WikiLeaks: US Embassy Officials’ Views on Sanctioning Syrian Insiders and on Assad

WikiLeaks: Bush, Obama Passed on Sanctioning Syrian Insiders
by Kevin G. Hal, Thursday, August 4, 2011 by McClatchy

WASHINGTON — Two U.S. administrations declined in recent years to place sanctions on Syrian officials who now are involved in that country’s harsh crackdown on dissidents, despite the officials’ involvement in crushing internal opposition previously, according to secret State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks.

The struggle continues … demonstrators shout slogans against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in front of the Syrian Embassy in Turkey. (Photo: Reuters) In one instance, the top diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus asked the State Department in 2007 to impose sanctions on Ali Mamluk, the chief of intelligence for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“The role of the organization he heads in suppressing internal dissent is publicly known in Syria and stating as much in our statement would resonate well here,” wrote Michael Corbin, the embassy’s charge d’affaires.

But no action was taken against Mamluk until this April, after security forces had killed scores of civilians in the Syrian town of Deraa in protests that have since spread to much of the country.

In the same cable, Corbin opposed sanctions for Mohammad Suleiman, who at the time was a special Assad adviser for arms procurement and strategic weapons. Corbin argued that Suleiman’s activities weren’t well-known enough that the Treasury Department could impose the sanctions without revealing classified information.

“His activities are not widely known, which will make it difficult to obtain unclassified material” needed for the Treasury Department to cite when sanctioning Suleiman, Corbin wrote.

Suleiman never was sanctioned. On Aug. 1, 2008, a sniper killed him in the Syrian coastal town of Tartous. Syria blamed Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency but offered no proof. A secret cable dated April 9, 2009, offers another possibility: that Suleiman was killed because he had $80 million in cash in the basement of one of his homes, which investigators who were looking into his slaying later found.

How to deal with Assad’s inner circle clearly has been a difficult problem for the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, according to the cables, part of the vast trove of State Department communications that WikiLeaks has shared with McClatchy and other news organizations.

Despite suggestions as long ago as 2006 that Assad was falling short on promises to open his country’s political system, neither administration was willing to take firm action against his closest advisers, though such sanctions — which would have prohibited U.S. citizens and companies from doing business with them — often were discussed, the cables show.

That same ambiguity exists today, with the Obama administration refusing to call for Assad to leave office, even as the White House regularly denounces the harsh crackdown in which as many as 1,600 people are thought to have died. The most recent White House statement came Sunday, after Syrian troops moved into the restive city of Hama and killed an estimated 75 people.

A Jan. 4, 2006, confidential cable from the previous charge d’affaires in Damascus, Stephen Seche, spelled out why the Bush administration was reluctant to target Assad’s inner circle.

“Most Syrians we talk to believe that President Assad still represents their best hope for change without instability. It is their fear of instability that stops the majority of Syrians from pushing harder for internal change,” Seche wrote.

The hesitancy to pressure Assad’s inner circle as a way to bring political change to Syria that’s reflected in the cables recalls the conflict between how officials today describe the Libyan regime of Moammar Gadhafi and the way Gadhafi’s regime was portrayed in diplomatic cables before the current uprising in that country.

As McClatchy outlined in a story in April, those cables often portrayed Gadhafi’s regime as moving toward greater openness and described Gadhafi’s son Saif as one of the main proponents of greater respect for human rights. The International Criminal Court indicted Saif Gadhafi on war crimes charges in June, along with his father.

Corbin raised the issue of sanctions in several cables, including one classified secret and dated Jan. 24, 2008, in which he suggested that the U.S. target four men who make and move money for Assad.

The four included Assad’s father-in-law, Fawas Arkhas; financier Zufair Sahloul, who was said to be able to “move $10 million anywhere in the world in 24 hours”; and Assad’s uncle and financial adviser Mohammad Makhlouf. The U.S. still has made no move to sanction them, although the European Union sanctioned Makhlouf on Tuesday.

The fourth person Corbin suggested the U.S. move against was Nabil al Kuzbari, whom Corbin identified as an Assad confidant who ran investment schemes on behalf of Syria’s top business families. The U.S. moved to sanction him only this May.

Despite its refusal to move in some cases, the Bush administration did impose sanctions on some Assad confidants, including Assad’s cousin and economic power broker Rami Makhlouf, after the embassy in Damascus suggested that they be targeted.

A secret cable sent Jan. 31, 2008, described Rami Makhlouf as the “poster boy” of corruption, squeezing out legitimate businesses and benefiting from his family ties to make money in banking, the power sector and cellular-phone service contracting. Sanctions were imposed the next month.

