January 20th, 2012
Spain’s Syrian efforts received US backing
Wikileaks cables show that Spain’s Socialist government made substantial diplomatic attempts to calm tensions in the Middle East. Spain’s foreign minister said Syria had promised to exert its influence on Hizballah to help resolve the Lebanon crisis.
In 2006, the United States was optimistic about the Spanish government’s initiative to act as a mediator between the Syrian government of Bashar Assad and Hizballah over the latter’s disarmament. Then-Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos made a series of trips to Damascus, which the United States saw as a positive sign to try to defuse the volatile situation in the Middle East. In a series of cables sent by the US Embassy in Madrid and released by the Wikileaks website, American diplomats advised Washington that Spain could play a constructive role in the region.
On August 3, 2006, the US Ambassador in Madrid at the time, Eduardo Aguirre, reported Moratinos as saying that Syria had promised to exert its influence with Hizballah to help resolve the conflict in Lebanon.
“Asked whether his visit was an effort to ease Syria’s diplomatic isolation, Moratinos responded that ‘it would be good to reestablish dialogue with Syria,’” Aguirre wrote.
Earlier that year, Moratinos, telling the ambassador about his trip to Syria, said it was worth “making one last effort to pull Syria out of Iran’s orbit.”
Describing the situation in Syria as “very complex,” Moratinos said that a high-ranking member of the Syrian leadership, whom he did not name, “had raised with him the possibility of Damascus recognizing Israel as a sign of responsible intentions.”
Spain had sent about 1,200 troops as part of an international brigade to patrol Lebanon following the tensions in the region ignited by the attacks by Hizballah and Syrian-backed forces.
In October 2006, Moratinos gave the US Embassy a written briefing about his renewed meetings with Assad. The foreign minister said that he got the impression that Assad was open to dialogue.
“My perception is that Assad has changed, not only in his general attitude or even body language, but also in the way he reacted to my questions and proposals,” Moratinos told the ambassador. “He confirmed his willingness to work efficiently and constructively towards regaining the trust of the international community. Without using the traditional Syrian rhetoric, he was clear and to-the-point. I saw him focused and aware of the need to seize the opportunity. He believes that it would be possible to reopen the Syria track where it was left before his father passed away.”
The Spanish minister said he also requested Assad’s help in helping win the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been captured during a cross-border raid by Gaza militants in June 2006.
“I insisted that a positive Syrian role in the Palestinian issues (kidnapped Israeli soldier and negotiations for a new Government) would be the best way to prove that Syria is part of the solution and no longer part of the problem. I think my point was well taken.”
Shalit wasn’t released until October 2011 in a prisoner swap.
The United States viewed Moratinos’ efforts in a positive light. “Moratinos has long sought to make Spain a more relevant player in the Middle East Peace Process, due in large part to his long-standing engagement in the region – as well as his desire to normalize relations with Syria,” the ambassador said in an October 18, 2006 cable.
“Moratinos’ visit is likely intended to send a signal to other EU governments that they should not shy away from direct contact with Syrian leaders, nor from travel to Damascus. At the same time, Moratinos’ approach on the Israeli prisoner may be a way for him to demonstrate his value to both sides.”