
of the conference would give the SARG an opportunity to
criticize Israeli military operations in Gaza and amplify
criticism of the Bush administration's peace agenda,
particularly President Bush's recognition of "facts on the
ground" and the suggestion of monetary compensation as an
alternative to the Palestinian right of return. Violence in
Gaza had led to a series of Syrian statements condemning
Israeli military action and the "siege" in Gaza, most
recently by FM Muallim on January 21. In addition, Hamidi
argued, the SARG had also decided to "unleash" Hamas leader
Khaled Mishal. The SARG had granted Mishal a public Syrian
venue and live television coverage during his January 4
speech commemorating Hamas' 20-year anniversary. This was
unprecedented, contended Hamidi. In addition, Mishal had
spoken publicly January 18 and 21 on the violence in Gaza.



8. (C) At the same time, there continued to be limits to
how far the Syrian regime would allow Palestinian groups to
go, argued Oweiss. Syria wanted to maintain its credibility
as a supporter of the resistance, but the government would
likely continue to avoid direct statements calling for
military action against Israel from Syrian soil. "The
Syrians are in favor of advocating resistance as long as it
does not involve them directly and bring another Israeli
strike," he stipulated.



9. (C) Comment: SARG and Palestinian organizers efforts to
portray this event as a purely Palestinian initiative, even
to the point of claiming Syria had no role in postponing an
October 2007 conference (reftel), fail to conceal the
regime's desire to repair its post-Annapolis relations with
Iran and the diaspora Palestinian "resistance." Calls by
Palestinian groups outside Syria for ending PA-Israeli peace
talks and responding with violence to Israeli military
operations in Gaza will pressure Palestinian groups here to
follow suit. The question is whether Syria will work to
contain these pressures or fan the flames.
CORBIN