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Indyk: Keep Syria and Iran Out of Negotiations Over Lebanon

Interviewee: Martin S. Indyk, Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 27, 2006

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Martin S. Indyk, an assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs in the Clinton administration, and twice ambassador to Israel, says it would be wrong to invite Iran and Syria, the major backers of Hezbollah, into negotiations to end the current fighting between Hezbollah and Israel.

"The idea that Syria or Iran should become the arbiters of Lebanon's fate is basically to reward the arsonists by giving them control of the place where the fire's burning," says Indyk, who directs the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Indyk says the Rome conference, which ended without an agreement on a ceasefire, nevertheless did achieve "a basic consensus on what elements would be necessary for a ceasefire package to be acceptable for the governments of Israel and Lebanon."

Clearly the meeting in Rome on Wednesday did not achieve a ceasefire even though nobody really expected an immediate halt to the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. Where do you think the various actors have to go from here?

I think what Rome did achieve is a basic consensus on what elements would be necessary for a ceasefire package to be acceptable for the governments of Israel and Lebanon. And those elements, as expressed in the Rome communiqué, were: extension of the Lebanese government's authority throughout Lebanon, which means the dispatch of the Lebanese army to the south backed by an effective international force; and a process for the implementation of UN Resolution 1559, which calls for the disbanding and disarming of all militias in Lebanon. As [UN Secretary General] Kofi Annan put it in the press conference: there can only be one gun and it should be in the hands of the government. I think those are the critical elements for a ceasefire, and the challenge now is to create the circumstances in which it then becomes implemented on the ground.

I think a lot of people have speculated that because of Hezbollah's close ties to both Syria and Iran, it is important to get those two countries involved as active players. Is the United States making a mistake in ignoring them directly?

There's no question Iran and Syria helped to light the fire that is now engulfing Lebanon and northern Israel, and if they want to be part of the solution, they could certainly help to douse the flames. But the question is: What is their price? If we were to ask Syria to help, that would be tantamount to an invitation to Syria to interfere again in Lebanon's affairs. And that would be tantamount to a betrayal of the millions of Lebanese who came out into the streets of Beirut and insisted that Syria stop interfering in Lebanon's affairs, that it takes its troops out of Lebanon. So talking is not the issue. The question is: What is the message to Syria? Is it is a message like [then Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger sent [then Syrian President] Hafez al-Assad in 1976, which was "Please intervene in Lebanon, it's a civil war"? If we invite his son [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] to intervene to stop Hezbollah, then we are essentially handing Lebanon over again to Syrian control. I think that's an unacceptable outcome. So the message, I think, to Syria and to Iran, which can be delivered by Kofi Annan, or Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, or anybody else who wants to take the message is: "Beware. If you don't stop Hezbollah, then don't be surprised if this conflict engulfs you."

Are you suggesting the United States might get involved militarily, or is this a threat from Israel?

I don't think it's a threat. It just should be a warning. The idea that Syria or Iran should become the arbiters of Lebanon's fate is basically to reward the arsonists by giving them control of the place where the fire's burning.

Why do you think Hezbollah actually started this whole round by abducting those soldiers, and thereby triggering this Israeli response?

Well, this is speculation of course, but I think their original intention was to take another ride on the Palestinian cause. Basically what they were doing was kidnapping soldiers so they could demand not only their own prisoners, of which Israel is holding three, they also demand that Palestinian prisoners be released too, showing that they're supporting Hamas, and that they were supporting the cause of getting Palestinian prisoners released. From [Hezbollah leader] Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's reactions and statements since, it's clear that he did not expect this would result in the kind of escalating conflict they are now engaged in. I suspect the Iranians had their own reasons for wanting to create a diversion from their nuclear program on the eve of the G8 Summit. So there was a confluence of interests here. And the Syrians would understand that his could make them players again since they would calculate exactly what's happened: That people would look to Damascus to calm the situation down just as previous American administrations have done every time Hezbollah clashes with Israel.

I was looking at [former Secretary of State] George Shultz's memoirs the other day, and he recalled how President Reagan had sent a note to Hafez al-Assad in 1985 asking him to resolve the TWA hijacking problem, which he did.

Yes, but the context was different. I was involved [in the Clinton administration] with Secretary of State [Warren] Christopher and [Special Middle East envoy] Dennis Ross in several efforts to deal with the situation in Lebanon after Hezbollah launched rockets into Israel. That was in 1994 and again in 1996. And we went to Damascus and got Syria to curb Hezbollah. But the context there was one in which we were engaged in promoting negotiations between Israel and Syria on a peace deal, and Syria had 15,000 troops in Lebanon. And we could go to them and say: If you want us to continue negotiating the peace deal with Israel, you have to stop Hezbollah. The context is very different now. Now, the Syrians have withdrawn their troops from Lebanon, not because of our demands but because of the demands of the Lebanese people. And to ask them now to help solve this problem is to invite them to play a role again in Lebanon, which would be a betrayal of the Lebanese.

In other words, the Syrians would not just simply get in touch with Hezbollah and say, "Stop what you're doing"?

