“President Bashar al-Asad Interviewed,” by Alix Van Buren

The indomitable and charming Alix Van Buren interviewed President Bashar yesterday for La Repubblica in Italy. She sent me this English translation which includes 40 lines cut from the printed Italian version. Alix was also the first Western reporter to interview Asad following the Hariri murder, translated here on Syria Comment. The following are remarks Alix included in a note:

Hi Josh,

I did it again. Here is a rough translation of my interview with President Bashar, published today in La Repubblica. It is the first one he gave after the release of the Baker report.

Damascus misses you! One very notable development that sums up Bashar's growing strength: he has earned the title of "Presidente Assad". People have stopped referring to him as Docteur or Bashar. When they now say President Assad it is very clear that it is him, not his Father.

In person, he looked great – confident, relaxed, physically well fit.

New banks and shops opening up everywhere, with yet other signs of "Opening soon". 

David Ignatius published an interview with Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in the Washington Post as well today. Interestingly enough, they repeat some of the same lines, which confirms Moallem's insistence that he is speaking for the President when Ignatius asked him if his views represented those of the President. President Bashar's interview is more colorful and detailed. Many thanks to Alix. Her interview follows:

President Bashar al-Assad announces his choice: “I want to be a man of peace”.
Interview with President Bashar al-Asad
by Alix Van Buren of La Repubblica, Italy
Italian version

He extends to Israel an olive branch: “We could live side by side in harmony and peace”. And then he challenges Olmert: “Move towards peace. Talk to Syria, and as many Israelis say, “even if you suspect it is a bluff, you have nothing to lose”. Adding a caution: “But when a government is weak, like the one in Israel, one can expect everything, even war.  You need a strong government to make peace: peace is much more difficult than war”.

He advises Europe: “The EU should have its own vision, rooted in its history and civilization, acting as a bridge between the Arab world and the United States”.

He expresses trust in Prodi’s Italy: “He knows our region”.

The Syrian president al-Assad looks in good shape. Two years of diplomatic and economic isolation don’t seem to have tarnished his shine. The Baker plan, with its request that the White House revise its politics in the Middle East, has brought him back to the center of the international stage.

Tall and slender in a blue flannel suit, sitting in a velvet armchair in his presidential studio, he is busy, so it seems, knotting together the threads of diplomacy with the serene look of one who has recently savoured vindication. In the Damascene morning, the message is extremely clear: without Syria there is no war, but without Syria there is no peace,  Kissinger’s old adage has been polished anew. But beyond the Anti-Lebanon mountain chain framed by the window, and down from the Israeli coast, he suspects hidden surprises, possible incursions.

Mister President, two years ago you said America one day would come knocking on Syria’s door. Was this a prophecy or a threat?

"Listen, before the war in Iraq I told them: you are going to sink in the Iraqi swamp and you will need someone to extract you. Later, everything we said happened. But it was neither a prophecy nor a threat. Rather, this is what we have learned from our experience in the region. We live in this region, we know the course of the events, and it was proven that depending on military power alone will lead you nowhere. They need a vision. And many recommendations in the Baker report are in harmony with our vision”.

Some examples?

“Here is one: they need somebody to help them to formulate a vision. Because if you ask them what is your vision towards Iraq, you realize they have no vision. Second, the report talks about the need for a comprehensive peace, linking the different issues in the region to the problem of occupation, in Palestine and the Golan Heights, as we always said before the war and now. Third, it recognizes the central role of Syria”.

Is Syria willing to cooperate? Washington is asking Syria to play a constructive role.

“Of course we are willing. Because we have an interest in solving the regional issues – Iraq, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Lebanon – because we, the neighbouring countries, will be affected more than the others. But to cooperate it is not enought to have the will, nor are we the only players. To achieve a result you need all the regional and the international players around the table: the countries bordering Iraq and Israel, the United Nations, Europe and also China and Japan. And you need to get some agreement about the vision of the future from all these parties”.

Can Syria’s interests coincide, at least temporarily, with those of the United States?

“Yes, if America is willing and honest: when they say we need a unified Iraq, when they say they need to stop the violence, we have common interests. When they mention the word “peace”, if they are serious, we can work together on all these issues. But I doubt that Washington’s perspective coincides with our own”.

Why, Mister President?

“Because the problem with this Administration is that they mix dialogue with instructions. Judging by Bush’s declarations a few days ago, they do not acknowledge reality, they do not want to admit they were wrong.

So is it a matter of time? Are they going to make a gradual U-turn?

We don’t know. Still they have not learned that Syria does not take instructions, it cannot be bossed around by others. States always work for their interests. We do not work for others’ interests. And these interests for Syria are recognizing our occupied land and the whole situation in the region. Will America recognize them? This is the main question”.

