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Former U.S. Envoy Sees ‘Positive Results’ in Syrian Ties; Urges U.S. to Pursue Israel-Palestinian Accord After Iraq

Interviewee: Edward P. Djerejian
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 22, 2003

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Edward P. Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, says that despite the recent harsh words from Washington, he sees the likelihood of “positive results” flowing from U.S.-Syrian relations in the aftermath of the Iraq war. Djerejian, who also was assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs in the first Bush presidency, said it was crucial for Washington to pressure Israel and Palestinians to reach an accord— not only to make progress toward a Middle East peace but also to enhance U.S. interests in the area.

Djerejian, the director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on April 22, 2003.

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How do you see U.S. relations with Syria in the wake of the recent verbal attacks by the Bush administration, and some recent steps taken by Syria to ease tensions?

What we saw in the last couple of weeks was the emergence of two new issues on the U.S.-Syrian agenda. Both resulted from the war in Iraq. One was the passage of people across the Syrian border in both directions— volunteers going into Iraq to help the Iraqi people during the war and Iraqi Baathist [Party] officials and personalities reportedly seeking safe haven in Syria.

The second category was the report of military equipment crossing from Syria into Iraq. Secretary of Defense [Donald] Rumsfeld’s statements that the borders between Iraq and Syria and Iran should be controlled led to a flurry of speculation about whether or not Syria would be next on the military target list of the United States.

But what has happened in the interim is that the United States has engaged directly with the Syrians, and the Syrians have taken the decision to close the border to Iraqis who do not have visas. And secondly, they have denied reports that weapons of mass destruction from Iraq were secretly moved into Syria, and I note that General [Richard B.] Myers, [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], in a press conference with Secretary Rumsfeld, stated that the United States doesn’t have any evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction being exported to third countries. That’s still an issue, but that seems not to be a primary issue, certainly at this stage.

So these were the two new issues. Then when you look at the other issues that have been raised [recently]--Syria giving safe haven to Palestinian terrorist organizations, such as the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine], PFLP-GC [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command], Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and its continuing support for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon— they have been on the docket for many years.

As has Syria’s possession of chemical weapons, right?

Yes, chemical weapons have been on the docket for many years. These issues are continuing subjects of discussion between the two governments. We here at the Baker Institute initiated a U.S.-Syria dialogue between the two countries, with full cognizance and support of the U.S. government and the Syrian government, in which we also delved into all of these issues, including terrorism. These are the issues that continue to be addressed.

Secretary of State Colin Powell seems to be making plans to go to Syria fairly soon.

Secretary Powell has stated publicly that he intends to visit Damascus on an upcoming future trip to the region. I think what we’re going to see is a period of intense diplomatic exchanges. People talk about assertive diplomacy or muscular diplomacy. In my own experience, when I was ambassador to Syria under both President [Ronald] Reagan and President [George H.W.] Bush , between 1988 and 1991, we engaged in candid and direct diplomatic exchanges with [then-President of Syria] Hafez Assad. And the agenda was equally difficult. For example, the issues on the table were ending the civil war in Lebanon, freeing U.S. hostages from Beirut, freedom of travel for Syrian Jews, getting Syria on board the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam’s [1990] invasion of Kuwait, and getting Syria to agree to direct negotiations with Israel, just to name a few.

Is there is a prospect for Syria being more cooperative with the U.S.?

Yes, because our experience during those years was that we made progress on all of those issues, such as ending the civil war in Lebanon and the release of hostages. We got Syria to join the U.S.-led coalition in Desert Storm both politically and militarily, and we got freedom of travel for Syrian Jews, and lastly and probably very importantly, we got President Hafez Assad to agree to direct face-to-face negotiations with Israel, which opened the door to what became the [U.S.-sponsored] Madrid peace conference [on the Arab-Israeli conflict, held in 1991].

What I’m saying here is that there is a paradigm in which Syria’s engagement, and political will at the very top on both sides, can lead to positive results. And I hope that’s what will happen in the aftermath of the war in Iraq and our new engagement with Syria, because we have very important issues to deal with. And let’s not forget that without Syria, there will be no comprehensive settlement on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

There are tense discussions going on within the Palestinian leadership on the formation of a new government under the nominated prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas. Let’s presume there is a new government, and that leads to the publication of the so-called road map, setting forth guidelines for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement over the next several years. Do you think this will actually be translated into action, and how strong a role must the United States play in this?

