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Lasensky: Syria Clearly Acting As If It Has ‘Something to Hide’

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Scott Lasensky, Senior Research Associate, United States Institute of Peace
December 14, 2005

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Scott Lasensky, a Middle East specialist for the United States Institute of Peace, says pressure is mounting on President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria overthe assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February and the recent killing of a prominent Lebanese editor, Gibran Tueni. "If you listen to [UN investigator Detlev] Mehlis, if you read the press and hear how the Syrians are reacting, there is no other conclusion than the Assad regime is behaving as if it has something to hide."

He says the United States should be careful to continue to work within the UN Security Council on the Syria issue. He also says he is worried about the political situation in Lebanon, which is volatile in the aftermath of the Syrian troop withdrawal earlier in the year. "We see now Lebanese politics becoming very, very tense and there is a lot of concern among Lebanese, not to mention outsiders, that Lebanon could possibly descend again into sectarian violence."

Lasensky, a former fellow at CFR, was interviewed on December 14, 2005 by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org.

There have been two developments regarding Syria in the last couple of days. One was the submission by UN Investigator Detlev Mehlis to the Security Council of his updated report on the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, to which he has linked Syrian officials. And on the same day, a very prominent Lebanese journalist named Gibran Tueni was blown to bits in Beirut. There are big rallies in Lebanon today accusing Syria of being behind the latest assassination, too. What do you think about the future of the leadership in Syria?

The politics are very opaque there. One can certainly speculate that this latest killing in Lebanon came about because Syrian leaders were feeling very bullish and felt that they're on the offensive. Or you could speculate that it was done by a rogue element or even a third party looking to embarrass the Syrians. Rather than speculate, I think that, as a result of fear from the Mehlis investigation and from the changing political environment, it is clear Syria is not off the hook. But, at the same time, I don't think the United Nations has turned up a smoking gun just yet. It's not a slam-dunk case, but if you listen to Mehlis, if you read the press and hear how the Syrians are reacting, there is no other conclusion than the Assad regime is behaving as if it has something to hide.

You mean the reluctance to really allow the investigation to proceed unhampered?

Yes. They clearly have something to hide, not only on the Hariri case, but on a whole lot of other incidents that we know about. Some of this is cleaning up a mess that had been ignored for some time. The international community, including the United States, made a deal with the devil after the first Gulf War and we winked a bit when the Syrians consolidated their hold on Lebanon. This was happening just before the first Gulf War, and now the second Gulf War has proved to be a second bookend. Now you see the international community trying to set things straight and, I think, trying to make good now after leaving Lebanon in the clutches of Syria for well over a decade.

Of course at the time, the Syrians went into Lebanon, as you just indicated, and the world community was pleased with anything that would end that civil war.

That's true. The one thing I think we haven't figured out this time around is that after forcing the Syrian troops out of Lebanon—and it happened very quickly—earlier this year, the international community didn't have a plan for the day after. We see now Lebanese politics becoming very, very tense, and there is a lot of concern among Lebanese, not to mention outsiders, that Lebanon could possibly descend again into sectarian violence. There is a great deal of tension in Lebanon. That's not to argue that the Syrians should have stayed, but the rapidity with which they were chased out earlier this year leaves a lot of things unanswered.

Lebanese politics, which has always been something of a powder keg, was very much contained for quite some time by the Syrian occupation. The Lebanese there are quite relieved, I think, to have the Syrians gone, at least formally. But there is a lot of concern about their own politics. This is what the second UN investigation is looking into. Remember, Security Council Resolution 1559 called for stabilizing the situation in Lebanon. This is the so-called Terje Roed-Larsen mission [Roed-Larsen is the appointed special envoy for the implementation of Resolution 1559]. The Lebanese are worried about any kind of residual, informal Syrian presence in the country.

The Larsen mission deals not only with the Syrian withdrawal, but also with the Lebanese militias, such as Hezbollah, having to give up their arms, right?