Bush said “Syria knows what it must do”: according to him, you must renounce your alliance with Iran, stop supporting Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iraqi terrorism.

“Regarding the infiltration of terrorists in Iraq, they do not believe thier own accusations when they make them. They know that it is not true. If you ask them in private meetings, they say that Syria did a good job of stopping the inflitration of foreign fighters. Why support would we support them? They go and kill Iraqis. But if you want to talk about terrorism, I took the initiative after September 11 to tell the Americans we have the same enemy and we are ready to cooperate”.

Did you do so?

“We tried, for four years. We had more than one meeting at among intelligence leaders, actually they have lots of information, but they do not have the knowledge, how to analyze information. So we stopped cooperation with them in 2005: the result was counterproductive, because we risk losing the battle against terror”.

But going back to Hamas and Hezbollah. Do you consider you were on the winning side in supporting them?

“We do not side with any organization. One of our principles is that if this organization represent the majority of people then we have to deal with it. The landslide victory of Hamas at the elections proved that we were right, because we stood by the majority of the Palestine people. The same applies to Hezbollah. But there is a second aspect: we share the same problems. We all have occupied lands, in Palestine, in Lebanon, in Syria. And we have the same occupier or, if we want to be honest, the same enemy”.

You mean Israel? Is it the eternal enemy?

“No, when there is peace. You can live in peace and harmony side by side, but first of all you must achieve peace”.

What are the main obstacles?

“There are no obstacles in Syria. We have the full support of the Syrian people to achieve peace because we are going to get back our land. The real question is, Is Israel ready to accept peace?”.

Prime minister Olmert said the time is not yet ripe to open a dialogue with Syria, and that the Bush Administration is against it too. How do you respond?

“This means they do not want peace. But the most important thing, as you said, is that Washington doesn’t want that. This means this is a weak government, it allows Washington to take the decision instead of the Israeli government.  But let me tell you this: you need a strong government to achieve peace. Weak governments can make war but cannot achieve peace. Peace is much more difficult than war”.

Did you hear the speech by the Israeli writer David Grossman? He invited Olmert to accept your offers of peace.

“I do not know Grossman, but he is right. Besides, most of what we read from Israeli writers leads in the same direction in blaming Olmert. They ask him, “Why don’t you listen? Why don’t you deal with the Syrians even if they are lying? You won’t lose anything”. So why doesn’t he try? No one can say “I don’t want to move towards peace. This is something new”.

The Israeli military intelligence said Syria is massing earth-to-earth long range missiles along its borders, has learned lessons from the war in Lebanon and is preparing for a military campaign. Mister President, is the intelligence correct?

“You know we are still in a state of war with Israel because the still occupy our land. Secondly, we have to anticipate that Israel could launch a war against Syria at any time. They say in their statements that they may think of war against Hezbollah and Syria next summer. Third, they attempted to violate our airspace several times in the past five years. They even attacked the Syrian army. So it is not a fantasy to say that war is a possibility in our region. And it is normal to prepare yourself for such a war, and one of the ways to prepare yourself is to learn lessons from other wars, especially the neighbouring wars. But that doesn’t mean that “massing missiles” is a correct description”.

And what about Syria rearming Hezbollah, as Israel maintains?

“Listen, they have satelllites, they have all the Unifil soldiers, all their intelligence in Lebanon, of the army, of the government, while we have none in Lebanon.  With all these people and means, why do they not stop the rearmement, if it is true? When you talk about a missile, it is five or six meters long. It is not a drug that fits in your pocket! So what they say is not logical”.

Does Syria support the UN resolution 1710 on disarming Hezbollah?

“We have some reservations on it but we support it because we want to stop the war and we want stability in Lebanon because the Lebanese in the end are paying the price and we are going to pay the price with them. That is why we support it. But we said it is a temporary solution. Like a cease-fire, if you do not follow it up with political action, like working for peace, it can not last long. We’ve already seen it happen in 1996. After ten years and one month you have this war”.

Regarding your ties with Hezbollah, at the G8 a microphone left on recorded an exchange between Bush and Blair. Bush said “…all that is needed is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to quit all that s**t, and everything is over”. Can you really stop Hezbollah with a wink of your eye, if we wish you to do so?

“No, this is an exaggeration. They want to depict Hezbollah as a Syrian or Iranian puppet. Hezbollah represents a large part of the Lebanese. They have their own interests and their own vision which we share with them. We have a dialogue with them and, of course, with many Lebanese parties. They trust Syria and because of that we can have influence. But it does not mean that if we go against their interests they will listen to Syria”.