The Bush administration in November 2007 sanctioned his brother Hafiz, a colonel and head of intelligence in Damascus, for Syria’s meddling in Lebanon. In May, the Obama administration modified his sanction to include his alleged role in stifling dissent in Syria.

But to date, the United States hasn’t sanctioned the family patriarch, Mohammad Makhlouf.

The Bush administration also imposed sanctions on Assad’s brother-in-law, Asif Shawkat, in January 2006. Shawkat, who’s married to Assad’s sister Bushra, headed Syrian intelligence at the time, but he fell from grace after the death of Lebanese terrorist mastermind Imad Mugniyah, whom the U.S. sought for killing Navy diver Robert Stethem during the 1985 hijacking of a TWA jet.

A car bomb blew Mugniyah to pieces on Feb. 12, 2008, in Damascus. A secret cable dated April 14, 2008, suggested that Assad stripped Shawkat of some of his power in response to the assassination, which proved embarrassing since Syria had denied for years that Mugniyah was in the country.

Theories abound about who killed Mugniyah and why, ranging from Shawkat, whose office was near the bomb site, to Assad’s violent brother Mahir. Known as the family enforcer, Mahir Assad escaped sanction until late April, when the Obama administration targeted him through an executive order.

In a secret cable from Paris, dated Sept. 12, 2008, the U.S. Embassy cites a French security adviser as saying that Mahir Assad, described as “a bit of a wild man and determined to increase his power,” may have killed Suleiman and possibly Mugniyah. The motive was effectively doing away with headaches from people who “knew too much” about the activities of the Assad family.

Another secret cable — from Damascus on June 3, 2009 — paints an unflattering portrait of the Western-educated leader of Syria. The memo was sent as the Obama administration considered ways the U.S. government could engage Assad and take a less hostile tack.

“Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is neither as shrewd nor as long-winded as his father but he, too, prefers to engage diplomatically on a level of abstraction that seems designed to frustrate any direct challenge to Syria’s behavior,” noted the cable, sent by a new charge d’affaires, Maura Connelly. “Bashar’s vanity represents another Achilles heel: the degree to which USG visitors add to his consequence to some degree affects the prospects for a successful meeting.”

The cable suggested that playing to Assad’s “intellectual pretensions is one stratagem for gaining his confidence and acquiescence; it may be time-consuming but could well produce results.”

If U.S. diplomats under Obama sought to butter up Assad, the Bush administration tried a hostile approach designed to keep him diplomatically off balance.

A Dec. 13, 2006, secret cable from Damascus by charge d’affaires William Roebuck suggested that the diplomats try to sully Assad’s international image since he was preoccupied with how the outside world viewed him.

“Actions that cause Bashar to lose balance and increase his insecurity are in our interest because his inexperience and his regime’s extremely small decision-making circle make him prone to diplomatic stumbles that can weaken him domestically and regionally,” the cable said. “While the consequences of his mistakes are hard to predict and the benefits may vary, if we are prepared to move quickly to take advantage of opportunities that may open up, we may directly impact regime behavior where it matters — Bashar and his inner circle.”

Yet, as the documents show, both administrations chose not to sanction much of his inner circle until the Arab Spring spread this year to Syria. The Obama administration and European allies haven’t yet declared Assad an illegitimate leader who must go, as they did with Libya’s Gadhafi.


Cable: To pressure Syria’s Assad go after his ‘money-men’


Treasury Sanctions Syrian Businessman: CorrptionCurrnts: 2011-08-04

The U.S. Treasury Department said Thursday it imposed sanctions on a Syrian businessman who serves in the country’s parliament. Muhammad Hamsho and his holding company, Hamsho International Group, which has about 20 subsidiaries, provided services …

Comments (180)

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151. Ali said:


That’s what you come up with? You seem to be running out of energy. Go drink your daily glass of blood. That should give you a good kick. Whats on the menu today? security officers or civilians? Your wahabi friends can help you out with that one.

Allah Souria Bashar ou bas

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August 5th, 2011, 6:28 pm


152. Norman said:


I have not changed my mind, I still think what the Arab and Syria lacked so far is a tolerance for a long war that will destroy the Israeli economy and make the Israeli immigrants to the US like you

What is happening in Syria is just a way to build the tolerance of the people for that war that will destroy Israel, Assad wanted to get the Golan and the Palestinian right peacefully but failed to understand what i believe in and that is . as long as Israel does not have to give the Golan it will not do so, It has to be forced, Assad did not have the drive and the determination to do that, So If i were you, i will not sleep thinking that the Syrians are busy with each other as sooner or later they will be comming for your children and grand children , but it is comming,

You only chance is to give from strengths as that will not last forever .

