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Landis: Damascus Rife With Rumors on Whether UNís Lebanese Investigation Implicates Syrian Leadership

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Author: Joshua Landis, codirector, Center of Peace Studies, University of Oklahoma
September 21, 2005

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Joshua M. Landis, a Syrian specialist on a Fulbright fellowship in Damascus, says the ongoing UN investigation led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis into the possible involvement of the Syrian government in the assassination last February of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Harriri, has produced “great speculation” in Damascus on whether the top leadership of the Syrian government will become embroiled.

Noting that the United States is bringing great pressure on Syria to do more to stop infiltration of insurgents into Iraq, Landis said there is no real dialogue going on now between the two countries. He says, “People here feel there is nothing they can do to satisfy Washington—that Washington, constitutionally, is anti-dialogue with Syria.” He adds that the question everyone is asking is, “Are there some terms that they could actually offer the United States” to satisfy Washington?

Landis, who is an assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and who publishes a blog called Syria Comment, was interviewed by phone from Damascus by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org.

On Monday in New York, there was a meeting with Secretary-General Kofi Annan and a group of Western and Arab leaders involved with the situation in Lebanon, in which Syria has been accused of having a role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harriri. After the meeting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “We’re interested in only the following with Syria: First of all, that there be full and complete cooperation with the Mehlis [UN] investigation and that the truth be found—whatever that truth is.” And of course, the special UN investigator Detlev Mehli has apparently arrived in Syria today, so what’s apt to happen? Is he going to have a real investigation in Syria?

Yes, I think he is. He’s scheduled talks with some people that are high up in the government, including Ghazi Kanaan, the interior minister, and with the person who was the head of intelligence in Lebanon [Rustom Ghazali]. He has a slate of some very important people that he’s going to talk to, and that’s just the beginning. He’s going to ask for more. He has forty more days to do his investigation.

So the big speculation in town is where this is all going to lead, and obviously, it’s going to lead to the Syrian government. How far up the line is he going to go? One question is, Will the president [Bashar Assad] be implicated somehow? Will Mehlis implicate someone in the president’s family, like Assef Shawkat, who is the brother-in-law of the president, or even Maher Assad, the president’s brother and the head of the presidential guard? If it was somebody in the immediate family, this would be a real crisis, because obviously the president could not sacrifice somebody like that. That’s the kind of talk that goes around Damascus. If it’s not somebody in the immediate family, then maybe that person could be sacrificed. The foreign diplomats here believe there’s not going to be complete conclusiveness in the end—that [opinion is] just based on other investigations in the past—and that this is going to leave the door open for wrangling.

Under what legal obligation do Syrian officials have to speak to Mehlis? Can’t they just take the equivalent of the U.S. Fifth Amendment, which protects witnesses from having to testify to anything that will incriminate him/herself?

Yes, I suppose they can just say, “We don’t do this; this is our sovereignty.” If an international court came to the United States, I’m sure the United States would do something similar. Many governments do not like to have international courts coming into their sovereignty. On the other hand, Syria wants to go along with the process. The Syrians have maintained they are innocent from the beginning and that the assassination of Rafik Hariri was not devised by them. In a sense, they need to come clean. Also, they do not want to be completely isolated. Clearly, America is going to put pressure on them. Since Syria was the major Arab country opposed to America’s involvement in Iraq, relations have gone from bad to worse.

Bashar [Assad] is not with the Americans; he stood against them. He said it was a big mistake for Americans to invade Iraq and he compares it with the Balfour Declaration [The Balfour Declaration, issued by the British foreign secretary during World War I, offered Jews a homeland in Palestine], with the design of taking over a chunk of land in the Middle East. He believes that to have a foreign power take a big chunk of the Middle East was something Arabs could not stand by.

So now the U.S. is pressing Bashar to stop the foreign insurgents from going into Iraq. And Syria officially says they’ve done all they can, but no one believes them in the United States.

Syria has done the easy things: It has put several thousand troops on the 350-mile border with Iraq; it has built this big sand dune so that vehicles cannot cross the border, but people are smuggled in. And Syria does not have any night-vision goggles or night equipment; it has asked the United States for them. There are of course, no American guards on the other side of the border or Iraqi guards along the 350 miles. So Syrians are doing the complete job of guarding this border. And America wants them to do it and doesn’t want to pay them for it. They want them to do it for free, as part of their duty as an international player.

What I think is more important is the issue of visas. The United States wants Syria, in effect, to establish a homeland security department. Syria is now the one Arab state allows every Arab into its country without a visa. They show their passport at the border and they can come in. There are 5 million Arab tourists a year to Syria.

Of course, if the Syrians really wanted to, they could crack down inside Syria on the people running the insurgent program, right?

This is what America wants. The major way to do that is by seeing who the people are who are coming in here, because Syria says it doesn’t know. There are five million Arabs coming to this country every year. Syria doesn’t know who they are. The United States wants the Syrians to do what America does to the Arabs coming in to the United States—do backgrounds, get the mother and father, and post this information back to Saudi Arabia, because we believe about 80 percent of these mujahadeen are coming from the Gulf. If you could get the information back to Saudi Arabia and get good coordination with the Americans and Saudis and so forth, then you could find out if these mujahadeens are bad guys or businessmen or whatever they are. Theoretically, Saudi Arabia could issue some kind of exit visas, because Syria gives exit visas. And that way the Saudis would know who is leaving their country and they could do a background check and share it with the Syrians.