Yet Bush and Siniora accused you of interfering in Lebanon, of attempting a “coup d’etat” against the government in Beirut through your support of Sayyed Nasrallah. How do you respond?

“The more I hear the statements by the current American Administration, the more I am convinced that when they see something, they see it in the opposite way. They can not understand the situation in Iraq, how can they understand Lebanon and Syria? We have an interest in the stability of Lebanon, so we cannot be with one party against the other. Sharing the vision of Hezbollah does not mean supporting it against the others. We support every matter of consensus about the Lebanese. It will take time before this consensus emerges. Then we will support it. We want to be in the middle, always”.

So it is not true that you want to regain influence in Lebanon?

“We have influence in Lebanon, we never lost it. But that does not mean interferance. Our influence does not come from a relation with a super power. We get it from our history and our geography. It is a geopolitcal position. You see, Lebanon and Syria used to be one region, and this applies also to the surrounding region, including Iraq. We have the same families, same language, same tradition. As for the geographical ties, Lebanon is surrounded by Syria, the depth of Lebanon is Syria. But it is a two-way relationship: Lebanon also has influence in Syria because of its position and its social ties”.

Why are you so much against the Hariri international tribunal?

“We are not against it. We have an interest to cooperate with the investigation Commission to uncover the truth of the crime. But this is different from the international tribunal. First of all, they did not consult us. The tribunal is a treaty between the United Nations and the Lebanese government. We are a State, we have our Constitution and laws. And without a treaty, we cannot allow any tribunal to work in the place of our government. It is like giving up your sovereignty”. 

Mister President, you talk about peace, about consensus. Yet one of your closest allies, the Iranian President Ahmadinejad, says he wants to wipe Israel off the world map. How does that fit with your quest for peace?

“Iranians are not against the peace process. We have had long-term realations with them for three decades now. They never tried to stop us from starting the peace talks, not in the past and not now. As to his words, you may read what they said in Haaretz a few days ago: “No Palestinians. No Palestine. No Problems”. They have to listen to the echo of their words. They have to expect that somebody in the region, and I am not talking about President Ahmadinejad, may say “No Israelis. No Israel. No Problems”. They started this logic”.

But organizing a Conference on the Holocaust goes over the lilits, wouldn’t you say?

“Europe has a complex with the Holocaust. We don’t, it was not us who perpetrated it. Europe and America talk about freedom of speech. There was this novel about Christ having a child, the “Da Vinci Code”; how do you discuss this but not the Holocaust? It is not the history of God, it is the history of human beings”.

So what is at the core of your alliance with Teheran?

“Teheran supported Syria. That’s enough. The whole world wanted to isolate Syria and they stood beside us. They told me to separate from Iran and I asked them why. They supported us in every aspect. It is as simple as that. Besides, let me add. Iran is an important country, therefore Europe and America have to talk with it, and we have to have good relations with Iran for the stability of the region, including that of Iraq”.

Can Syria help stabilize Iraq?

“Again, we are not the only player. We can support a national Iraqi conference between the different factions with regional support. This is one way. We have good relations with most of the Iraqi parties. We also resumed diplomatic relations with Iraq which were severed after Saddam came to power.

However when talking about Iraq, one must not lose sight of the larger picture. As I said, all the different issues in the region are linked to the problem of occupation. The Baker report is very clear on this point: it starts with Iraq but it ends up talking about peace, about the need to address occupation, the peace process, and “land for peace”. If you do not talk also about Palestine and the Golan Heights, you cannot solve any other problem”.

Is the Madrid Conference on your mind?

“This is the only appropriate base for the peace talks. The principle of Madrid was clear: “Land for peace”. Much was achieved during the Rabin government, and anyone who wants to start from point Zero does not want to achieve peace because it means they don’t agree on things already agreed on. As to the centrality of the Palestinian issue in the Arab world, those who do not recognize it are not realistic: they will achieve nothing”.

Did you get positive reactions form the European envoys that came to Damascus?

“When we talk about Europe, it should be a bridge with the United States. It should use its history with the region, its heritage as a continent with its history and civilization. It should not limit itself, as sometimes happens, to come to our region with American ideas, to convince us. But the role of Europe is limited by the role of the U.S. And also by its own internal divisions, before the war in Iraq and now. We cannot talk about Europe as such, but rather about some players, such as the role by Italy and Spain”.

Do you expect positive results from the dialogue with Italy?

“Our relation with Italy has improved a lot with Mister Prodi. I know him personally since he was the President of the EC. He knows our region and understands the events very well. Sometimes Italy and Syria see things from different angles and this is normal. The other side is that he has credibility and this is very important for cooperation. But we are still at the beginning of the dialogue. It must mature, because we live in international circumstances where Italy and Syria alone are not enough, we have to move with the rest of the players, with a common vision”.

