Host: Meeting in Brussels, Belgium, President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac issued a joint statement calling on Syria to remove its fourteen thousand troops from Lebanon. In the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, the pressure on Syria is growing. Tens of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets of Beirut, blaming Syria for Hariri’s death and demanding a Syrian troop withdrawal. The United States has not officially accused Syria of being behind the Hariri murder but has recalled its ambassador in Damascus. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a U-S Senate hearing that, quote “We have an increasing list of problems with Syria.” What are those problems, and how should the U-S address them? I’ll ask my guests: Farid Ghadry, president of the Reform Party of Syria; Tony Haddad, president of the Lebanese American Council for Democracy; and James Robbins, professor of International Relations at the National Defense University. Welcome and thanks for joining us today.
Host: Farid Ghadry, Condoleezza Rice at the Senate hearing talked about a “growing list of problems” with Syria. Now she didn’t elaborate on exactly what was on that list. What’s your sense of the preeminent items on that list?
Ghadry: Well, there are many problems with Syria, if you remember this whole thing started when the United States went in to Iraq. Prior to that Syria was not mentioned, Syria was on nobody’s radar screen. As a matter of fact it wasn’t even in the “Axis of Evil” speech, the famous speech that the president did. So, in reality, Syria started all this by helping the insurgency and supporting the insurgents in Iraq. As a result of that the United States requested from Syria several issues. They talked about several demands, support for terrorism, the insurgency, taming Hezbollah, and on and on. And we have seen in the past that Syria has not, as a matter of fact they’ve lifted a little bit the decibel in terms of dealing with these issues and they have not complied with those demands.
Host: Tony Haddad, what items do you see on the list?
Haddad: Well, I see the three main items which are: stop support of terrorism, stop the insurgency definitely in Iraq because Syria has a lot to do with it as Farid said, and get out of Lebanon. Lebanon’s been an issue that’s been on our agenda for the last thirty years. Syria’s been occupying Lebanon and they have been using Lebanon as a hot bed for their terrorist activities. I mean, as a country they don’t have to be responsible for it, but yet they are the one doing it. So, getting out of Lebanon — and as we saw what the President said yesterday, really he was very clear about it. Syria must end its occupation of Lebanon. The Syrian regime has always had Lebanon as a card in their hands. I mean they have Hezbollah and they say, “Okay, we’ll stop Hezbollah for you but just keep us in Lebanon.” Meanwhile they’re using Lebanon like a mafia. They’re running it like a mafia would run a city. Where, if you had a company that, and that’s the reason they don’t want to go out because it’s too valuable for them to leave Lebanon and they feel that if they leave Lebanon the regime might not survive. So that’s why they’re just doing everything they can, including assassination and killing whoever they need to kill so they can stay.
Host: Jim Robbins, how important is the Syrian issue in the overall war on terrorism from the U-S point of view?
Robbins: The Syrian issue is very important, Syria has leant the United States some intelligence support in the war on terrorism, however it hasn’t been very extensive. Now the main role for Syria is as a transit point for personnel, money and other things going into Iraq to be used against coalition forces. The Syrians have been asked to address this issue in terms of better border security, taking other measures to cut off this pipeline, but they haven’t really done it. And the administration is taking a very serious view toward continued Syrian support for the so-called insurgency inside Iraq.
Host: Farid Ghadry, what relationship does the Hariri assassination have to do with the issue of the support of insurgents in Iraq?
Ghadry: Well, it’s part of an overall strategy by the Syrians to destabilize the region. The Syrians are very nervous about a democratic Iraq, so in order for them to turn the eyes away from Iraq itself, what they’re trying to do is destabilize. So they’re destabilizing Iraq. They’re destabilizing Lebanon now with the killing of Hariri, which is a huge miscalculation on their part. And so, what they’re trying to do is show the world that whatever the United States did in Iraq, or trying to bring democracy to the Middle East is not working. But the cunning part of it is that they’re doing it all behind the scenes. They always have proxies. They always have other people doing it for them. In the instance of Hariri, we know that the pro-Syrian Lebanese intelligence may have been involved in bombing other countries and bombing other places, they use proxy people. They use other people, they use Hezbollah and so forth, but now it has come back to haunt them because I think the people, at least the United States has realized that Syria is not on the right side of history here. And we believe that the United States is not going to be very tough with Syria going forward.
