Former American Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, who currently serves as Vice President and Director for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., attempted to set up a meeting between Syrian President Bashar Assad and former President Bill Clinton, as well as Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban and other senior American officials during the summer of 2009 in Damascus.

Between July and October 2009, Indyk corresponded with Political and Media Advisor to Assad, Bouthaina Shaaban, in order to organize the visit. A series of emails reached Haaretz after the hacker group “Anonymous” broke into the email accounts of 78 of Assad’s associates.

At the end of July 2009, after a visit to Damascus in which he met Shaaban, Indyk wrote to her saying he intended to organize a visit for Bill Clinton to Damascus. It was around that time that President Obama attempted to thaw relations with the Syrian regime, which had been frozen during George W. Bush’s time in the White House.

At the same time, Clinton was used as a non-official envoy for special assignments. For instance, in August 2009 he arrived for a rare visit in North Korea and met with the dictator Kim Jong-Il in order to secure the release of two American journalists who had been jailed there. The White House claimed that Clinton had gone for a “personal visit,” although many at the time estimated that the trip was intended to deliver a message in regards to North Korea’s nuclear program.

During his different positions in the American government over many years, Indyk was always a strong proponent of U.S.-Syria relations, as well as the Syrian role in the Middle East peace process. “It was a real pleasure to meet with you in Damascus,” wrote Indyk to Shaaban. “I'm very glad to see that as a result of your wise counsel relations between our two countries finally seem to be on the mend. As you may know, I am now working as an outside adviser to George Mitchell.”

Indyk wrote to Shaaban in the context of his position at the Washington D.C. based Brookings Institution, where is in charge of the Saban Forum – a yearly conference that American, European, Israeli and Arab officials take part in. In 2009, the conference took place in Jerusalem, and Indyk sought to bring 30 American senior officials to take part in the visit to Damascus on November 15.

“I wanted to explore with you the possibility of bringing this high-level American delegation to Damascus for a meeting with President Assad before we go to Jerusalem,” wrote Indyk to Shaaban, adding that Bill Clinton will be among the delegates which would consist of members of Congress.

“I'm sure you will agree that first hand exposure to the views of President Asad [sic] -- especially before they hear the views of the Israeli leadership -- would do much to enhance their understanding of Syria's approach to strategic issues in the region at a critical moment,” Indyk wrote to Shaaban.

After several hours, Shaaban wrote an email back to Indyk in which she told that she discussed the issue with Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, and that both of them think that a meeting between President Assad and the delegation would be “useful.” Shaaban had likely thought of the political profit Assad would gain from such a meeting. “I am glad to let you know that President Assad also welcomed the idea of receving [sic] President William Clinton and the accompanying delegation…” she wrote to Indyk.

A month later, on August 3, Indyk responded to Shaaban. As opposed to his statement in his first email which said that President Clinton would participate in the delegation, this time he was a little more hesitant. “I am delighted to know that you are amenable to our proposal for a visit to Damascus by the American delegation to the Saban Forum,” he wrote. “The delay in my response was occasioned by the need to check whether President Clinton would be able to travel to Damascus on November 15 to meet with President Asad [sic]. I am still waiting for a response from his staff and will let you know as soon as I have one. The other members of the high-level delegation would be able to come to Damascus at that time if you thought President Asad [sic] would still be willing to meet with them.”

Shaaban responded two days later, clarifying laconically that President Assad would be happy to meet Clinton and the delegation accompanying him. Nevertheless, she hinted that if Clinton could not make it, the delegation members would be resigned to meeting with her and Foreign Minister Muallem.

Three more weeks went by, and on August 30 Indyk wrote to Shaaban once more. “I have finally received an answer: unfortunately, President Clinton will not be able to join the Saban Forum delegation visit to Damascus,” he wrote. “He would very much have liked to make the trip but his schedule makes that impossible.He will only be able to speak at the Saban Forum in Jerusalem on the evening of November 14 and then has to leave to meet a commitment to speak in New York.”

Indyk, who most likely understood that the visit to Damascus would be a problem, wrote to Shaaban that the delegation consists of many high-level officials from the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, such as Senator John Kerry, who is friendly with Assad. “I do hope it will be possible for us to make the visit to Damascus,” Indyk wrote.

The moment that Assad’s advisers hears that President Clinton was not coming for a visit, their enthusiasm decreased dramatically. On September 13, Shaaban wrote to Indyk that the delegation will meet her and Foreign Minister Muallem. Two weeks later, on October 1, Shaaban informed Indyk that not one member of the Syrian leadership will be able to meet the delegation members, due to a full schedule. “I know you can understand the situation,” she wrote.

The following are the original email correspondences between Indyk and Shaaban:

From: b.shaaban@mopa.gov.sy
Sent: Thu 01/10/09 7:23 AMT
To: MINDYK@brookings.edu
Re: American Delegation Visit to Damascus

Dear Martin,

I hope you are enjoying good time.