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August 5th, 2011, 7:13 pm


153. MNA said:

Tara @ 106

“There is no strong voice in favor of the regime to be heard or given attention to on SC.”

But Tara if what you are saying is true, it means that anti-regime are talking amongst themseleves also. It goes back to what came first the egg or the chicken. So who stopped listening to the otherside first b/c maybe they come off too weak and hard to talk to. Just a thought.

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August 5th, 2011, 7:15 pm


154. Tara said:


No MNA, I think that happened because traditional unblind pro regime voices on SC started to realize they are losing moral grounds…I don’t blame them.

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August 5th, 2011, 7:27 pm


155. MNA said:

Tara @ 155


No MNA, I think that happened because traditional unblind pro regime voices on SC started to realize they are losing moral grounds…I don’t blame them.”

Good answer, Tara, profound as usual.

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August 5th, 2011, 8:09 pm


156. Ali said:

(deleted for insult. You are banned for a week. I warned you before)

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August 5th, 2011, 8:38 pm


157. Aliccie said:

end of day rant.

WOW What a day. What is foremost are the images from the writer Samar Yazbek, I wonder if her testimony can be used for the future trial of Bashar in the International Court, and those hundreds or thousands of sadists who work for him.

It often takes courageous artists to push public opinion, after all that’s also their job. That some don’t wish to meddle in ‘politics’, or are afraid to is also understandable.

The article (can’t be bothered to scroll back) about comparing Egypt, South Africa etc and blaming Israel for everything and Nato, is yet another hypocritical piece that never mentions the word ‘islamist’ or to even mention that the biggest reason for all the dictator’s brutality was the world islamist radicalisation from the MB, salafist and Al Qaeda type movements. This is open knowledge, that the prisons were full of them, deals were done with these dictators to keep them at bay.

Another thing that this intellectual lady doesn’t mention is that these regions that embraced soviet marxism, as all their leaders were socialists, yet they crushed their fellow communists, including Khomeini, when they didn’t fall in line, and now, these oldies are coming out from the woodwork on blogs with old soviet type slogans and terrible design (no doubt their kids or grand-kids are too busy playing WOW to help them) are now mired with these would -be Lenins or Stalins, and are making a fine mess of these ‘revolutions’. The word ‘revolution’ itself doesn’t seem to mean the same nowadays, and no doubt these Nasserists can’t quite make out what happened in the mean time, after all Bin Laden didn’t exist and is already dead.

So when reading the last bit about how the Mubarak trial is going to ‘kill’ the ‘secularists’ revolution, I can understand the worry. There may not be that many real secularists and liberal democrats when you get rid of all the other weirdos who suddenly are discovering that they can write on a blog without getting their phones tapped.

And then there’s Norman who wants a long term war with Israel, really I wonder what he had for breakfast.

A bit of fresh air with ‘Syrian Pride’, who’s the first one who says he likes the west and even tries to educate people on history about Israel.

I still agree with Dale A, though that many Syrians do hate others and blame others, but that’s (as pride says), no doubt because of their decades of brainwashing from their decadent dictators.

Ah, yes about the Swiss reporter who got into Hama, someone said that no doubt he was funded by MB, well, it would be nice that he did a bit of investigation. But never mind, maybe he’s biased, I can’t tell. As for the numbers of demonstrators on that day, what does it matter, it’s not important.

Of course, I lost another few layers of tooth while listening to the repeated ‘if god willing’ of these people, but WTF.

And BTW, Ali or someone, can you explain why the slogans put ‘God, Syria, Freedom (or Bashar) in that order ? Does this mean that everyone wants a theocracy before the nation before the individual ? Weird, I’ll never understand you guys.

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August 5th, 2011, 8:58 pm


158. Khalid Tlass said:

Where have all the baby killers gone on this forum ?

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August 6th, 2011, 9:55 am


159. hsyrian said:

Ah, yes about the Swiss reporter who got into Hama, someone said that no doubt he was funded by MB, well, it would be nice that he did a bit of investigation.

I would like to see a rebuttal from the Swiss reporter.

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August 6th, 2011, 11:01 am


160. Aboud said:

Moderator, was #156 about me? I’d so liked to have seen it, hehehehe 🙂

Poor Ali, got banned for a comment no one even saw.

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August 6th, 2011, 11:45 am


161. Aboud said:

Poor #156, getting banned for a comment no one had time to see hehehehe.