Host: Tony Haddad, Syrian officials say however, “We didn’t have anything to do with the killing of Mr. Hariri, it’s not in our interest, we regret that any such thing had happened.” Why do people in Lebanon blame Syria for Hariri’s death?
Haddad: Well, here’s the thing, Eric. In 1982, there was an elected president, Bashir Gemayel. He was killed. In 1989, Sheikh Mufti Hassan Khaled, who was a Sunni Grand Mufti in Lebanon was killed. President Rene Moawad, seventeen days after he was elected, he was killed and Hariri was killed. And the thing in common between all of those, is that they were all blown away, that’s one thing. And the other thing is they were all blown away after they turned on the Syrians and said, “You must get out.” And Syria knows that these were the guys who were bringing Lebanon together between the Christians and the Muslims. You know, the Syrians play a game in Lebanon where they don’t want the Christians and Muslims to be together. If you’re a leader, they want you to be a Sunni leader, a Shiite leader, they don’t want you to be a Lebanese leader. Anytime there’s a threat that you might be a leader that’s going to bring all of Lebanon together toward democracy, toward the West, that leader will be blown away. So, I mean, the common denominator with all of these guys are they all turned on the Syrians. And now we all know that Mr. Hariri was working and we knew it before, but now it’s coming out in the open that he was working on openly getting the Syrians out of Lebanon. And they just could not take that. And of course they’re going to say, “We did not do it.” I mean, did you expect them to say: “Oh yes, we did it because he didn’t listen to us”? But that’s exactly what happened. I mean, they told him, “You can’t publicly be against us.” And the guy started talking to his friends, which he has very powerful friends around the world: [Jacques] Chirac, people here in the United States, Iranians even, and it got to them. And they saw that the tide is going to turn against them with Hariri turning. Now they’re going to have the Sunni, the Jews the Christians and the Shiites all coming and saying that we want Syria out. They did not want that to happen.
Host: Jim Robbins, Tony Haddad brings up this issue of dividing the Lebanese population to keep them conquered, if you will. And yet in the protests, the tens of thousands of people taking to the streets in Lebanon we saw people who were marching holding in one hand a Koran and in the other hand a cross, demonstrating a unity there. In Mr. Hariri’s death, is there a unity there that will persist and make a difference?
Robbins: Well I would think so. The Syrians, assuming that they were behind this, have utterly failed in any attempt to divide people. They’ve brought everybody together, which was a development that was happening before this, but now they’ve accelerated it. They’ve kind of elevated Walid Jumblatt, the Druse leader to kind of a leadership position right now. And the thing that will keep this going is the fact that in a few months Lebanon will have elections. Now these elections cannot be viewed as free and fair in the way other elections in the region recently have aspired to, because they’re basically going to be controlled by the Syrians, but it has given the opposition something to rally around, particularly after what has gone on in Iraq, particularly also what’s going on in the Palestinian area, and in say, Ukraine, where people power has given people more influence over their government. And President Bush has taken this as a milepost. For Syria to withdraw its troops by that election, in order to guarantee that they’re free and fair. So, this is going to be the thing that’s going to keep this movement alive, at least for the next few months, and we’ll see what happens.
Host: Tony Haddad.
Haddad: The elections are very important in Lebanon. You cannot have elections while the Syrians are still an occupying force in Lebanon. Even if they withdraw some of the armies, I mean they still have their intelligence there. They have to withdraw completely so that we can say it’s free and fair. And I think the president was clear on that, he said: “Syria must withdraw and we must have free and fair elections.” To have free and fair elections in Lebanon, you shouldn’t have Syrians in there or their intelligence.
Host: Well Farid Ghadry, what do you think the prospects for that are? Bashar al-Assad has made some noises to the head of the Arab League, “Well, we’ll now think about removing troops.” Is that serious or is that just an effort to keep criticism at bay?
