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Landis: Rice’s Meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Produced Little

Interviewee: Joshua Landis, codirector, Center of Peace Studies, University of Oklahoma
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 8, 2007

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Joshua Landis, a leading expert on Syrian affairs, says Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s meeting last week with the Syrian foreign minister produced little of substance. He says the chief reason for this is U.S. determination to press Syria to go along with the special tribunal on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, in which Syria is widely believed to have played a leading role. He says the plans for a tribunal have also complicated Saudi Arabia’s efforts to draw Syria away from Iranian influence.

Last week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Moualem,at the conference on Iraq held at Sharm-el Sheikh. The president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, said later that the United States was continuing to blame Syria for everything. The implication was nothing much had changed in relations. Is that accurate?

Yes. It was another milestone for Syria coming out of isolation. The United States has pulled out its ambassador and refused to send any senior representative to Syria since [former Prime Minister of Lebanon] Rafik Hariri’s murder in 2005. When [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi went a few weeks ago to visit Syria, President Bush criticized her very harshly. But now that Rice has met the Syrian foreign minister, it’s another chink in this wall of isolation that America had established.

At the same time, its significance is limited because the real purpose of the Sharm-el Sheikh meeting, for most observers, was to see if there could be a dialogue established between Iran and the United States. That did not happen, and in a sense, Syria was the fallback for the United States. Rice did this for domestic reasons, largely, because the pressure from the Democrats is that there has to be dialogue, that America has to begin preparing a new strategy in Iraq, which would include dialogue with both Iran and Syria. The administration clearly doesn’t want to pursue the implications of that. They’re opening dialogue with Syria, in a sense, to throw a bone to the Democrats and to the American people.

[The administration’s] heart is not in it. And as President Assad said, this was not a breakthrough. I think we have to take his word at this, and we see the evidence for that in the fact that Rice today published an editorial in the Lebanese paper, An-Nahar, the organ of the pro-American March 14 coalition [set up after Hariri’s assassination]. She’s reassuring her Lebanese allies that America will not let them down.

At the time of the Sharm-el Sheik meeting, I remember Michael Young wrote an editorial saying, “Don’t sell out Lebanon for the sake of better relations with Syria.” In other words, don’t give up on this trial of who killed Hariri for the sake of Syria. And so that seems to be what’s happening, the United States is reassuring its Lebanese supporters that they’re going to pursue having this tribunal under Chapter Seven of the Security Council rules.

That allows for coercive force to be applied.

What would that tribunal really decide? What are its ground rules?

There are two UN resolutions already on the investigation into the murder. They proclaim that the murder of Hariri was an act of international terrorism, and that requires all members called before the investigation to cooperate under Chapter Seven. So there already was groundwork describing the murder as an act of international terrorism. That’s the most important aspect. This lends support to further action by the United States to establish a tribunal under the same laws. There has been resistance to this by a number of European legal advisers, because they do not like these special courts.

The UN secretary-general seems rather determined to go ahead with this; he talked about going back out to the region again. I guess they’d like to get the Lebanese government itself to call for this tribunal but they’re hamstrung by domestic politics in Lebanon, right?

Yes. So this has led to criticism on the part of the Lebanese opposition and others who say that Lebanon is offshoring its judicial system. Hezbollah and other opponents of the government say this is taking your dirty laundry elsewhere, and it’s not going to help Lebanon build its sovereignty because it’s delegating its sovereignty to this international court. They threaten that it could lead to civil disorder in Lebanon.

Have the Syrians been saying much about this lately?

Syria is opposed to the tribunal.

And they still deny they had anything to do with the assassination.

They deny totally. And what’s been happening in the inter-Arab diplomacy over the last several months is that Saudi Arabia has tried to broker a deal. Syria and the Lebanese opposition say “We don’t like this court because it’s clearly political.” Saudi Arabia has asked them, “Okay, how would you rewrite the mandate of the court in order to make it nonpolitical?” The king of Saudi Arabia asked Bashar al-Assad to “send him some language.” Syria’s president did not send the language. He asked for Prince Bandar [former Saudi ambassador to the United States] to be sent to Syria and he would talk to him about it. The Saudis did not send Bandar. In a sense, they came to loggerheads over this, and where Saudi Arabia stands on this is, of course, a very important issue, because Saudi Arabia is America’s ally, and many observers believed that Saudi Arabia was breaking from the United States on this issue when the Saudi king embraced Bashar al-Assad at the Arab League meeting in Riyadh and called the U.S. occupation of Iraq “illegal.” What’s at stake in the long run is how the United States and Saudi Arabia are going to approach containing Iran.