I so hope it was about me 🙂

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August 6th, 2011, 11:46 am


162. Jad said:

That is a very weird moderation, why Ali’s comment where removed and he was banned for writing a comment that is criticizing Tara? It was an opinion about Tara’s comment, I read what he wrote before it was removed. Who is this new moderator? We have the right to know, Moderation shouldn’t be about the moderator’s relationship with those who he/she agree/disagree with. Is SC encouraging nepotism now!!?
Who is the moderator?

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August 7th, 2011, 2:37 am


163. SYR.Expat said:

I would like to thank the moderator for keeping this forum clean. Personal insults and profanity have no place here regardless of whether it’s coming from regime supporters or the opposition.

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August 7th, 2011, 7:46 pm


164. Ann Syla said:

A great article about a PAPER tiger called “Recep Tayyip Erdogan”:

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August 8th, 2011, 6:38 am


165. Ann Syla said:

‘Lebanese parties inflame Syrian unrest’

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August 8th, 2011, 7:08 am


166. Ann Syla said:

Syrian Opposition Leader: Israelis Can Remain in Golan

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August 8th, 2011, 7:23 am


167. Akbar Palace said:

Ann Syla,

Here’s my response to the article you linked to:

1.) Considering the brutality of the Syrian regime against the protesters, you can’t expect them not to take up arms to protect themselves. To my knowledge the protesters have no tanks and no missiles.

2.) How anyone can believe SANA or pro-Baathist news reports is beyond naive considering the Syrian government doesn’t allow any access for international reporters.

The question now is:

– Where does Assad and his family move to once the regime collapses.

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August 8th, 2011, 7:30 am


168. ann syla said:

Arab League: don’t expect “drastic” steps over Syria

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August 8th, 2011, 7:35 am


169. Ann Syla said:

UNHCR denies Al-Arabiya report on Iran and Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria

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August 8th, 2011, 7:52 am


170. Ann Syla said:

Majid Al Futtaim begins construction work on first mixed-use development in Syria

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August 8th, 2011, 8:07 am


171. ann syla said:

New 3.0 liter turbo engine available for Audi A8 L in Syria

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August 8th, 2011, 8:12 am


173. ann said:

Joshua Landis’ Syria Comment site in the news!

Destabilizing Syria – by Stephen Lendman

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August 8th, 2011, 11:20 pm


174. ann said:

Syrian hackers retaliate, deface Anonymous’ social network:

Counters Anonymous’ earlier sabotage of nation’s Ministry of Defense site

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August 8th, 2011, 11:36 pm


175. ann said:

Syrian hackers retaliate, deface Anonymous’ social network

Counters Anonymous’ earlier sabotage of nation’s Ministry of Defense site

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August 8th, 2011, 11:39 pm


179. ann said:

A “Humanitarian War” on Syria? Military Escalation. Towards a Broader Middle East-Central Asian War?

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August 9th, 2011, 11:45 pm


180. zsolt sass said:

Ape obama is a zionist sponsered dictator who suppreses all americans which starve,live on the street and get beat up by the police.Monkey obama eats KFC chicken wings,watermelons and mischel spanks his little monkey ,obama is yust scum of the earth.Muslims and freeman and everybody who believes in freedom and justice inside the usa must LIBERATE the us from dictatorship and its dictator obama.Built one man cells all over the USA well coordinated but operating in one man cells so you cannot be INFILTRATED«««LONE WOLF«««it works.Buy guns and ammonition over local newspapers they yust want money,no waiting period,cannot be TRACED.Avoid internet,cell phones can be TRACED .STONE AGE«communication is GOOD««.Buy books from the PALADIN PRESS study them and use your knowledge.US id cards ,driver licenses you can buy in mexican bordertowns they are pretty good fakes.LIBERATION must come from the inside of the USA by muslims ,freeman and all brave americans who believe in freedom and justice must start a REVOLUTION and OVERTHROW monkey obamas DICTATORSHIP and LIBERATE THE USA by all means .It is the DUTY of all muslims to LIBERATE the USA from the DEVIL and its servants.LIBERATION MUST come from the «««INSIDE«««of the USA.LIBERATE the USA it is time for the REVOLUTION of the SUPRESSED poor people because you have the POWER to make the CHANGE happen ,so RISE and SHINE freedomfighters «««your TIME has come for the REVOLUTION of the PEOPLE «««The POWER is yours«««FREEDOM«««LIBERTA«««comrade ,Fredomfighter, Zsolt Sass



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September 23rd, 2011, 8:10 am


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