Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, November 13th, 2007
David Lesch's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on the Near East on November 8, 2007 is a must read. I have copied it below. David is a Professor at Trinity University in San Antonio and has been visiting Bashar al-Asad regularly since he wrote a biography of the president in 2004.
Rob Maley's testimony is also important reading. It is posted on the Senate site.
Mr. Robert Malley
Middle East and North Africa Program Director
International Crisis Group
Here is Lesch's oral testimony, which is not posted, alas.
LESCH: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for inviting me here.
I think my value added here today is not to reiterate a lot of
what Rob said, but to provide some insight into President Bashar al-
Assad, with whom I've met on a regular basis since early 2004, and met
with this past Sunday — in fact, I arrived quite late last night from
the Middle East, and so, if I appear incoherent, then I hope you'll
understand — also to provide some insight to the Syrian regime, as
well as the perspective from Syria.
I think a positive Syrian role can be transformational in terms
of U.S. interests and regional stability in the Middle East — one
that could lead to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, the diminution
of Iranian influence, the rapid dissipation of rampant anti-
Americanism in the region, which as we all know, is fertile ground for
terrorist organizations — and the exertion of positive Syrian
influence in Iraq, where, as Rob stated, the threat perception has
changed, and where their interests coincide much more with U.S.
interests now, and where there are markedly different interests with
Iran, as well.
So, there's fertile ground for cooperation, I think, in Iraq.
Also, the exertion of positive influence in Lebanon, and the war
against global terrorism, in general.
Now, Syria, in my opinion, is a key to this, because of its
unique ability in the Arab world to play both sides of the fence, so
to speak. It has been the traditional beacon of Arab nationalism and
the vanguard of the anti-Israeli front. Yet it has also a member, as
we all know, of the 1991 Gulf War Coalition, and participated
seriously in bilateral negotiations with Israel throughout the 1990s.
As a result of the post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy shift and
circumstances surrounding the war in Iraq, the Bush administration
essentially said to Syria, you have to choose which side of the fence
you want to be on. And if you want to be on our side, you have to
give up everything on the other side.
President Bashar essentially said no to this. Syria is a
relatively weak country, with few strategic arrows in its quiver, and
Bashar was not about to give up these arrows before any negotiations.
And it is all about strategic assets to Bashar, as it was with
As he told me on one occasion regarding Iraq, about a year ago,
he said, quote, it is not — excuse me, Iran. He said, quote, it is
not about ideology, our close relationship with Iran. "It is about
interests. Whoever is better for Syria's interests will be its
Now Bashar is securely in power. And I'm 100 percent sure of
that, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future, in my
It is a shame that our image of him was so skewed and unrealistic
at the beginning of his tenure in power, simply because he was a
computer nerd, ophthalmologist, who liked to Phil Collins music.
There was no way he could meet the expectations, given the
dilapidated, broken-down country he inherited, and the regional and
international baptism by fire he immediately encountered. Therefore,
he, and some of his successes, were dismissed much too quickly by
many. And certainly, he feels this way.
Much of the congressional testimony regarding Bashar surrounding
the Syria Accountability Act in 2002-2003, was grossly ill-informed
and unfortunate. He's been fighting that image ever since.
Unfortunately, Bashar doesn't help matters at times, with his own
less-than-prudent comments, which were made for domestic and regional
consumption, but fed into the construction and confirmation of the
negative image of Bashar and policy against Syria that was going on at
the same time in Washington.
Bashar didn't adequately adjust to the shifts in U.S. foreign
policy. And also, Syria is just pretty bad at public diplomacy.
Although Bashar has done a better job at this than his father, the
Syrians still have a long way to go.
Now, although Bashar has a progressive and modernizing outlook,
we must remember that he is Hafez al-Assad's son. He spent all of 18
months in London with advanced study in ophthalmology. And he is a
child of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and a child of the superpower Cold
War. Therefore, he felt compelled to defend traditional Syrian
Now, he's no longer the untested, inexperienced leader. He has
been in power seven years, and one doesn't do that in Syria without
having some level of capability.
And I have seen him grown into the position with more confidence
and more of a comfort level since I've been meeting with him.
He has been on the upswing politically, domestically and even
regionally, since surviving the intense pressure of the (inaudible)
report in the fall 2005 — the investigation into the Hariri
assassination, in part by default, because of mounting U.S. problems
in the region and also partly due to his own maneuvering. I think the
makeup of the February 2006 cabinet reshuffling in Damascus was a
clear reflection of this upswing.
Now, Bashar has built up a reservoir of popularity, domestically
and even in the region, for keeping the country together, despite the
external pressures, and also the instability in neighboring countries,
and for being perceived as not having caved into the United States —
or, as they say in the region, for having refused to give into the
He has effectively funneled the expected nationalist response and
need for resistance into support for the regime that has also given
the regime something of a pass, unfortunately, in terms of quelling
signs of internal dissent.
Now, having said this, Bashar does not have absolute authority.
It would be wrong to see the Syrian regime, or Syrian security,
as a tightly-knit, well-oiled, hierarchical machine — particularly
In fact, here I was seeing president Bashar, and when I landed at
the airport in Damascus last Friday, I was detained and told I was
blacklisted from the country, because of some other projects in which
I am involved — rather innocuous cultural tourist projects. Security
in Syria, obsessed with control, they had some concerns about this
One hand — the right hand of security doesn't know what the left
hand is doing. They don't know that I meet regularly with President
Bashar. And they were very upset and apologetic when they found out.
