Syria and a secret diplomacy (2007-2009)
Between 2007 and 2009, Franco-Lebanese arms dealer and business intermediary Ziad Takieddine was the key figure in the diplomatic process of rapprochement between France and Syria, and was also the go-between who introduced French President Nicolas Sarkozy to his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad.
Go back to summary: The Takieddine files
From January 2008, arms dealer and businessman Ziad Takieddine took on the role of unofficial spokesman for President Nicolas Sarkozy in contacts with the Syrians. In a report on his meeting held with Syrian officials during a visit to Damascus on January 1st 2008, Takieddine wrote that the object of his visit could be "summed up" as intending "to signify to Syrian officials the bitterness of President Sarkozy regarding the failure of successive initiatives begun by France. This bitterness is as strong as the hopes and confidence the President had had in Syria’s credibility." His report makes clear that Takieddine speaks in Sarkozy’s name: "President Sarkozy would like there to be no ambiguity. He absolutely wants a President of the Republic of Lebanon to be elected. He would like to elect [sic] a consensual President chosen by all the Lebanese. He also hopes that this President of the Republic could be a man of stature and a man without animosity towards Syria, who would be approved by the Syrians and their allies." He then commented: "This is the position of France".
In a report dated February 12th 2008, entitled "The Substance", Ziad Takieddine presents the French presidency with a plan to give Syria an image of respectability. He wrote: "The latest statements have created a situation which leads to believe that there is an ambiguity about France’s position, notably through the repeated interventions of the [French] Minister of Foreign Affairs [Bernard Kouchner] which could be subject to interpretations that put in doubt the moves made with Syria". Among the "plans of action" relayed by Takieddine are an "agreement with France, on a proposition by France, for the supply of civil nuclear energy/AREVA" and a Franco-Syrian agreement to "have Hamas enter into the negotiations with Israel".
In a non-dated report which followed the election of Michel Suleiman as president of Lebanon in May 2008, Ziad Takieddine detailed Syria’s diplomatic aims. “Syria would like France, after a long absence, to enter the region through the front door," he wrote. "The confidence of President Assad is total", Takieddine continued, "given the quality, the dynamism and the will of President Sarkozy to assume this role for France. He will find in Syria an effective partner playing its role as a very important actor in the region."
On May 30th 2008, Ziad Takieddine prepared a "confidential" report entitled "Telephone conversation", which summarised a phone discussion between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Syrian counterpart, President Bashar al-Assad. Clearly, Takieddine was either personally present during the conversation, or was closely informed of what was discussed. Takieddine noted: "The French President underlined the will of France to set up projects in various economic areas", notably those of "aviation" and "oil".
President Sarkozy’s chief-of-staff Claude Guéant travelled to Damascus to meet with President Bashar al-Assad on June 15th 2008. The day after, Ziad Takieddine held talks with Syrian foreign affairs minister Walid al-Moallem. In a note addressed to Guéant, dated June 16th, the arms dealer wrote: "Your visit and the meetings held in Damsacus, yesterday, have been very productive and constructive. They constitute an essential step in the Franco-Syrian rapprochement." It continued: "My interlocutor particularly wanted to inform me of their determination to develop bilateral relations between France and Syria, and this in every domain." Takieddine also mentioned the Syrian dictator’s praise for Guéant. "My interlocutor particularly wanted to confirm the excellent impression that Monsieur Claude Guéant continues to give to President Assad, as well as to himself. They consider him as an exceptional man and it is he who will assure relations at a very top level."
On July 7th 2008, one week before President Bashar al-Assad’s ceremonious official visit to Paris, Takieddine travelled to Damascus to meet with the Syrian dictator in person. The message he transmitted was, according to his own notes, to make clear that the invitation to Assad was "on France’s part an attempt to bring Syria back to the Western and democratic ‘cradle’". He underlined that, in return, "the Syrian head of state needs a relationship of personal confidence with the French President". Takieddine noted that the Syrian dictator told him that "in the same way that the French President is concerned about the perception that French public opinion will have of the Syrian President’s visit to France, Arab opinion also watches with much attention what will result from the visit".
Immediately after an official visit to France by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in July 2008, Ziad Takieddine travelled to Damascus the following month to prepare the ground for a visit to Syria by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in September 2008. On his return to Paris, Takieddine wrote a confidential report, dated August 18th, on his meeting with Assad. "President Bachar al-Assad and Monsieur Wallid al-Moallem particularly wanted to transmit a message of thanks and friendship to President Nicolas Sarkozy, and also to Monsieur Claude Guéant, for the welcome and also the atmosphere of confidence in the manner in which the subjects had been approached, which allowed this visit the sparkle that particularly touched President Assad," wrote Takieddine. "President Assad believes that a new page in relations between Syria and France has now been opened," Takieddine continued. "He believes that this involves strong actions from both sides."
On August 28th 2008, just days before Sarkozy’s arrival in Damascus, a senior director of Total sent Ziad Takieddine details the oil group’s plans in Syria. The covering note to Takieddine reads: "As agreed, you will find joined here the document we spoke about yesterday. This confidential document has not been passed to anyone other than yourself, and therefore cannot be distributed." The document underlined that "the visit by the President [of France] to Syria early September should be the occasion to conclude, in the presence of the two presidents, the following agreements". It detailed several contracts and resumed the group’s expectations. "The real issue at stake remains the effective commencement of a concrete cooperation with State companies on one or two identified E&P [exploration and production] projects [...] This point remains to be concretized during a meeting at the highest level between the [Total] Group and the Syrian authorities, before or on the margins of the visit by the PR [President of the French Republic] to Syria."
During President Nicolas Sarkozy’s September 2008 visit to Syria, a number of local energy extraction deals were signed between the two countries, and a framework of agreement for oil exploration and production projects was established, with oil group Total at its heart. On September 6th 2008, two days after Sarkozy’s visit, Ziad Takieddine drew up a report summarising the discussions held in Damascus and the reactions of Syrian dicator Bashar al-Assad. "President Assad is very satisfied to have been able to establish a personal relationship with President Sarkozy," he noted. "President Assad thanks France for its decisive role regarding Syria’s position in the international ‘concert’ [...] President Assad noted well that, in a general manner, the French press, for the first time, adopted a globally very positive tone concerning Syria, its President and the visit to Damascus by President Sarkozy."
On September 12th 2008, just eight days after a trip by President Nicolas Sarkozy to Syria, Ziad Takieddine received a proposition from Hani M. Salaam, chairman and CEO of Lebanon-based company Gulf Regal Corporation proposing that “joint activities with Total, whether done by either of us directly, or through companies that we individually own or control, shall be divided equally on a 50/50 basis between us."
On November 24th 2008, Total CEO Christophe de Margerie wrote to Hani M. Salaam, chairman and CEO of Lebanon-based company Gulf Regal Corporation, beginning with a hand-written "Dear Hani", to propose a wide partnership in activities with Syria. A copy of the letter, written in English, was sent to Ziad Takieddine by a Total official on November 26th 2008.