- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Martin S. Indyk, who served as assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs in the Clinton administration, says the unanimous Security Council resolution ordering Syria to cooperate with the ongoing Mehlis investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, puts Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on “the horns of what I think is an irresolvable dilemma.” Indyk, who met with Assad in September 2004, says: “If he gives any hint of moving against his brother and brother-in-law, they might preempt him. If he’s unable to avoid sanctions, then his people are going to face increasing isolation and considerable economic discomfort.”
“The Security Council resolution has put the ball firmly in his court.”
Indyk, who is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution, says that the French-U.S. cooperation at the Security Council has been pivotal and stems from a private meeting that Presidents Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush had at the last Group of Eight (G8) meeting. Indyk was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on October 31, 2005.
It’s been eleven days since the Mehlis Report on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was presented to the Security Council. And the Security Council itself under the leadership of the United States, France, and Britain has just passed a new resolution demanding that Syria cooperate fully in the investigation with a threat of further action down the road if nothing happens. What’s your overall appraisal of the situation?
Well, first of all, I think that the Security Council has sent a strong message backing Mehlis’ investigation and demanding full Syrian cooperation, and that’s an important next step in this process. However, the Syrian president, [Bashar] Assad is on the horns of what I think is an irresolvable dilemma. Since it’s clear that Mehlis is going after his brother [Maher Assad] and brother-in-law [Asef Shawkat], who are the strongmen of his family and therefore his regime, he is going to have to choose between acceding to the demands of full cooperation from the Security Council and thereby giving up his brother and brother-in-law, or refusing to cooperate fully and thereby exposing his nation and his people to sanctions down the road.
The Security Council resolution has put the ball firmly in his court.
The one thing I regret about this process of getting the Security Council resolution, is that somebody seems to have bragged beforehand about how sanctions, or the threat of sanctions, was going to be in there. That appeared as you know, in the New York Times Monday morning. But to get unanimity, the threat of sanctions was dropped. There is only the threat of further action if Syria does not cooperate.
That’s an inevitable result of the negotiating process in the UN Security Council, but what it does, I’m afraid, is send the wrong signal to the Syrians, who are chronically prone to misreading the map. They may conclude that the United States failed in this resolution to get a reference to sanctions and therefore they don’t have to worry about it, which would be a big mistake on their part, but I’m afraid that’s how they’ll read it. To tell you why I’m afraid of this, I happened, by pure coincidence, to be in Damascus the day after UN Resolution 1559 was passed [calling for Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon] and the Syrian foreign minister Farouk al-Sharaa told me that we, the United States, were very fortunate that Syria allowed the resolution to pass. Otherwise, it would be a great humiliation for us if it had failed. This is the kind of disillusion that the Syrians indulge in. It would be unfortunate if a unanimous Security Council resolution demanding Syrian cooperation would be interpreted in Syria as something that was weak and somehow dodged a bullet because it doesn’t mention sanctions.
I noticed over the weekend that President Assad set up some commission to investigate possible crimes in Lebanon. Is this much of a commission?
Inevitably, people will be skeptical of the regime investigating itself. This is clearly a case for an independent investigator. And the international community has that in Mehlis and I think that, regardless of what the Syrians do, the litmus test will be whether they cooperate with the Mehlis investigation. He in fact called for the Syrians to do this, to show some responsibility in terms of investigation, and it will be another way of testing their seriousness. If they do just an investigation, which in effect is just a cover-up, I believe that Mehlis will expose that.
Do you have any doubts in your mind that the interior minister, Ghazi Kanaan, who officially committed suicide a few weeks ago, did not commit suicide?
I think it’s a strange situation. It’s one of those things where, usually, what the Syrians do is opaque and far from transparent. The amazing thing about the Mehlis investigation is that he has lifted the veil here and showed the workings of this “thugocracy.” So that said, it would seem unusual that Ghazi Kanaan would commit suicide; he’s a tough guy. He was not implicated in Mehlis’ investigation, so the notion that he committed suicide because Mehlis was after him, is clearly not going to fly.
On the other hand, he did represent an alternative to President Assad and his brother and brother-in-law and so this may well have been a case of taking care of the rival at a time when the regime is going to be under considerable pressure—that’s purely speculative. I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure, but there certainly is a “smell” about this, that it was an “assisted suicide,” and that’s not unusual in the history of this particular Baath regime. We’ve had assassinations of other political leaders that were believed to be done by this regime and we’ve never actually known the truth of what happened.
Now you’re one of the few Americans who have had any contact with President Assad in recent years. You, in fact, visited him in Damascus last year, didn’t you?
Yes, that’s right. It was early September of last year when the resolution was passed.
And at that time, you came back thinking there was an opportunity to revive the Israeli-Syrian negotiations. What was your impression of the president then and now? You’ve changed your mind, obviously, it seems.
I came away from that meeting, which was unusual because he was there on his own—he didn’t have a translator, note-taker, or foreign minister that is normal for presidential meetings—and we had a long talk that I thought was pretty candid. He talked about the problems he faced within his own regime, the incompetence of the people around him. He was quite disarming about the situation of Iraq, in which he said that Syria had assisted the insurgency because it was not in its interest for the United States to have an easy time in Iraq because the United States would then turn its attention on Syria. But he told me that all that had changed now; that the interests had changed because they were concerned that chaos in Iraq would spread chaos to Syria, and so now he was ready to cooperate with the United States.