First, the Palestinians must resolve their inner political differences on the composition of the cabinet, and that’s really the differences between [Palestinian leader] Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen. But that should be done, it’s abundantly in the Palestinians’ interests to come up with a coherent and effective government under Mahmoud Abbas’ premiership, because that is the key to the United States and the [other members of the so-called] quartet [the United Nations, European Union, and Russia] publishing the roadmap and moving forward.

Secondly, the U.S. role is critical. The U.S., within the quartet, is the major catalyst for moving this negotiation forward. The president has taken a very clear stand, Secretary Powell has been really working very hard to get the parties to the point [at which] the roadmap can be addressed effectively. It’s not going to happen, in my view, unless the United States does take a very leading role and be the honest broker between [Israeli Prime Minster Ariel] Sharon’s government, and the new government of Abbas.

Is it realistic for the U.S. to take a leading role? Everyone seems to think that will require the U.S. being tough on the Israeli government, but we’re coming into another presidential season, when U.S. politicians would presumably want to avoid the risk of upsetting Jewish voters.

The electoral cycle is pointed to as inhibiting a strong U.S. role, but I think if you look at the overall U.S. strategic interest in the region as a whole, we have very effectively toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, thereby changing the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East once again, as we did in Desert Storm, and previously with the fall of the Soviet Union. All of that gave us, during my time in government, an ability to move dynamically forward on the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, and Madrid was a clear example of that. I think President George W. Bush has an equal opportunity now to do something significant.

We must not forget that, whether we agree with it or not, the Arabs and the Muslims look at U.S. policy and at America largely through the lens of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian issue. Therefore, when we are seen as actually leading that process forward, it serves U.S. interests in the region as a whole. It serves the interests of all the parties to move peace forward.

How difficult will it be to form a unified Iraq?

The greatest challenge the United States has now is to help facilitate the formation of a political structure and government in Baghdad that gives each of the major parties an effective voice in governance. That is to say that the Kurds, the Shiia, the Sunnis, and then of course there are the Assyrians, the Chaldeans, the Turkomen— they all have to know that they will have effective power-sharing in a government in Iraq.

In 1991, I was assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs and met with the Iraqi opposition, including people like [Jalal] Talabani [of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] and [Massoud] Barzani [of the Kurdistan Democratic Party], the Kurdish leaders. They told me very directly that while a Kurdish homeland was always in their hearts, they knew that it would be a very risky thing to try to establish a homeland because the Turks would see their national security interests threatened, as would the Syrians and the Iranians, who all share borders with Kurdish populations. So they said, if we had a state and a government in Baghdad, in which we really had effective power-sharing, politically, economically, and culturally, we would opt for that. This is the challenge. Whether we can do that or not, or whether it will be done or not, is a major question.

In the Ottoman Empire, Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra were each a kind of capital, representing the foci of the major ethnic groups. Is that possible in a federal state?

It is. Some scholars have said that the best paradigm is to go back to the Ottoman Empire, in terms of recognizing the demographic forces at play in Iraq, but I think what is needed is not a sectarian division but a geographic division along federal lines, in which the government in Baghdad gives these parties a very effective voice.

Are the Shiites willing to cooperate in such a venture? Or would they prefer an Islamic state?

It’s too early to tell, but one thing that is of great concern to me is that when you look at the Arab countries, most of these countries are led by autocratic regimes of one sort or another. At one extreme are what could be called the “Liberalized Autocracies” and at the other extreme are the smaller, actively organized political Islamist groups and parties in the Arab world. In between, there is very little civil society, rule of law, and very little effective political party activity.

So when an autocratic [leader] goes, there’s not an immediate and automatic recourse to political parties, civil society, and the rule of law. And the thing to be avoided, I believe very strongly, is that political Islamist extremists come to power. That is not the solution we would seek after having toppled this secular dictatorship in Baghdad.

Does the U.S. have the patience to stick it out in Iraq? The study done by the Baker Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations said it’s probably likely the U.S. would have to stay in Iraq for at least two years. Yet there are now reports that some in the U.S. government want to get out much faster.

What we’ve stated in our report is that we should have no illusions; that it’s going to take at least two to three months of a very strong military presence in Iraq to re-establish law and order, get humanitarian assistance going, get the water going, the electricity going, in other words establish the secure premise upon which reconstruction can take place both physically in the country and in terms of political evolution. But there should be a performance-based phase-out of the U.S. military presence. Let’s establish law and order. Let’s get the reconstruction progress going forward as quickly as possible, and turn it over to an emerging Iraqi leadership, mostly from within and those from without who have credibility inside, and allow them to run their country. The longer we stay, the more we will be identified as being occupiers and not liberators. It’s a tough call to make, and you can’t predict at what date on the calendar that call should be made.

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