What does Saudi Arabia want with Syria?

What Saudi Arabia proclaimed at the Arab League meeting seemed to indicate that it was looking to bring Syria back into an Arab consensus, and to contain Iranian influence in the Arab world by breaking Syria’s isolation and trying to woo it away from Iran. This Hariri court stands in the way of that, and Syria has, in a sense, been trying to cut a deal, saying “We can offer you help in Iraq and help with the Palestinian issue, and move away from Iran slightly, if we drop this Hariri investigation.”

Do you think the foreign minister told that to [Secretary of State] Rice? I can’t believe that.

I don’t know if he told that to Rice, but I think that’s the clear dynamic that’s going on between Saudi Arabia and Syria. In order to containIran, Saudi Arabia understands it needs Arab unity, and most important in that Arab unity is Syria, because Iran’s reach into the Arab world is through Syria. Hezbollah is armed through Syria. The arms come largely from Iran, but arms cannot be sent through the airports, or by ships, because Israeli intelligence will stop them. Therefore, the only way they can get arms into Lebanon is over the mountains and through the valleys of the border of Syria.

So Syria plays in a very important role in this, and as long as the Golan Heights issue with Israel is pending, as long as the United States is trying to isolate Syria, Syria is going to be on the side of Hezbollah and Iran. This is the grand bargain that’s sort of being floated all the time. It’s going to be a conduit for Iran influence in the region. Iran is going to have great influence, and this “Shiite crescent” that people have talked about, Iran allied with a Shiite Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah, is going to be operative.

Is that why Saudi Arabia wants to woo Syria?

If Saudi Arabia wants to shut that off and contain Iran, it needs Syria on its side. America has been pursuing a policy of divide-and-rule in the Arab world, getting moderate Arabs—Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia—to align with Israel and turn decisively against Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. This is not attractive to Saudi Arabia. That’s why we saw this split at the Arab League meeting in Riyadh, and Saudi Arabia in a sense announcing to the United States, “We’re not on the same page, and we’re not willing to pursue this divide-and-rule because it won’t work.” On the other hand, this court issue is standing in the middle of this, and Saudi Arabia has an interest in defending Lebanon and Hariri.

Publicly, they’re in support of the tribunal, yes?

They are. And they’ve been trying to get a compromise mission worked out, where Syria would accept the tribunal with some watered-down language, or else sacrifice a few of its underlings, essentially admitting that it was at fault, thereby protecting the president. Syria has not budged on this issue, and it has maintained its innocence. It has refused to enter into any of these compromise positions. That leaves Saudi Arabia in a very tough position. Either it sacrifices Lebanon in order to get Syria, or it stands with Lebanon and the United States and continues this isolation of Syria.

Yesterday, in the [Israeli] Knesset committee meeting, the National Security Council head Ilan Mizrahi told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Syria’s move to restart the peace process was authentic, but he says it’s not clear whether they want peace, or whether they just want the peace process. What do you think Syria wants with Israel?

 Syria clearly wants the peace process. It’s a win for them because it helps them get out of isolation. I think Syria also wants the peace, so it could get the Golan Heights back, and it’s made it very clear that the only way it will sign off on a peace is if it gets all of the Golan Heights back to the 1967 borders. And this second-track diplomacy [informal talks that were held in the past year]  that we saw between Ibrahim Suleiman, a Syrian-American, and Dr. Alon Liel [former director general of the Israel Foreign Ministry] stated that they were willing to create what they call a peace park on most of the Golan. Clearly in those talks, Bashar wants sovereignty; he won’t accept less than the Golan Heights, because Egypt got all of the Sinai and Jordan got all their land [in the deals they made with Israel]. Israel has to trust Syria in order to do that, because Syria of course somewhere down the line could say, “We’re changing the rules of the game” and move troops up. But in the meantime, for Syria the peace negotiations are a win-win, because if they don’t end up with a resolution, Syria has broken out of isolation. If they end up with a resolution, Syria gets the Golan.

Well, to get to Golan, wouldn’t they also have to kick out the Hamas office in Syria?

Yes, they probably would. They would have to change their position toward Israel, and stop supporting Hezbollah, and stop supporting radical Palestinian groups. And this is obviously the trade.

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