There will be a price, as the Syrians are telling the interlocutors. It's clear that they would be prepared to do that, but there will be a price, and the price will be Lebanon.

You had a long meeting with Bashar Assad in 2004, which left you with the impression that something was possible. You've since changed your mind as a result of the subsequent assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Was Assad just spinning you when you met?

In fact, no. This was just an inexperienced leader who didn't have control of the institutions of his state, and so you say one thing, but other people would do other things, like supporting the insurgency in Iraq, or assassinating the former Lebanese prime minister. But what was clear was whatever he said to me, there was no follow through on any of the things. He said he was going to stop the support for the insurgency, he said he was going to make peace with Israel, and he didn't do any of those things. Instead, I believe the Syrians were directly involved in the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri.

And there's something else that people who think the solution lies in Damascus should bear in mind. The relationship between the son and Hezbollah is different to the relationship that existed between the father and Hezbollah. For Hafez al-Assad, Hezbollah was a tool in his hand to remind Israel that if they didn't negotiate the return of the Golan Heights, he could hurt them in Lebanon. And he used that—it was like a tap that he could turn on and off.

The relationship between Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah is very different. He is dependent on Hezbollah to maintain Syrian influence in Lebanon because he no longer has the troop presence that gave him control of Lebanon. He is dependent on Hezbollah to defend against an Israeli ground attack through Lebanon's Bekaa Valley into Syria. And therefore, his ability to curb Hezbollah is much more limited, if it's there at all.

Did Israel make a mistake in pulling out of Lebanon in 2000?

No. Nor, in my view, did it make a mistake in pulling out of Gaza [in 2005], nor would it be a mistake for it to pull out of the West Bank. The mistake that we can see in retrospect is that when Israel withdraws, it needs to withdraw in favor of a capable, responsible, sovereign government that will exercise control and establish order in the territories from which Israel withdraws. In the case of the withdrawal in 2000 from Lebanon, there was a call by the United Nations for the Lebanese government to extend its authority to southern Lebanon, but it never happened. In the case of the withdrawal from Gaza, it was the hope that Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) would establish his authority in Gaza, but he wasn't capable of doing it. The fact that Israel is now prepared to accept an international force to back the Lebanese army is, I think, a recognition by [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert's government that if the Lebanese government can't do it on its own, it's going to have to have international intervention to back it up to give it that capability.

There is a very modest international force in the Sinai, but that's really more of an observer force, right?

You have an observer force in the Sinai, you have an observer force in the Golan, and you have an observer force in southern Lebanon. Now, observer forces work in the case of the Israeli-Syrian agreement—the disengagement agreement of 1974, which has basically never been violated by Assad—and it works in the Sinai in the case of the Israeli-Egypt peace treaty of 1979. But in those cases you have agreements between capable, responsible governments. In the case of the withdrawal from Lebanon and in the case of the withdrawal from Gaza, there were no agreements. It was unilateral, and on the other side, you didn't have capable and responsible governments who could control the territory. Instead, the vacuum that Israel left when it withdrew was filled by Hezbollah, a terrorist organization, or Hamas, another terrorist organization, or warlords and security chiefs in Gaza.

On another point, how important is international public opinion? Israel has taken a bad beating in the international media because of what critics charge is a disproportionate response to the kidnappings. Is this going to force Israel to accept a ceasefire sooner than it might want to?

As long as Israel's citizens are being barraged by rocket attacks from Lebanon, and Israel's third largest city is under constant attack, no government is going to respond to international censure, and its first responsibility is to defend its citizens. So I don't think that international censure is going to lead it to call off its military operations. What it does do, because Israel has come to understand that it needs to be concerned about international public opinion, is that it is taking measures now, in Lebanon and in Gaza for that matter as well, to make sure there is not a humanitarian disaster. So you've got humanitarian ships and planes, shipments coming in and humanitarian corridors established, and so on.

On the U.S. role, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice finally got involved in this, but it does not seem like a very vigorous diplomacy right now. Do you think the American diplomatic effort should be beefed up somehow?

I think that American diplomacy is very necessary. This crisis will not come to an end without American intervention. I think that the administration was flat-footed in the way that it handled the crisis. It had good reason to want Israel to be able to achieve certain military objectives before it attempted to get a ceasefire. In particular, for a ceasefire to be effective, Israel's ground operations in southern Lebanon need to clear Hezbollah out so the Lebanese army, backed by an international force, can come into the south.

If Israel doesn't achieve that, then it's very hard to see how the Lebanese army and an international force are going to get Hezbollah to move out of the south. So I think the administration was right in its calculations. I think the administration was wrong in the way that it handled the imagery because the Bush administration managed to get itself into the position where it looked like it was in favor of the continuation of a war that was causing immense suffering to a lot of civilians on both sides. Instead of declaring that we weren't going to work for a ceasefire, or we were only going to work for a sustainable ceasefire, and waiting ten days to do anything, the administration should have sent an envoy out to demonstrate its interest in a ceasefire even if it wasn't going to be an immediate ceasefire.

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