Yes. The disarmament of militias, including Hezbollah, is one of the thorniest of all the problems Lebanon is facing right now. So, the Mehlis report has taken the headlines, but we should remember there is a second process going on, and the UN envoy Larsen, who has dealt with Arab-Israeli and Palestinian issues for a long time, is working quietly behind the scenes to try to untie that knot.

Your organization, the US Institute of Peace, has issued a briefing paper on Syria and political change that was written by you and Mona Yacoubian, a visiting scholar. Would you like to summarize that document?

Sure. Again, politics in Syria are very much a riddle and things are very opaque. But from talking to diplomats, from gathering the evidence, it is clear that there are new rifts appearing among the Allawite ruling elite. It's not as if the regime's power is necessarily falling apart, but there are new rifts and these reflect that the longtime options for the regime under President Bashar al-Assad are narrowing. No. 2, the opposition is more active than ever before both inside and outside the country, and at the tip of the spear is the [fundamentalist group] Muslim Brotherhood, al-Ikhwan. From what we see, at least the initial signs are that the Muslim Brotherhood is quite different from the one that appeared twenty, twenty-five years ago in Syria. They're evolving, they're talking about nonviolent change, and they're reaching out to other opposition groups, including secular opposition groups. There are a lot of interesting trends to look at there.

But at the same time, I would say if you look around the Syrian political scene and you see where the disaffected parties and blocs are coming from, some are the oppositionists on the left and some are from an Islamist opposition that includes some of the Sunni urban elite and longtime leading Syrian families, who have been increasingly marginalized. It also includes some of the disaffected members of the ruling clique of the former president, Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad.

You see there is growing dissatisfaction among these different blocs, but you see there is very little indication that they will unite and form a grand alliance and remake Syrian politics. So the regime's grip on power remains pretty solid, but there is a lot to look at in terms of what I call the thawing of Syrian politics. Syrian political development has been essentially frozen for thirty-five years and things are thawing a bit now. But it reminds me a lot of the height of the Cold War, when the Sovietologists looked at Moscow to see who shows up at a parade and who doesn't, that kind of gossip. To a large extent, that's what watching Syria is all about these days as well.

I guess the ruling Baath party is not in the mood for really open elections.

No. There was a lot of talk when Bashar al-Assad came into power four, five years ago that the regime possibly could reform from within. But at this point, it's clear that prospect is virtually nil. Bashar has relied increasingly on a circle of family members and reforms, particularly economic reforms, that turn out to be quite cosmetic. The idea that he will be a reformist president has long disappeared.

And relations with the United States are absolutely frozen, as far as I can tell.

Yes, the United States is trying to isolate Syria. We've had very little diplomatic activity and I don't think we've even had a resident ambassador since the Hariri assassination. We're talking to the Syrians, but only through the United Nations or third parties.

I think there are two difficult patterns that we have to wrestle with now in terms of Syria. One is its past behavior in the region. They do have a history of buckling under pressure. I think this is part of the U.S. calculation. But at the same time, there is another trend in Syrian behavior, which is they have a history of what I call designing around external pressure. The best example is how they've manipulated Lebanon and used Hezbollah to pressure Israel, despite the fact that Israel maintains an overwhelming monopoly on power vis-a-vis Syria.

Yes, there is some evidence in the past to suggest that you can gain something by pressuring this regime, this minority regime with a military backing. But at the same time, they do find ways to get around external pressure and to wreak havoc. What is critical now for the United States is to burrow ourselves into the United Nations and its multilateral mechanisms. If it becomes a U.S.-Syrian confrontation, then obviously it'd be bad for us and it'd be bad for the prospect of change in Syria. That would feed into a larger problem now between the U.S. and the Arab world. You can list ten reasons why you don't want it to become a U.S.-Syrian confrontation. It's very important to have the French on board, it's very important to lean on the Arab governments in the region to try to talk some sense to the Syrians. We have to be working through an international framework.

The United States at the moment seems happy enough to let the Security Council handle it.