You are speaking again like a central actor of hte internationa scene. Do you feel vindicated now?

“You must remember than a little more than one year ago America said we were irrelevant, weak, that we had no role. The latest developments have vindicated us. Actually, whoever talks about isolating Syria is isolating themselves from the region. If you look at many countries who participated in the attempts of isolating Syria, now they cannot play any constructive role”.

Who are you thinking about?

“Let’s say France for example. If you talk about the peace initiative by France, Italy and Spain, we cooperate with Rome and Madrid. But not with Paris: because of their policies, because they no longer have the crredibility to play such a role”.

Has the isolation exacted a price from Syria?

“Quite to the contrary, we are stronger than before. Politically and economically. In 2005 we had the largest investments of the past fourty years. There was more tourism, we reached a growth rate of 4.5 per cent compared to a negative growth rate in the year 2000. We want more, but given the difficult circumstances these growth figures were surprising results. We depended on ourselves, on our own pillars.

So was the American isolation ineffective?

The people in the region as whole are against US policies. And when it is so, you can not impiment them. Our policy is based on the will of the people. That is why we are very strong. We became even stronger than before”.

Some would object that during this time there was in Syria a tightening of liberties. That the promises of reform lagged behind. That civil right activists and political dissidents were imprisoned for their opinion, the most quoted case is that of Michel Kilo. How do you reply to such criticism?

“Firstly we don’t allow anyone to interfere in our domestic issues. We know what to do, whether we do it right or wrong. This is our contry. Second, Michel Kilo did not go to prison because he had a different opinion. He was tried in a normal court. He has a relation with a party in Lebanon which publicly invited the United States to attack Syria and occupy Damascus. This party is against Syria according to the law”.

Regarding the support of the people, do you feel stronger in Syria?

“You have to ask the Syrians. One cannot be a dictator, as they say, and have good relations with the people and have stability and growth in the country at the same time. It is impossible. If you are a dictator, there will be chaos and many people will leave the country”.

Mister President, do you still want to open up the Syrian society to democracy?

“Political and economic reforms procede in tandem. But there is an issue of priorities. Which means one you have to focus on more. What is urgent in Syria? Poverty. This is the most important challenge. We don’t say we’re going to focus on the political side and not the economic but rather we look for what the people want.

But in the end that is why I want to be a man of peace. When there is peace you will have prosperity in the broader sense. Economy, society, culture, all are related it. So you can be a man of war or a man of peace. I have made my choice. Peace is central if you want to leave a finger print in the history of your country

 

–END–

 

For those interested in comparing Ignatius' interview with Moallem, I copy it for the record.

 

Interview With Syrian Foreign Minister,"  by David Ignatius in Washington Post.

Here's the transcript of the interview with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem conducted on December 14, 2006 in Damascus, Syria.

Q: Ignatius: Perhaps you could begin by giving an overall view of the Baker-Hamilton Report

A: Moallem: During my work in Washington (as Syrian ambassador in the early 1990s) I knew Baker and I knew Hamilton. I know their objectivity. I know that both of them and others on the (Iraq Study Group) committee who I used to know have vision.

The first question Baker asked me when we met in New York (in September 2006) was: Walid, how can we return to the Syrian-American situation of the early 1990s, when we succeeded to build mutual trust? I told him: This is our wish also in Syria.

But how can we make it? We need to ask ourselves one question: Has the prior American policy against Syria–isolation–worked or failed? I think from what we are seeing in the region today, it failed. What will be another option? The challenge is to adopt policies of engagement. The method is dialogue.

Why is this challenging? Through dialogue, no side can stay in his position. Constructive dialogue means both sides have to meet. We can call it a 'common ground.' Through an engagement policy, you agree on certain principles and goals.

What are Syrian goals in the region? There are three: Peace, stability and prosperity. These are the Syrian goals. Are these three goals contradicting American national interests in the region? I don't think so.

–If we tackle first the issue of peace: The American administration knows that during our previous direct talks with the Israelis (during the early 1990s) we achieved 90 percent of the agreement. We lacked the political will from Israel to achieve the noble cause of peace between Syria and Israel. Is it contradicting American interests to continue the path of Madrid (the 1991 Madrid peace conference, which laid the ground for subsequent Israeli-Syrian peace talks) on the same basis?

I wonder why the administration is preventing Israel to go on this path of peace, to secure its northern border. I wonder why this administration failed to achieve the question the late Prime Minister Rabin asked: What is the meaning of peace between Syria and Israel? When I say this, I mean a comprehensive peace–including Syria, the Palestinians and Lebanon. But as foreign minister of Syria, I will speak on behalf only of Syria.

