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Yacoubian: Syria Seems to Believe Pressure for Change Easing

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Mona Yacoubian, Senior Adviser, Middle East Program, Stimson Center
March 10, 2006

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Mona Yacoubian, a Middle East specialist who has co-authored two studies on Syria for the United States Institute of Peace, says there were heightened expectations last year that the United Nations was preparing to crack down on Syria. But she says the investigation into Syria's purported role in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri has seemed to slow down dramatically.

"That [initial UN report last October] was a real bombshell in many ways," says Yacoubian, a former State Department analyst. "And there were certainly a number of analysts who were thinking the noose was clearly tightening on the Syrian regime, and that the report [could] lead to sanctions and other punitive measures. I think what one sees now is it appears that pressure has not been maintained." Yacoubian says Syria's recent actions at home and broad "seem to suggest the Syrians really don't believe they have anything to fear at this time."

News about the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has seemed to drop out of the headlines. What's the situation in Syria now?

Why don't I bring you up to speed first in terms of where things stand with the UN investigation, which I think sheds some light on where events stand in Syria. There was a second report of the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri issued in mid-December, which asserts, most importantly, continued Syrian interference with the UN probe. In particular, the report accuses Syria of destroying evidence and intimidating witnesses, and it continues to assert there is some probable cause of both senior Syrian and Lebanese involvement in that assassination. The mandate for the investigation has been extended by six months, and the reins of the investigation have been handed over to a Belgian prosecutor by the name of Serge Brammertz who is now continuing the investigation on the ground.

And he only made his first visit to Syria a couple of weeks ago, right?

That's right. So things are only just getting started again following the departure of Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor, who was the first chief investigator.

And in Syria itself there's been a reshuffling of the top leadership?

That's correct. The most notable aspect of that cabinet reshuffle is the appointment of former Foreign Minister Farouk Shara to become vice-president. There are some who read that appointment as increased influence or power being allotted to him. Others see it more as a way of easing him out of power or a position of influence.

He was foreign minister for a long time.

A long time, and he's noted for having fairly strong anti-American views. And there are some who believe his strong views have had an influence on President Bashar al-Assad. The foreign ministry position has now been filled by Walid Moualem, who was formerly Syrian ambassador to the United States. Some are reading that move as being perhaps indicative of an intention by the Syrians to rekindle some kind of negotiations or diplomacy with the United States.

What's happened to the two top people, Assad's brother-in-law, Assef Shawqat, and Assad's brother, Maher? Are they still top advisors?

They maintain those positions. There has been some speculation that Shawqat, who holds a very senior position in the inner circle, is one of the witnesses that the UN seeks to interview but has yet to have any access to.

And he's the head of military intelligence, right?

Yes.

There was a statement on Sunday saying Syria pledged to fully cooperate with the UN investigation, etc. Is that just for public consumption or does it signal some change?

Hard to say. I think the appointment of Moualem to the foreign ministry position is significant in that it may indeed signal a desire by the Syrians—feeling the pressure from the United States—to perhaps reach out and be more cooperative, or at least cooperative enough to deflect additional pressure. That said, Bashar al-Assad himself gave a fairly defiant speech in Syria. In that speech he appeared to dismiss the commission as having more or else failed, and [said] that he essentially believes the pressure is off, the commission isn't going to find any additional information against them, and it's more or less been a fiasco. So in a way you have two very different faces on this.

And Bashar Assad has cracked down on domestic critics, right? I noticed he closed some human rights office.

That's right. At home there appears to be a continued sense of pressure, and perhaps even a notion on the part of those opposition figures in Syria that that window of opportunity may be closing.

Now, of course you can't talk about Syria without talking about Lebanon, because after all this whole confrontation with Syria started with the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister. And the Lebanese then were able through United States and French pressure at the Security Council to get the Syrian troops, which had been in there for many, many years, to pull out. What's happened to the Lebanese political system?

Well, the Lebanese political system remains fractured and is quite fragile as a result of the sectarian tensions that characterize the country. There is an ongoing dialogue of the various parties.

That national dialogue was suspended when Walid Jumblatt, the opposition leader and head of the influential Druze community, came to the United States on a visit. The talks are due to resume next week.