Further to the American delegation visit to Damascus, I am very sorry to tell you that we have an official commitment that coincidences with the time of the visit of the delegation. Hence, nor Mr. President neither me or Walid will be available in the suggested time.

I know you can understand the situation, and look forward to see you whenever you are in Damascus.

With my warmest wishes,

Bouthaina

----- Original Message -----
From: "Dr. Bouthaina" <bouthaina@bouthainashaaban.com>
To: "Martin Indyk" <MINDYK@brookings.edu>
Sent: Sunday, September 13, 2009 12:31 PM
Re: American Delegation Visit to Damascus

Dear Martin,

Sorry for late reply as I had a technical problem with my website and email..

I would like to thank you for your email. We regret that President Clinton will not be able to join the Saban Forum Delegation to Damascus, However it is the pleasure of me and Walid to welcome the delegation and meet with them on November 15.

with my best wishes,
Bouthaina

----- Original Message -----
From: "Martin Indyk" <MINDYK@brookings.edu>
To: <bouthaina@bouthainashaaban.com>
Sent: Sunday, August 30, 2009 2:26 PM
RE: American Delegation Visit to Damascus

Dear Bouthaina,

I hope you have had a good summer. I am sorry to have taken so long to respond to your last email. I was seeking to get an answer from President Clinton's staff about his availability to travel to Damascus. As you can imagine, he has been busy with a lot of other issues.
I have finally received an answer: unfortunately, President Clinton will not be able to join the Saban Forum delegation visit to Damascus. He would very much have liked to make the trip but his schedule makes that impossible. He will only be able to speak at the Saban Forum in Jerusalem on the evening of November 14 and then has to leave to meet a commitment to speak in New York.

I would still like to bring an important group of influential Americans to Damascus on November 15 for meetings with President Assad and his advisers. I have attached the latest list of confirmed participants. Congressman Howard Berman and Senator Joe Lieberman would lead the group. There is a good chance that Senator Kerry will
join them but I am still awaiting confirmation of that. They will be joined by Congresswoman Nita Lowy (chairperson of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Middle East), Congressman Henry Waxman (chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee) and Congresswoman Jane Harman. You will see from the attached list that the delegation also includes some important journalists, business
people, former government officials, and think tank experts who can do much to advance the cause of U.S.-Syrian understanding.

I do hope it will be possible for us to make the visit to Damascus.

Looking forward to seeing you,

Martin

----- Original Message -----
From: Dr. Bouthaina <bouthaina@bouthainashaaban.com>
To: Martin Indyk
Cc: Dr. Bouthaina <bouthaina@bouthainashaaban.com>
Sent: Wed Aug 05 05:15:31 2009
Re: Saban Forum Delegation Visit to Damascus?

Dear Martin,

Thank you very much for your email. Walid and I would be happy to receive you and the American delegation to the Saban Forum. President Assad would be glad to welcome President Clinton and the accompanying delegation.

I thank you for your effort and look forward to hearing freom you.

Best wishes,

Bouthaina

----- Original Message -----
From: "Martin Indyk" <MINDYK@brookings.edu>
To: "Dr. Bouthaina" <bouthaina@bouthainashaaban.com>
Sent: Monday, August 03, 2009 2:43 PM
RE: Saban Forum Delegation Visit to Damascus?

Dear Bouthaina,

Thank you very much for your prompt response to my email. I am delighted to know that you are amenable to our proposal for a visit to Damascus by the American delegation to the Saban Forum.

The delay in my response was occasioned by the need to check whether President Clinton would be able to travel to Damascus on November 15 to meet with President Asad. I am still waiting for a response from his staff and will let you know as soon as I have one.

The other members of the high-level delegation would be able to come to Damascus at that time if you thought President Asad would still be willing to meet with them.

Thank you also for your kindness in welcoming me to Damascus to discuss all
this. I will make plans and check the dates with you.

Hoping to see you soon,

Martin.

 


From: b.shaaban@mopa.gov.sy
Sent: Thu 30/07/09 8:28 AM
To: Martin Indyk <MINDYK@brookings.edu>

Re: Saban Forum Delegation Visit to Damascus
Dear Martin,

Thank you so much for your email. The pleasure of meeting with you in Damascus was absolutely mine.

I talked to Walid and exchanged views with him regarding the visit of the American delegation to Damascus and we agreed that it would be useful to receive the delegation and to ask for an audience with President Assad. I am glad to let you know that President Assad also welcomed the idea of receving President William Clinton and the accompanying delegation on Sunday November 15th.

Walid and I will have the pleasure of takling to you or hosting you for lunch or dinner at your cinvenience.