Now, Bashar has to reach consensus, negotiate, bargain and
manipulate the system. Implementation regarding domestic issues is a
serious problem in Syria. He is fighting against systemic,
institutional, bureaucratic and cultural inertia that seriously
retards any reform progress.
There's also an array of Faustian bargains erected under his
father, i.e., unswerving loyalty in return for casting a blind eye
toward personal enrichment and corruption, that sometimes has the
regime sincerely saying and wanting to do one thing, while actions by
important groups connected to the regime, or actually in the regime,
do something quite contrary to this.
There's really not much Bashar can do about it without
undercutting his support base, especially in a threatening regional
Bashar has, however, acquired control over foreign policy
decisions, although the decision-making process still relies on too
much ad hocism — what I call "ad hocism." There's no national
security council coordinating policy. Instead, there seem to be
informal committees that focus on various foreign policy issues.
But Bashar, in my opinion, is the prime decision-maker now. This
hasn't all been the case.
Now, despite this ad hocism, Syrian officials have a way of
getting in line with regime policy, mimicking declarations and
pronouncements, often word-by-word. As such, and I am confident an
agreement with Syria — Syria and Israeli peace treaty, whatever —
would be acidulously maintained, as they have been in the past.
Finally, in my opinion, and echoing a little bit of what Rob was
saying, while many see Syria's ties with Iran, Hezbollah and various
Palestinian factions, such as Hamas, as a liability, I actually see
them as a potential asset, in the current environment and state of
things for the United States.
If Syria is given a real seat at the diplomatic table, certainly
with the Golan on the agenda, which it very much wants, whether it be
at this proposed conference in Annapolis or some other setting, it
could certainly be utilized as a conduit in a positive influence
process. This is definitely how Bashar is trying to position Syria.
He has touted, and rightly so, the crucial Syrian role in
orchestrating the Mencken (ph) agreement earlier this year between
Fatah and Hamas, in the role in mediating with Iran for the release of
the British sailors captured in the Persian Gulf, and in steering
Hezbollah toward political compromise in Lebanon, particularly with
the Berri initiative recently — although Berri is not with Hezbollah,
but the Shiite response.
Now, Bashar has repeatedly stated that the Palestinian track —
he reiterated this on Sunday — can go out in front of the steering
one, which I thought was quite clever. And Bashar and Syrian
officials have repeatedly held out an olive branch, as Rob mentioned,
to Israel, unconditionally calling for the resumption of negotiations,
albeit with U.S. involvement — in fact, as many have pointed out,
including many Israelis. It is unprecedented that Israel is refusing
to take up the unconditional offer of an Arab state with which it is
not at peace.
Indeed, the Israelis are the ones making the conditions, in line
with U.S. policy.
Now, again, the ineptitude sometimes of Syrian public diplomacy
makes this an awkward process at times, in terms of communicating
their positions to the West, and certainly to the Israeli public.
Finally, in closing, the United States has a history of
negotiating with countries with whom it has a clear disagreement. It
is unfathomable to me, knowing what the Syrians want and the role that
they can play, why we continue to refuse to engage in a sincere
dialogue with Damascus. The missed opportunities of the 1990s led
directly and indirectly — the Madrid peace process, to, among other
things, the election in (inaudible) the war in Iraq, the 2006
Hezbollah-Israel war. In fact, Hezbollah probably would have been
totally emasculate by now if there was an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty.
And there should have been — a historic missed opportunity in the
late 1990s — and some might even argue, 9/11.
I fear what happens if this opportunity is missed. Now, if the
U.S. says jump, Syria will not say how high. It either will be
cautious, primarily because of the tremendous level of distrust that
has built up between Washington and Damascus in recent years. But
with hard work and Syria's intent, the relationship can move forward.
And I want to mention two things in reaction to what Assistant
Secretary of State Welch said.
One of the members of the committee asked a question about the
meeting between Secretary of State Rice and Syrian foreign minister,
Walid Muallem, that occurred — was it in May of this past year — or
this year, in Sharm el-Sheikh, regarding the situation in Iraq.
The Syrians tend to discount Secretary of State Rice, rightly or
wrongly. They consistently tell me — both Bashar, as well as the
Syrian foreign ministry, that after that particular meeting, Arab
officials — probably foreign ministers — informed the Syrians that
Vice President Dick Cheney's office or himself had called these
foreign ministers, saying to dismiss everything that Rice had said,
because she does not speak for the administration.
I have no idea whether this is true or not. The Syrians seem to
believe it is true, and they're acting accordingly, in terms of
discounting the initiatives of Secretary Rice.
Also, on one last thing, on the Lebanese assassinations, Syria
certainly is a suspect. And I agree with — was (inaudible) suspect.
But inter and intra-sectional rivalries are so antagonistic in
Lebanon, that it is difficult to pinpoint who is doing what.
In the Middle East there is a tendency to have conspiracy
theories about the CIA. There are CIA conspiracy theories galore,
which, of course, is ludicrous. And we need to make sure that we
don't do the same thing and ascribe similar capabilities to Syrian
security. They do some things well, but overall, it's a pretty inept
Thank you for your time.
ACTING KERRY: Thank you, Mr. Lesch.