Q: You referred to Bush administration efforts to prevent Israel from negotiation with Syria. What are you referring to?

A: I have been told this in New York by Americans who are attached to peace. Why is this administration preventing Israel?

Q: When did this happen?

A: Immediately after the war between Israel and Lebanon. (August 2006). In Israel, there is a weak government. This means that this government needs encouragement from Washington to move on the way to peace. If this administration put on its priorities peace in the Middle East, why didn't they (encourage the Israelis). Is this an administration for war only?

In December 1990, when President Hafez al-Assad met President Bush the father in Geneva, Assad told Bush: Mr. President, no one can challenge your military strength. But we understand when you hold in one hand the gun, you need to hold in the other the olive branch. This is how superpowers can survive. President Bush the father was honest to his promise. After the ceasefire (in the 1991 Gulf War) in March, Secretary Baker in April moved to call for a Mideast peace conference. This is how we understand the responsibilities of a superpower.

–Second, I turn to regional stability. Is it contradicting American interests? I don't think so. How do we achieve this when the administration is at a crossroads. Either we go for stability or the region will fall, and religious civil wars and the extremists behind them will take over. Will this serve U.S. interests?

It is not useful for anyone to tackle the deep concerns in the region by giving us tablets of aspirin. You need to tackle the biggest issues. One of them is a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It will lead to a solution in Lebanon, immediately. It will help Iraqi stability and security.

Syria always asked America to change its behavior. The Syrians are asking the Americans: When you are showing keenness on Lebanese stability and Iraqi stability, why do you try to de-stabilize Syria? If you want us to have constructive dialogue, you need to reassure us about your good intentions concerning our stability.

–Third, prosperity. If you achieve peace and stability, you can focus on prosperity. Prosperity in the region has an effect on illegal immigration, terrorism, poverty. All these objectives serve our interests and the Americans'. So the question here is: Why do you sanction Syria?

We are ready for constructive dialogue to achieve these three objectives, based on our knowledge that you need to take history and geography into account. We are in the middle of three crises–Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinians–and you are far away.

Q: Let me ask you to discuss the specifics of the Baker-Hamilton report. Do you support the report?

A: There are many positive elements in this report. But it is not a Bible or Koran. This is the first time there is a report on the desk–another plan for the administration. We are not the decision-makers. It is up to the president to decide.

We say: We are not against the U.S. To the contrary, we want to be part of a regional dialogue that in our opinion serves American interests in the region.

Q: Let's go through the specific recommendations in the report that concern Syria. The first is recommendation 4, which calls for an Iraq Support Group composed of Iraq's neighbors and the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council. Would Syria join in such an Iraq Support Group?

A: I will explain: I went to Iraq (in November 2006). I spent three days there. When others visited they have spent three hours. I met with all the Iraqi leaders. I discussed issues with them on the basis of agreed principles. One, the unity of Iraq. Two, the independence of Iraq. Three, an agreed timetable of withdrawal between the U.S. and Iraqi leadership.

When I refer to a timetable, it is not to offend the U.S. To the contrary. It is a timetable for withdrawal and building Iraqi security. They will go in parallel. It is not a timetable of immediate withdrawal.

Q: Do you have in mind a time frame? What about the Baker-Hamilton suggestion of early 2008?

A: It is not up to me to answer. It depends on Iraqi ability to take over security. Immediate withdrawal? This is an immoral step. Iraq must be prepared to take over. It is not a duty (for the US military in Iraq) of fighting. It is a duty of training.

Iraq is similar to Lebanon. You cannot rule Iraq by majority. You rule Iraq by consensus. All Iraqi groups have to participate in the political process. The first steps must start with the Iraqis themselves. They need to end existing divisions within themselves. They need to agree on the constitution, unity, the distribution of wealth, dismantling of militias. When they reach agreement on these, they need to start preparation of a national reconciliation conference. Even their legislation of uprooting the Baath (de-Baathification), they realize they need a change, to uprooting the Saddamists.

(Moallem goes off record to describe his conversations with the leaders of each of the main groups in Iraq. He agreed to allow me to summarize the basic outlines of his advice: To the Kurds, don't secede; to the Shia, recognize that you can't rule Iraq alone and work with the Sunnis; to the Sunnis, recognize that old system of Sunni rule is gone and work with the Shia.)

Q: But what about the Baker-Hamilton idea of a regional Iraq Support Group? Should that come later?