Warmest regards,

Bouthaina Shaaban


Quoting Martin Indyk <MINDYK@brookings.edu>:

Dear Butheina,

It was a real pleasure to meet with you in Damascus. I'm very glad to see that as a result of your wise counsel relations between our two countries finally seem to be on the mend.

As you may know, I am now working as an outside adviser to George Mitchell. I have also just been promoted to Vice President for Foreign Policy at Brookings. I will retain responsibility for the Saban Forum, which is one of Brookings' premier programs, addressed by both Presidents Bush and Clinton last year in Washington, as well as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. King Abdullah of Jordan, president Mahmoud Abbas, and Hillary Clinton have addressed earlier Forums.

For this year's Forum we will be taking 30 top American leaders from the political, business, media, and academic sectors to Jerusalem for a dialogue with their counterparts in Israel. I wanted to explore with you the possibility of bringing this high-level American delegation to Damascus for a meeting with President Assad
before we go to Jerusalem.

I have listed below the people who have already committed to participate in this year's Saban Forum, including President Bill Clinton, Congressmen Howard Berman, Nita Lowy, and Henry Waxman, and Senator Joe Lieberman. I'm sure you will agree that first hand exposure to the views of President Asad -- especially before they hear the views of the Israeli leadership -- would do much to enhance their understanding of Syria's approach to strategic issues in the region at a critical moment.

Would it be possible for the delegation to visit Damascus for a meeting with President Asad and perhaps separate briefings by Foreign Minister Mouallem and yourself on Friday, November 13, 2009 or Sunday, November 15, 2009?
If you and Walid think this is an idea worth exploring, I would be happy to make an early trip to Damascus to discuss it with you.

With very best wishes,
Martin Indyk

SABAN FORUM 2009
Confirmed Participants
(as at July 27, 2009)
>
> Alan Batkin, Vice Chairman, Eton Park Capital Management; Chairman
> Executive Committee, The Brookings Institution
>
> Samuel Berger, Co-Chairman and Founder, Stonebridge International,
> LLC; former National Security Advisor.
>
> R. Nicholas Burns, Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and
> International Politics, John F. Kennedy School of Government,
> Harvard University; former Under Secretary of State for Political
> Affairs.
>
> Howard Berman, United States House of Representatives (CA-28);
> Chairman, House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
>
> Daniel Byman, Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy at
> Brookings; Director, Center for Peace and Security Studies,
> Georgetown University.
>
> William J. Clinton, 42nd President of the United States.
> Eliot Cohen, Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies and
> Director of Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies, Paul H.
> Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins
> University.
>
> Albert Engelberg, Trustee, The Engelberg Foundation and The
> Brookings Institution.
>
> Franklin Foer, Editor, The New Republic.
>
> John Hannah, Senior Fellow, The Washington Institute for Near East
> Policy; former National Security Advisor to Vice President Dick
> Cheney.
>
> Jane Harman, United States House of Representatives (CA-36).
>
> Sidney Harman, Founder and Chairman Emeritus, Harman International
> Industries, Inc.
>
> David Ignatius, Columnist, The Washington Post.
>
> Martin Indyk, Vice President for Foreign Policy, The Brookings
> Institution; former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East
> Affairs and Ambassador to Israel.
>
> Zalmay Khalilzad, Counselor, Center for Strategic & International
> Studies; former U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
> and former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan.
>
> Joseph Lieberman, United States Senate (I-Connecticut)
>
> Nita Lowey, United States House of Representatives (NY-18).
>
> Suzanne Maloney, Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy
> at Brookings; former Member of the State Department Policy Planning
> Staff.
>
> Kenneth Pollack, Director, Saban Center for Middle East Policy at
> Brookings; former Director for Near East and South Asia, National
> Security Council.
>
> Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy at
> Brookings; former Senior Director for Near East and South Asia,
> National Security Council.
>
> Carla Robbins, Deputy Editor, The New York Times.
>
> Cheryl Saban, Executive Director, 50 Ways to Save Our Children.
> Haim Saban, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Saban Capital
> Group; Chairman International Advisory Board, Saban Center for
> Middle East Policy at Brookings.
>
> Strobe Talbott, President, The Brookings Institution; former Deputy
> Secretary of State.
>
> Shibley Telhami, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle
> East Policy at Brookings; Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and
> Development, University of Maryland.
>
> George Tenet, Managing Director, Allen & Company; former Director of
> Central Intelligence.
>
> Andrew Tisch, Co-chairman of the Board, Loews Corporation; Trustee,
> The Brookings Institution
>
> Henry Waxman, United States House of Representatives (CA-30);
> Chairman, House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
>
> Tamara Cofman Wittes, Director of the Project on Middle East
> Democracy and Development and Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle
> East Policy at Brookings.
>
> Leon Wieseltier, Literary Editor, The New Repuplic
>

Read this article in Hebrew