I think essentially Lebanese politics remains very much at a deadlock. There are those who seek the ouster of President Emile Lahoud, who is considered a strong ally of the Syrians, but again, there's not enough cohesion around that demand to actually bring about a change. And so I think as a result, politics in Lebanon remains very much deadlocked, and it's not clear how things are going to shake out there.

Are the different factions—the Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Hezbollah—all trying to see which coalitions can work together best or what?

Well, again, I think there are those that continue to want to work with the Syrian government -- namely, I would say, Hezbollah and the Shiites -- and then on the other side of that question is a block of Lebanese groups who seek to further diminish Syrian influence in politics. And their primary goal at this time is the ouster of President Lahoud. Now, whether or not they even have another candidate to replace him is unclear.

Do you know anything about what Jumblatt accomplished on his visit to Washington?

No, not at all. Although I think just the symbolism of it is probably important, because of course Walid Jumblatt is a staunch opponent of Syria, so I think his coming to Washington was probably intended to send a signal to the Syrian government.

And the role of Iran in all this? Iran is the main supplier, through Syria, of Hezbollah, yes?

That's correct. There's nothing that suggests any diminution of that role.

And is U.S. policy toward Syria frozen right now or what?

No. In various ways, more symbolically than otherwise, there are attempts to continue to put pressure on the Syrian government. As I said, one example might be the visit of Walid Jumblatt to the United States. Another was the announcement last month by the State Department that it had allocated $5 million—admittedly a small but symbolic amount—in grants to what they call democratic reformers in Syria.

That's similar to the larger $75 million grant for a similar purpose in Iran?

That's right.

It reminds me of the old Cold War days of cultural exchange. How was that grant received in Syria?

There are many who have said they find U.S. funding would be counterproductive, that essentially Syrian groups do not want to accept funding from the U.S. government. These groups believe their efforts really shouldn't include foreign funding, that they need to be very much driven from within. And I think that is perhaps the sentiment of a majority of those in the Syrian opposition.

Wasn't there a sense after the first UN report was issued last October that something dramatic might happen in Syria?

That report was a real bombshell in many ways. And there were certainly a number of analysts who were thinking the noose was clearly tightening on the Syrian regime, and that the report [could] lead to sanctions and other punitive measures. I think what one sees now is it appears that pressure has not been maintained. That certainly, I think, is the Syrian government's reading of the situation, and might explain some of these measures both at home and abroad, which seem to suggest the Syrians really don't believe they have anything to fear at this time.

The United States' big concern with Syria for several years now has been the infiltration of insurgents into Iraq. Has that changed at all?

Not to my knowledge. My understanding was that when the United States really put pressure on that particular question the Syrians complied and were helping to stave the flow of insurgents. That was a little while back. Whether that's still the case or not, I don't know.

The former vice president, Abdel Halim Khaddam came out publicly and accused Bashar Assad in December of threatening Hariri very strongly, which is sort of what everyone in Lebanon believed anyway. Khaddam is now in exile, and condemned as a traitor by the Syrian regime. What's his role now? He's too old to really be an opposition leader, isn't he?

Well, not only too old, but frankly, considered from the standpoint of many Syrians part of the old guard and perhaps part of the problem. The Syrian government responded to his accusations with their own counteraccusations of his corruption and malfeasance. Now, of course in a way their accusations were a bit self-incriminating, but he certainly has been encouraged by other exiled Syrian opposition groups to join their efforts. But I don't believe he has enough sway and credibility to spearhead any sort of opposition effort form outside. He himself is sort of damaged goods.

So what will Syria do in coming months?

I think it's very much fueled by a calculation on the part of the Syrian government that the international community and the United States are somewhat limited in what they can do. And so the Syrians continue to evince a notion that the pressure is off, and they can act and do as thy please in that part of the world.

I guess they see the polls in the United States too, and realize Bush's political standing is weakened. I don't know if that impacts them.

I think, more than that, is the sense among the Syrian public that chaos in Iraq and uncertainty in Lebanon are very effectively exploited by the Syrian regime to help propel this sense of fear and uncertainty. In other words, stability in Syria is stronger under President Assad and his government than the instability and chaos that might be brought about by some kind of regime change.

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