Ghadry: Well, he’s done this and he’s said that before. I’ll believe it when I see it. I want to bring back the issue of unity in Lebanon because that’s an important issue. We’ve been seeing a trend in the Middle East recently toward taking away that romanticization of the struggle of pan-Arabism. And I think the unity in Lebanon that we have all seen on t-v is going to accelerate that process, because Arab people are for once, and it’s really affecting them, they’re seeing that there are Christians and Muslims coming together with such passion. It’s really changing the face of the Middle East. So, I truly believe that Lebanon is going to be more than just unity amongst people. It’s going to even unite all the Arab countries together and it’s going to help bring democracy and freedom to the other nations, because of the way it has shown it can take the responsibility and the Lebanese people can take that responsibility together and hold it together. On the issue of Bashar al-Assad, I find it very strange that he used Amr Mousa to say that he’s going out of Lebanon. If he’s really serious about going out of Lebanon and he really means it, why doesn’t he come out and say it out loud. You don’t need a messenger to make that statement. So, I’m very doubtful having seen the history and knowing the Baathists, the way they operate internally, that they are serious about getting out of Lebanon. I think the day that they will get out of Lebanon is the day that they feel that the system may collapse onto them, they may implode from within and they’re trying to avoid and delay that day as much as possible. I’m hoping that they will get out of Lebanon because we all, we Syrians, would like to see a vibrant Lebanon, a renaissance of democracy that will be an inspiration for all of us.
Host: Jim Robbins, the U-S in bringing some pressure to bear on Syria to have them remove the troops from Lebanon, recalled the U-S ambassador to Damascus. Is that a strong enough gesture or is it not strong enough in that it’s we’re going to send a symbolic gesture which might suggest that that’s all there is to it.
Robbins: Well, it’s a good start and I think that events since then have shown that the United States, the administration is serious about moving into this, the joint communiqué with France, for example; statements by Secretary Rice that unless Syria begins to reform what it’s doing, that say embargos could follow, financial methods of persuasion and she said, specifically, not taking the military option off the table. So that’s there too. Let me just add that in another statement, Assad said that he was misquoted about withdrawing troops, that he was really talking about redeploying them within Lebanon, but not actually withdrawing them all together. So, I think there’s, you know, clearly the Syrians are digging in a little bit. They don’t want to be forced out. They appear to be accepting a U-N investigation of the Hariri assassination, but unless the pressure’s kept on, they’re not going to budge.
Host: Tony Haddad, what kind of pressure do you think has a hope of working with Syria?
Haddad: You don’t want to ask me that question. I know what kind of pressure he needs done, but let me just elaborate a little bit on why he got back and said, no, he was misquoted. Yesterday Amr Mousa said that they will withdraw according to Taef Agreement. Well, Taef Agreement doesn’t tell them to get out of Lebanon. Taef Agreement says they need to redeploy and then they can sit down with the government. So it was really an empty promise, a slogan that says: “Oh yeah, we will redeploy according to Taef.” Today they said according to Taef. I’ve always said, and I’ve been saying for the last two years, that you need to use a stick along with the carrots. I mean, we tried the carrots with the Syrian regime, it didn’t happen. You need the stick. They need to feel threatened. This is not our last resort, we’re there in Iraq, they really, I mean, I would say they would be responsible for — and I’m not exaggerating — for at least half of the deaths of our troops in Iraq, they’re responsible for it. They clearly said it. Bashar Al-Assad said it personally, when we first went to Iraq, he said, “We’re going to turn Iraq into another Lebanon for you,” meaning we’re going to do to you what we did to the marines in Lebanon. I mean, the guy openly said it in one of the interviews. So, I mean, they clearly wanted to destabilize Iraq so that they will feel safe that they’re not next. What do you have to do, you’ve got to tell them that you’re playing with fire. And if you do, well, send a couple of drones in there and then see what they can do.
Host: Farid Ghadry, have they succeeded through helping to destabilize Iraq, by keeping the U-S plate full with Iraq obligations and making the prospect of trying to pressure militarily Syria, seem less likely?
Ghadry: Well, they’ve hedged their bet that the United States is going to be bogged down in Iraq. And I think their intelligence telling them that the United States does not have the bandwidth nor the Congress to back them on any new adventure or new military action against Syria. And against that backdrop, against that kind of knowledge, they’ve embarked on actually helping the insurgency and they’ve accelerated that process to the point where we get fifty to sixty different actionable or actions today in Iraq, the majority of which, as Tony has said, is Syria-induced, Syria-Baathist-induced. And so, we have to, we have to look at this in the perspective that Syria is really not willing to work with the international community, that the pressures that we need to bear on Syria must be Syria’s. You’ve asked Tony the question: “What can we do to pressure Syria?” And I believe the question is a very good question. I believe that you need to help the dissidents inside Syria. We have the Reform Party along with other parties and democratic organizations can mobilize tens of thousands of people inside Syria. But we need the international cover and we need the U-S support on that. But we also can do more. We can go after the assets of the Baathists themselves, the personal private assets, as Tony has been successful in doing with the Syria accountability act after people in Lebanon who are working with the Baathists.