A: The Iraqi consensus (after it is reached) has to be supported by the neighboring countries. That is the third step, after Iraqi agreement on issues and the national reconciliation conference. The third step is a meeting between Iraqis, their neighbors and the five members of the UN Security Council.

Q: Let me return to the specific recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Report. Recommendation 12 says the U.S. and the Support Group should encourage Syria to do three things: control its border with Iraq to the maximum extent possible, including joint Syrian-Iraqi patrols; open a Syrian hotline to Iraq; increase Syrian political and economic cooperation with Iraq.

A: Leave that language aside. These are Syrian ideas that have been offered to the Iraqis. Tomorrow we will have the Iraqi interior minister in Syria, for talks based on these ideas. We will have 22 generals coming, from the Defense ministry, the Interior ministry. We are not doing this to please the US. We are doing what is in the Syrian and Iraqi interest. We promise to do things with Iraq, and we started doing them Dec. 11, when we raised flags at our two embassies. The next step is security arrangements, economic arrangements.

Q: So you are already doing the things mentioned in recommendation 12.

A: Yes.

Q: The next is recommendation 13, which calls for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts. I assume from what you said before you favor that. And then recommendation 14, which calls for an unconditional meeting, like the 1991 Madrid conference.

A: It is a good idea. I would like to see this administration really honestly have interest to accomplish this goal. It has a duty to encourage Israel to walk on this path.

Q: Finally, Lebanon, which is discussed in recommendation 15. It has a series of specific items. First, it says that Syria should pledge full adherence to UN Security Council Resolution 1701 of August 2006 (which called on Syria to halt deliveries of arms to Hezbollah.)

A: We are adhering to it. We have increased our border patrols on the Lebanese border.

I deny all rumors that Syria is sending arms to Lebanese parties. You have satellite and air surveillance over these borders. Nobody has presented us a document telling us that there is this transfer of arms. President Assad committed to (UN Secretary General) Annan that Syria will work with the UN to implement 1701.

Q: The Baker-Hamilton Report next calls on Syria to cooperate with the UN investigation of the Hariri assassination and other killings. I know that Brammertz said this week in his latest report that Syria is cooperating, but will you continue to cooperate?

A: We will continue our cooperation with the Brammertz investigation, as long as this investigation is proven it is professional. Because discovering the reality of this crime is serving the Syrian interest.

Q: Next, recommendation 15 calls for cessation of Syrian aid to Hezbollah and use of Syrian territory to transport weapons.

A: There is no such cooperation (with Hezbollah). We have moral support, not operational support, because we want to see Lebanon stable. We want to help UNIFIL (the UN force in southern Lebanon) in achieving its mandate, and we believe the Lebanese are capable of solving issues.

Q: Next, recommendation 15 calls for Syria to use its influence with Hamas and Hezbollah for the release of Israeli army prisoners.

A: Who has influence on Israel to release Lebanese, Palestinians and 20 Syrians who are being held prisoner? Why don't we combine the two influences to achieve a deal on exchanging prisoners. We are ready.

Q: Next, the report calls on Syria to stop its efforts to undermine the Lebanese government.

A: We are for the stability, sovereignty and independence of Lebanon.

Q: But I believe the report is referring to the current Lebanese government of Fouad Siniora.

A: Fouad Siniora is not Lebanon. Fouad Siniora was invited to visit Syria three times. He was reluctant. We support Lebanese stability. We support what Lebanese agreed upon to achieve their stability, within Taif (the 1990 Taif agreement) and the constitution.

Q: Next, the report calls for Syria to cease arms shipments to Hamas.

A: This is nonsense. We are far from Gaza.

Q: Next, the report calls for a Syrian commitment to help obtain an acknowledgement by Hamas of Israel's right to exist.

A: I will disclose something to you for the first time. We are exerting efforts with the foreign minister of Qatar with Hamas and Fatah together. We kept the same distance between them, to reach agreement to compose a national unity government. We convinced Hamas to agree on a ceasefire in Gaza. We hope this will be applicable to the West Bank. We convinced Hamas to agree on a Palestinian state in the 1967 occupied territories. (An implicit recognition of Israel). What else do you want from us?

Q: Finally, recommendation 15 calls on Syria to make greater efforts to seal its border with Lebanon.

A: Can the US seal its border with Mexico? Unless you want us to build a wall to seal the border with Lebanon. Are the Lebanese seeking this? Will it serve their interests?

Q: Finally, Recommendation 16 says that in return for Syrian help in all these matters, Israel should return the Golan Heights to Syria. Is that a precondition, for Syria–that it would get the Golan back in any negotiations?