The question about how people are getting through Syria is one of the toughest to answer. America says that there are training camps. The Syrians deny this. We really don’t know the truth of this, but the United States has not put anybody on TV from the Iraqi side to say, “Yes, that is the truth.” We really don’t have the evidence on that. It is easy, on the other hand, to sneak into Iraq. If I wanted to get into Iraq, I could do it. I know many people from Arab tribes, who are here in Damascus, who make their living by smuggling. And the tribes here really see themselves as Iraqis in many ways. A major tribal district is in Ramadi; the big tribes in the east, like the Shammar and Agebap, are really Iraqi tribes. The center of these tribes is in Iraq, but they’ve washed over the Syrian border into Syria.

And those people really feel Iraqi—they speak the same dialect, they have the same customs, and so forth, and they feel connected to Saddam Hussein. In 1991, when Syria sided with George H.W. Bush against Iraq, there was a little intifada in Abu Kamal, which is the major city along the border. And the people went out on the streets and demonstrated saying, “Long live Saddam Hussein; long live Iraq.” The Syrian army sent out some divisions out there and arrested a whole bunch of people for doing this. This was the situation in 1991, and I’ve asked many people who I’ve met from Abu Kamal if the people are sending fighters to help [the insurgency] and they say, “Of course we are, because these are our people, these are our tribes, and they’re being killed.”

Let’s go to a question you discussed in your op-ed in the New York Times last week: How to develop a relationship that’s satisfactory to both Syria and the United States? What should the United States do that it’s not doing now?

There’s a big clash. The Syrians feel America should not be in Iraq and that they’ve been pushed out of Lebanon—the government of course feels like it lost a big asset being pushed out. And of course, you can see the result of that today. The Lebanese have turned very anti-Syrian and they’re helping with the Mehlis report. The Christians in Lebanon are talking about how Israel would be a much better partner than Syria and that they should make peace with Israel, run their commerce through Israel and into Jordan, and then sell all their all trans-Arab trade to the Gulf through Israel.

It’s hard to imagine Hezbollah and the other Muslim groups would allow that.

Hezbollah is the major roadblock. And here we have Resolution 1559 that aims to disarm Hezbollah and make the Lebanese army the only force in the land. And if that were accomplished, then what would keep Lebanon from signing a deal with Israel?

Israel and Lebanon were ready to sign a peace treaty in 1983 after the 1982 Israeli invasion, which Syria blocked Beirut from signing?

Yes, they were about to sign in 1983. The Christians that were pushing for that then are still pushing now. That’s something that could happen. The Lebanese have said that they won’t go off and sign an independent deal without Syria and a resolution of the Golan Heights issue with Israel, but they could change their tune.

Syria has nothing going on with Israel right now, right?

Nothing. Syria is totally isolated. Bashar Assad had visits lined up to go to Austria and to go to Brazil, but both of those were stopped several months ago because of U.S. pressure on those two countries to not greet him. The Turkish Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip Erdogan] was supposed to come here a few months ago and he ultimately had to apologize and not come, but all the papers were saying it was because of U.S. pressure. The Europeans are not opening their doors to the Syrians.

How does Syria get out of this?

I don’t think they can get out of this in the short term. What I think America wants to do is get Syria by the throat; they have to wait for the Mehlis report to be thoroughly investigated and for the court case to begin. I think the United States will try and get European partners to do what they did in Libya, which is direct sanctions not against the people—they won’t turn him into Saddam Hussein or Arafat. What they’ll do is they’ll turn him into [Libyan leader Muammar] el-Qaddafi. Instead of putting sanctions against the people, they’ll stop all international flights—I think this is what they’re moving towards—and pull all the European ambassadors so there really isn’t anyone for Bashar to talk to.

I think they’re going to try and get him by the throat and shake him really hard and see what kind of change falls out of his pocket. Pressure has worked so far; they’ve gotten Syria to withdraw all their forces from Lebanon. That’s a major achievement. They’ve gotten Syria to work with the United States, or at least to not make trouble in Palestine. The whole [Israeli] Gaza withdrawal went very smoothly and there weren’t any attacks by any of the extremist groups. And that’s because Bashar met with all the Palestinian [Authority] leaders and he backed them. He said, “You have my blessings.”

Bashar asked them not to cause trouble in Gaza?

Yes. He met with [Palestinian Authority President] Abu Mazen and [Prime Minister Ahmed] Qurei and brought the heads of the local, more extreme groups, like Islamic Jihad and so forth that have representatives in Damascus, all together in a room and he made an understanding between them in order to show that he was willing to work with them. Of course, he has not kicked those people out of Damascus, which is something that America wants him to do. For Americans, that’s provocation. But he could use his power there further down the line if there are withdrawals in the West Bank; all that could be reactivated.

From the outside, you wonder why Bashar doesn’t make a bigger effort to really improve relations with the United States instead of antagonizing Washington.

I think he thinks he is. He’s maintained that he wants dialogue; he’s maintained that he wants peace with Israel; he’s pulled out of Lebanon; he’s said that he will go along with policing. I think he feels he is making these concessions. Now of course, the dialogue has not always been warm. But the people here feel there is nothing they can do to satisfy Washington—that Washington, constitutionally, is anti-dialogue with Syria. And this is the question that everybody is debating: Are there some terms that they could actually offer the United States that would be the equivalent to Qaddafi’s?

On the other hand, the Americans have left the door open for bargaining. Because if we look at what Rice is saying—she said about two months ago, “We want to change the regime’s behavior, not change the regime”—those were very important words that we hadn’t heard clearly from the American administration. Rice has taken a very cautious line. She’s given every indication that they don’t necessarily want to change the regime here. And it would be very frightening, I think, for them to contemplate that because they have absolutely zero alternatives. The Americans know almost nothing about Syria and they don’t have any clue what would happen here should the regime collapse.

Has the American ambassador returned to Damascus?

Nobody is expecting the ambassador anytime soon. We’re looking forward to another half year—it could be more than that—of isolation. There is no dialogue.

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