I came away from the meeting thinking that he had developed what appeared to be a very shrewd strategy; that he would cooperate with us over Iraq, that he would pursue peace with Israel in a serious way, and that he hoped in that way we would leave him alone to have his way with Lebanon.
This is after Resolution 1559 had passed already, right?
Correct. He was under pressure, but he seemed to have figured out an approach of which making peace with Israel was a critical component. And he said some things about his willingness with Israel that was a departure from his father’s position. But what happened in the aftermath of that, I think, tells you a lot about this guy. He did not cooperate in terms of stopping the support for the insurgency from Syria. And other than repeating statements he made before about a willingness to make peace with Israel, he did nothing to follow through on that to indicate any kind of seriousness or genuineness about his desire for peace.
Instead, he wreaked havoc in Lebanon; he apparently allowed for the assassination of Rafik Hariri. There’s a great disconnect between the words and the actions, which leaves me with a big question mark about whether he simply says one thing and does another, or whether he’s not capable of pulling the levers of power in Syria in a way that he can deliver on what he’s talking about. Either way, he has proved himself to be a master at making all the wrong mistakes—all the mistakes possible.
I’ve been surprised at why he made such an issue of keeping President Emile Lahoud in office in Lebanon [beyond his constitutional limits]. He probably could have found many other pro-Syrian Christians who could have done it.
You’re absolutely right. And I think that that is a perfect example. Essentially, as I understand, what happened is that the regime—again I’m not sure whether it’s Assad who’s making the decisions here—came to understand late in the day that Hariri was working with [Jacques] Chirac and Bush to pressure the Syrians not to extend Lahoud’s term in office. And when they saw the United States and France were playing in this game, I think their calculation was, “We will show them. They don’t want Lahoud, they’re going to get Lahoud. We’ll show them who’s boss in Lebanon.” And in the process, they humiliated and threatened Hariri and forced him to move in the cabinet and in the parliament to extend Lahoud’s term in office.
And then he resigned after that.
Well, no. He was forced to resign by them. They forced him out and told him he was finished; that he would never be prime minister again. And that, combined with the humiliation that is described in the Mehlis report, I think led Hariri to miscalculate. That is to say, for years he’d been very careful about knowing where the red lines were in terms of what the Syrians would tolerate, and always kind of going up to the line, trying to push it a little bit, but never crossing out. But after he was forced out of office and told he wasn’t going to be prime minister again, he then joined the opposition with [Druze leader] Walid Jumblatt and with his formidable organization, and purchasing power, managed to get the votes necessary to get himself back into the position of prime minister in the upcoming elections. And where I think he crossed the line is he started bragging about it. He started telling everybody that he had the votes and he was going to be prime minister not withstanding Syrian opposition. I think at that point—this is all speculation—but I think at that point the Syrians decided enough is enough.
Let’s conclude with a little dissertation on American diplomacy. Under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, diplomacy has obviously become much more multi-faceted. Were you surprised at the degree of cooperation we’ve had with France on this issue, or was it expected because of France’s special involvement inLebanon?
No, it’s a complete surprise. Its origins are interesting, but I think its impact on American diplomacy is very important. Its origins come from Hariri going to Chirac and telling Chirac, “I cannot abide by Lahoud anymore. If Lahoud’s term is extended, it’s a disaster for me. I need your help on this.” Chirac, who is beholden to Hariri, went to Bush at the G8 meeting last June and apparently told Bush, “Basically, we’re not going to agree on anything, but here’s a project we can work on together. It’s about democracy in Lebanon.” And Bush bought on to it. This was not staffed; this was a top-down decision, by the president, to work with Chirac on promoting democracy—or in the first days, defending constitutionalism—in Lebanon. They’re an odd couple in this.
When was 1559 passed?
I believe it was the beginning of September. Resolution 1559 came after the Syrians extended Lahoud’s term—it was the punishment for extending his term.
So that’s the origins of it. But the power of France and the United States working together in concerted diplomatic effort has, I think, been a very important lesson for the Bush administration. The way in which they are using the Security Council to deal with Syria, instead of spurning the Security Council, is I think an indication of how far the administration has come as a result of this cooperation between the United States and France.
And what they’ve discovered along the way is something they didn’t know, but should have known at the time when they were dealing with Iraq in the Security Council, that the mathematics of the Security Council is very simple: There are five veto-wielding members. You have to have three on your side and you can then pass just about anything you want in the Security Council. In this case, Britain, France, and the United States are able to get the resolution through because Russia and China are a minority. China in those circumstances normally abstains and that would leave Russia isolated and having to wield a veto, which it was reluctant to do. In the Iraq case, had we brought Russia on board, and [Vladimir] Putin was up for sale, we would have three and France would have found itself isolated. I believe we would have been able to get a resolution through that would have given us the international legitimacy necessary for the war in Iraq.
I didn’t know you could have gotten Russia then.
You don’t remember? Putin basically was looking for a deal in which we would support him on Chechnya, his war on terror, and we promised to repay Iraqi debts to Russia. And we ignored him. We ignored the Security Council. We spurned the Security Council and he went off to Paris and had a summit meeting with Chirac and Schroeder. It was an unnecessary diplomatic disaster.
Well that also helps in the ongoing diplomacy with Iran right now, too.
Absolutely. It’s the same thing, the same lesson learned: We could use the Europeans to isolate the Iranians rather than allow the Iranians to split us and the Europeans.