Absolutely. Here you find a reassuring willingness to press Syria on behalf of the Security Council. There are a lot of reasons for this consensus in the Security Council, including France's long ties to Syria and Lebanon. It looks pretty likely that the mandate for the Hariri investigation may get expanded to cover some of these other killings. That would be important. Some Lebanese are calling for an international tribunal. It's hard to say whether that's necessarily the right way to go, or if it's even feasible at this point. I think there is a good chance the UN mandate will be extended, and that's only going to further increase the pressure on the Syrians who, as I said, are behaving as if they have something to hide. And that's sort of what was behind Mehlis' first report that said it's impossible to think that this took place without Syrian involvement. You know, he didn't have the smoking gun, he didn't have a lot of hard evidence, but from the way they behave and from other little bits and pieces of evidence here and there, it's clear they've got something to hide.

The United States and France haven't agreed on much recently.

No, not in the Middle East. They agree on goals. I think where we disagree now is on tactics and how to achieve our objectives. This is all about strategy, not about objectives, I think. But the French, like the Americans, are also standing back right now in terms of the internal reform agenda. The demands on Syria very much relate to their behavior in the region and to Lebanon.

And Iraq, of course.

The quandary for the United States and France and other outside parties is whether this essentially is going to be treated like the Libya case, where it's really about curtailing and stopping external behavior, or will the outside parties go a little bit further? Will we go beyond the Libya case and actually make our policy demands about internal issues as well? One of the Bush administration's top priorities is affecting change, affecting a transformed political environment in the Middle East. So whether they're going to give them a pass on internal issues remains to be seen. I mean you have some signs, very small signs. Over the weekend, the White House released a statement asking that a number of political prisoners in Syria be released unconditionally.

Oh, I missed that.

Including an opposition activist named Kamal Labwani. Now Labwani left Syria, he went to Europe a few weeks ago and met with government officials, met with other Syrian opposition speakers, exiles, and he came to Washington and met people from the State Department. And in fact, he went to the White House and met senior representatives at the National Security Council. When he landed back in Damascus, he got arrested.

Now, are we going to go as far as some Syrian oppositionists would like and make very clear and wide-ranging demands for political reform in the country? I'm not sure it's the right thing to do now. There is so much momentum working against Syria and there is so much consensus in the international community to follow up on the Lebanon investigation and to maybe expand it. The United States hopes that this will have a boomerang effect and help us on our Iraq agenda, which is to get that [Syrian-Iraqi] border more secure.

I wouldn't look for the United States going all out on the path of demanding widespread political reform, but I think it's something down the road. It's interesting, you still have Syrian oppositionists who talk to Americans and other outsiders and they plead, they say "you need to press for internal reform as well." They very much want assistance from the outside. It's quite remarkable considering how poor our reputation is in Syria and among the Syrian public. The local oppositionists—and there is some debate about this—but there are quite a few local oppositionists and some exiles and figures who do want a greater international campaign for internal reform.

Lastly, are Israel-Syrian peace negotiations dead?

I would say they're on long-term hold. The Israelis are sitting quite comfortably now, watching as the international community bears down on Syria. They're more worried about Iran right now. The Israelis, particularly now, while they're reformulating their own political scene, are completely obsessed when it comes to foreign policy with the Palestinian issue. They are in no mood to start these negotiations with the Syrians and the Syrians aren't either.

Every time you hear from the Syrians that they want to revive the talks with Israel to finally end the 1973 war, it's transparent that it's just a way out of their current fix. It's not a sincere offering. The Israelis are sitting pretty right now watching this. There is a little bit of anxiety, obviously, on the Hezbollah issue. The Israelis have an uneasy relationship across the Lebanese border, a sort of balance of terror almost. Israelis, you know, don't treat Hezbollah as they treat Palestinian groups. Hezbollah does have an impressive lethal military capability. The Israelis are watching the situation unfold and they want to be sure that it doesn't lead to Hezbollah lashing out across the border, as happened a couple of weeks ago as a way to maybe distract pressure against Syria.

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