A: There is no precondition. A constructive dialogue has to start without preconditions. Dialogue has a literature (of proper procedure). You don't put demands. You put agreed goals. Under this, you put each side's commitment to achieve the goals in a parallel way. This is how we understand constructive dialogue.

This is not a deal. This is not, 'We will do this if you give us Lebanon.' Our only goal is to get the return of Syrian occupied territories, to get Syrian regional stability.

Q: A last question. I am assuming that you have discussed these issues with President Assad, and that he agrees with the views that you expressed today in this interview.

A: I am the foreign minister of Syria. The president and the foreign minister can speak. He is the leader. I am expressing his ideas.

By David Ignatius |  November 10, 2006; 7:10 PM ET

Comments (32)


1. Joshua said:

As a number of readers have suggested, I have asked T_desco a number of times to bring together his summaries and publish them on the front page. I logged him in over a year ago with full rights to publish when he wants.

I think he needs readers’ prodding. His reports are excellent, as everyone says. They do get lost in the comment section. It would be great if he would weave together his analysis of the Brammertz report, which is much better than anything I have seen in the news. Analysts in capitals around the world would find it very useful.

Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

December 15th, 2006, 6:31 pm

 

2. Innocent_Criminal said:

I fully agree with MSK, ALex and Josh.

T_desco,

You need to put your ideas on a more prominent location. whether its on your own blog or on Syricomment (or both) it doesn’t matter. Just get it out there so people other than us comment section junkies can read it.

As for the interview, I think the president’s arguments were quiet convincing. Though I expected to see more specific questions regarding the situation in Lebanon at the moment.

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December 15th, 2006, 7:22 pm

 

3. Akbar Palace said:

“I think the president’s arguments were quiet convincing.”

Good. Then you can make peace with the Syrian head thug.

If the good doctor wants peace, have him stop supporting terrorists. Using his own words:

“you have nothing to lose”;)

And what can Olmert lose? How about strategically high land? How about water resources? I wish I could have responded to Alix’s softball questions.

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December 15th, 2006, 7:35 pm

 

4. ivanka said:

I found remarkable that Ahmad Chalabi and what’s his name Jaafari the other PM visited Syria. Today, there was the Iraqi interior minister.

The other day on Al Jazeera, Harith Al Dari said “Syria is the first country in supporting the resistance”. This seems to agree with my own analysis that Syria is quite close to the insurgents (some of them).

I think allready improving relations with Iraq will open the Iraqi market to Syrians and that would be a great thing.

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December 15th, 2006, 7:45 pm

 

5. MEY said:

He is learning fast but the foundation of the regime remain fragile. One thing in his favor is the chaos next door: if this is american democracy then many Syrians would rather have this autocratic state with its stability. In the long run security cannot bring eternal stability without change.

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December 15th, 2006, 8:53 pm

 

6. John Kilian said:

I have read several postings the decry the onslaught of American hegemony in the Middle East. While I do not wish to belittle the obscene violence visited on the Lebanese this summer, it seems to me today the threat of Iranian hegemony is far greater to the region than any inroads being laid by America. The specter of Islamic fundamentalism is a core issue in the sectarian conflict in Iraq and elsewhere, where the violence continues to spiral out of control.

Assad can say Iran and Syria do not want chaos in the region, but who can you blame for all the infighting in the Arab speaking world today? The same conflict that raged in Algeria continues today in Iraq and Lebanon. How can the US and Israel be responsible for all of this?

All this talk about Syria helping America is 90% largesse. It is the Arab League that needs to sit down and figure out how to settle its differences peacefully. I think it is good that Iraq and Syria are talking at high levels. And maybe the US can be of assistance. But if Syria wants to work with the US then perhaps it needs to evaluate how close they wish to stand with Iran.

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December 15th, 2006, 9:51 pm

 

7. ghassan said:

Asad said he is willing to have peace with Israel and there are shared interests with the US. Is Hizballah going to label him as a traitor? If anyone from the March 14 have said what Asad said HA and its March allies will be screaming “a traitor!”

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December 15th, 2006, 11:33 pm

 

8. Nizar Al Ahmar said:

Reading Assad interview is a waste of time. Misinformation is cornerstone of the Syrian regime defense strategy. There is nothing true in any of his statements. The Syrian regime wanted peace for the last 25 years. All other Arab countries directly involved in the Arab Israeli conflict agreed to some form of peaceful settlement with Israel. Why Assad wants us to believe that his quest for peace is now genuine. We all know, the American administration knows, Baker knows that all what Assad want is to keep the status quo. He does not want peace he does not want war.
Assad wants us to believe that he wants a stable Lebanon. Why on earth this country did not enjoy a moment of stability since the Syrian soldiers set camps their. For thirty years, the Syrian regime controlled every aspect of the political, social and economical live of the Lebanon and still no stability. We all know and history proves it that stability of Lebanon is not on the task to do list of Assad. We all know that the stability of Iraq is not one of his priorities. We all know that democracy, political freedom and economic prosperity of the Syrian people are not on his agenda.
All what I have said earlier is common knowledge and because of that no one wants to engage Syria. Ask Clinton about engaging Syria.
It is urgent for the President Assad and it is critical for the survival of his regime to know that we know that he did not mean a word of what he said in the interview. The demagogic approach and tactics are obsolete.