Host: Where are those assets for the most part?
Ghadry: Well, they’re either in dollars or euros, so it’s not too hard to get to them. I guarantee you they’re not in Syrian liras or in any other currency, or in Togo currency. So, it’s not very hard to get to these assets if the United States and the Europeans work on this issue. The other thing that we can do is actually bring the Hague to bear on these people. The problem with the Baathists of Syria is that they’ve never been accountable to anyone. They’ve always, always have had no person, no transparency, no accountability over them. So, if the United States today says, “Whoever killed Hariri, whoever tried to assassinate Moawad, whoever killed Kamal Joumblatt, whoever killed Gemayel, whoever killed Moawad and the Mufti, are accountable and we’re going to bring them to the Hague, you’re going to see a different Hague.
Host: The Hague being an International Criminal Court for war crimes.
Ghadry: Correct, for war crimes — the same thing as we have done with [Slobodan] Milosevic. I mean, if we put the effort in to actually bring Milosevic in front of the court and accuse him of the atrocities he committed, we certainly can do the same thing to the Baathist Syrians. And I think once the United States announces this kind of initiative, you will see the Baathist behavior start changing.
Host: Jim Robbins, you had a delegation from Syria go to Iran recently, where something of a joint defense pact was announced. What was this agreement and how significant was that?
Robbins: It’s very significant, a disturbing development, I think, from the U-S point of view of a so-called common front between Syria and Iran, which they didn’t specifically say was against anything, and which they didn’t say was specifically military, but which is clearly a common front against coalition forces and what’s going on in Iraq and against the spread of democracy generally. I think that Syria will overplay its hand. If they think that they can continue to do provocative things like this, continue to assassinate people they find inconvenient, and continue to support the insurgency in Iraq, in particular, it is true that they can contribute to the coalition being bogged down, so-called, in Iraq, but it is also true that if they make it too overt, the president of the United States is more than capable of putting together public opinion and a congressional coalition to take care of this. The United States does not look kindly upon other countries sending forces, personnel, material and money to kill Americans in Iraq. If Syria thinks they can just sort of do that without payback at some point down the road, they’re mistaken.
Host: Tony Haddad, what’s your sense of the impact of Syria’s closer relation with Iran?
Haddad: It’s nothing new. I mean, I know right now they just sent their Prime Minister there and then they just announced it. It’s nothing new. Syria’s been in Iran’s bed all these years. I mean, they’ve been getting their money, they’ve been getting the arms, they’ve been funneling arms to Hezbollah from Iran through Syria, the key part is that the Syrian — especially Syria and Lebanon, could unite us with the Europeans. I mean, we’ve said that all along, especially after the Iraq war. The Syria and Lebanon issue, the liberating of Lebanon from Syria, could unite us with the Europeans. The French are on board with this, the Germans are on board with this, everybody that was against us going to Iraq, can be with us going to free Lebanon. I think we should use that to unite us. And Lebanon, if you have a democratic Lebanon, you dealt a big, big blow to terrorism, because Hamas, Hezbollah, all these groups, that are destabilizing the region, that Syria’s really responsible for all of them, are in Lebanon. And if you take care of that, Syria can not fund them from within Syria.
Host: We have about thirty seconds, Farid Ghadry, do you think that the U-S and Europe can join forces on this?
Ghadry: I believe so. I think the Europeans are coming around. I think the visit by George Bush to Europe has been well taken. And I believe that the Europeans will eventually come to the table and say we don’t need these kind of problems from Syria. As a matter of fact, we’re hearing some tumultuous signals coming from Europe that they may not sign the association agreement with Syria. So, we’re hoping that we’ll all come together to fight terrorism in an efficient manner.
Host: Well, I’m afraid that’s going have to be the last word for today, we’re out of time. But I’d like to thank my guests: Farid Ghadry, of the Reform Party of Syria; Tony Haddad, of the Lebanese-American Council for Democracy and James Robbins of the National Defense University. Before we go, I’d like to invite you to send us your questions or comments. You can reach us through our Web site at w-w-w-dot-v-o-a-news-dot-com-slash-ontheline. For On the Line, I’m Eric Felten.