How John Bolton scuttled a deal with Syria

There is an excellent story from the current issue of The American Prospect that is making the rounds on American political blogs on John Bolton's role as US Ambassador to the United Nations. It covers a lot of ground, but there is one thing
I'd like to pick out and focus on in particular, because I was peripherally involved in it and because it is very important to the current deteriorating situation in Syria.

0,,236177,00It involves a story that appeared in the London Times in mid-October, quoting anonymous high-level US sources, that the US had tried to offer a deal Libya-style deal to Syria. The story that appeared in The Times suggests that the US has offered Bashar Al Assad a deal: comply with our demands on key issues and we'll let your regime survive. The gist of the offer, which the official says has been transmitted via Arab states to Syria recently, is captured in the neat little diagram that ran with the story.

At the time, Josh Landis over at Syria Comment covered this over several posts, including a denial by Syria that any such deal has been offered and some thoughts about how seriously to take the source. Josh is frequently used as a source by journalists covering Syria, so it was no surprise he was let in on the identity of the source. When I read his post, I agreed with his basic argument: why leak the deal-in-the-making if it is really happening? This would only dissuade the Syrians from going ahead with it, as they would totally lose face. Qadhafi at least was able to claim initiative, even if the real work had come from the Brits.

In the Prospect article, for the first time I believe, the fact that the high-level source was Bolton has emerged:

And so the tension between Rice and Bolton has grown dramatically in several areas, most notably with regard to Syria: The Prospect has learned that Bolton was the source of an October leak to the British press that submarined sensitive negotiations Rice was overseeing with that country.
...
One of the �rst signs that a bureaucratic battle was brewing between Bolton and Rice over Syria came on October 18, when the State Department press corps was shocked to �nd that Rice had unexpectedly flown to New York to meet Annan. A State Department spokesman explained that the two met to “compare notes� in advance of a widely anticipated report by Detlev Mehlis, the secretary-general’s special investigator for the Hariri assassination. Yet Bolton, the man in charge of the United States’ day-to-day operations at the UN, was conspicuously absent from that meeting. In what appears to have been less of an accident than a matter of intentional timing, Rice made her trip to New York on the very morning that Bolton had to be in Washington, testifying before the Senate on the progress (or lack thereof) of UN reforms.

The Prospect has further learned that, rather than forging Security Council strategy with America’s European allies at the UN building in New York, much of the diplomatic legwork has been carried out in Foggy Bottom. On October 22, a French delegation from the UN traveled to Washington for initial discussions on the Syria resolution (later called Security Council Resolution 1636), of which the French were the original authors.

According to a diplomatic source, Bolton was not initially invited to that meeting. The French, however, insisted on his presence. So Bolton attended, but not without three chaperones: Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch, Welch’s deputy (and vice-presidential daughter) Elizabeth Cheney, and National Security Council Middle East chief Michael Doran. “It’s like they stuck a strong team from the [State Department and National Security Council] to watch him,� said the diplomat.
Despite Rice’s tight oversight of the resolution negotiations, the unanimity of the council was still in doubt one day before the Security Council meeting. Finally, in a last-minute lunch meeting with her foreign-minister counterparts from the veto-wielding permanent �ve Security Council members, Rice personally removed references to sanctions that had been inserted by the United States. With those obstacles to unanimous consent gone, Resolution 1636 passed 15 to 0.

Rice’s involvement came after Bolton had won round one in the Syria battle. Bolton and Rice’s bureaucratic tiffs over Syria had actually boiled over two weeks prior to the Security Council vote. Journalist Ibrahim Hamidi, writing in the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat, reported -- and the Prospect has independently con�rmed -- that Bolton had leaked to British newspapers that the Bush administration had signaled its willingness to offer Syria a “Libya-style deal� -- a reference to Libyan President Muammar Quadda�’s decision last year to give up pursuing weapons of mass destruction and renounce terrorism in return for a restoration of relations with the United States and the United Kingdom. According to The Times of London, Syria responded positively to the secret U.S. offer, which was made through a third party. But after Bolton publicly aired the details of the potential deal -- which would require Syria to cooperate with the Mehlis investigation, end interference in Lebanese affairs and alleged interference in Iraqi affairs, and cease supporting militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah—Damascus quickly denied that such a deal was in the offing.
Based on research over the past two months combined with some educated guessing, I believe those negotiations essentially took place via Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Prince Bandar, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington who was recently named as head of the powerful new National Security Council, seems to have made the first visit. Bandar, as well as being quite close to King Abdullah, is also a Saudi who has incredible access to the White House and the Bush family in particular.

Egyptian Director of General Intelligence Omar Suleiman (the de facto national security advisor) was the second Arab official to approach the Syrians, making low-profile visits to Syria in late September or early October to present the deal to Syria. There were also discussions of this deal between National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and Condoleeza Rice in late September with Egyptian officials (who it's not clear, although Suleiman and perhaps Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Aboul Gheit are possibilities.)

Although I have less information about the Saudi side save to say the Saudis were particularly irked by the Hariri assassination and that this was one of Bandar first priorities when he assumed his post as the equivalent of the director of the CIA, on the Egyptian side Suleiman's trip was part of constant involvement in the post-Hariri murder mess. Mubarak has clearly made this one of the most important things on his agenda (receiving Saad Hariri in Cairo in the last few days, I believe) and has made public noises that Syria needs to be brought in rather than isolated or "regime changed," no doubt because he didn't like the idea of this whole business becoming a standard operating practice. This was apparently also the policy of Condoleeza Rice at State and key Middle East policy officials.

It now appears evident that Bolton decided to leak the ongoing negotiations (which, it must be pointed out, might not have completely worked out according to these demands) for the sole purpose of sabotaging them. This really needs to be followed up. Was he acting on his own behalf (since I'm not sure how his role as UN Ambassador gives him a role in the negotiations) or on behalf of the people who backed him in the Vice President's office, including Cheney himself? Is he really out of control? To what extent is this representative of larger splits in Bush administration? It all speaks very poorly of the conduct of the Bush administration's policy in the region.

Again, it's not clear that the Syrians would have accepted such a deal, especially the clauses involving cutting off Hizbullah and handing over key suspects in the Hariri trial (particularly Assef Shawkat, who may be the ringleader and who is Bashar Al Assad's brother-in-law.) But there were signs the Syrian regime was being flexible, notably because of its decision (at around the same time, I believe) to cut off the local chapters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, some collaboration on the Iraqi insurgent question.

The other thing that comes to mind is whether Ghazi Kannan's death in mid-October (i.e. around the same time as the Bolton leak) might be related. At the time, there were rumors that Kanaan might have been conducting secret negotiations or had been approached to contact Bashar Al Assad over these issues. The picture that emerges from all this is of a seriously disjointed Syrian regime (for instance recent rumors have it that all of Vice President Khaddam's property has been sequestered.) If, as some have interpreted, the Tueni assassination is a stab by the hardliners in Syria to force the regime to become isolationist in hope that it will never come to war, then it seems that they are mirrored by hardliners on the American side are trying to make sure war is the only solution.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.