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December 16th, 2006, 12:14 am

 

9. Tarek said:

This interview with Assad is full fluff, repetitions and contradictions. I am not going to go into details, it is not worth it. Essentially, if he can help out in bringing peace into Iraq, and stability to Lebanon as he claims, what is he waiting for? My feeling is that he has been for long time a large contributor to the problem and the solution he is proposing is growing beyond him daily. this regime has been proven to be full of thugs and its end will definitely come – I hope soon – for the sake of the Syrian people.

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December 16th, 2006, 12:20 am

 

10. Ehsani2 said:

My favourite quote in the interview:

“Our policy is based on the will of the people. That is why we are very strong.”

Even the most ardent supporters of the President must admit that this is stretching it a bit.

How do the people exactly convey their will and what institutions act as the conduit for this exchange of ideas?

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December 16th, 2006, 12:25 am

 

11. Alex said:

Ehsani,

It is true what they say about you … you rarely (since I never, I mean, rarely use the word “never”) find anything positive to say!

🙂

I’ll try to help you change that negative habit. For a change, tell us if you liked the direction Bashar and Walid took in these two interviews, by directly challenging the Israelis to start peace talks. What would you have advised them if you were asked?

And did you notice how Alix hinted that the economy looks like it is not terrible at least.

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December 16th, 2006, 1:19 am

 

12. Enlightened said:

Ye lets cheer for Bashar!

““Our policy is based on the will of the people. That is why we are very strong.”

Yes it was the peoples will that helped change the constitution lowering the age so Bashar can be president!

No Mr president your rule is not based on the will of the people far from it, your rule is based on an archaic emrgency law that has not changed in over 40 years. Furthermore your people are suppressed, and if they speak out like KILO or Bunni you send them to one of your humanitarian prisons!

I for one will not be fooled to see the regime for what it is! I pity the people!

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December 16th, 2006, 1:36 am

 

13. Anonymous said:

It’s good that you defend Asad regime في 25 يوليو أصدرت محكمة أمن الدولة العليا بدمشق الحكم على كل من “هيثم قطيش” بالسجن أربع سنوات، والممثل “مهند قطيش” بالسجن ثلاث سنوات، والصحفي “يحيي الآوس” سنتين بعد احتجاز دام نحو عامين، وكانت سلطات الأمن السورية قد اتهمت واحتجزت ، كل من الأخوين هيثم و مهند قطيش والصحفي يحيى الأوس بتهم “الحصول على معلومات يجب أن تبقى مكتومة حرصا على سلامة الدولة لمنفعة دولة أجنبية” و “إذاعة أخبار كاذبة في الخارج” بواسطة شبكة الإنترنت ، وذلك منذ عام 2002 حين قُبض عليهم بسبب إرسال مقالات إلى جريدة إلكترونية في الإمارات العربية المتحدة، حسبما ورد، وقد أُسندت إلى كل من مهند قطايش ويحي الأوس تهمة “الحصول على معلومات، يجب أن تظل سرية حفاظاً على أمن الدولة، لمصلحة دولة أجنبية”، كما وُجهت إلى هيثم ومهند قطايش تهمة “التحريض للحصول على معلومات، يجب أن تبقى سرية حفاظاً على أمن الدولة، لمصلحة دولة أجنبية”. واتُهم هيثم قطايش بنشر كتابات دون موافقة الحكومة من شأنها أن تعرض سوريا والسوريين إلى خطر أعمال عدائية تلحق الضرر بعلاقات سوريا بدولة أجنبية”، ووُجهت إلى يحي الأوس ومهند قطيش تهمة “نشر أخبار كاذبة في الخارج”.
the rest of the article is on
الشبكة العربية لمعلومات حقوق الإنسان

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December 16th, 2006, 2:19 am

 

14. Gibran said:

It defies reason and common sense to seek to reward such a failed and fragile regime as the current Syrian regime in the name of advocating real politics. The whole crux of this real politics advocacy is to legitimize the illegitimate regime of Mr. Assad. The regime’s modus operandi is clear to everyone who can see: Continue to create trouble spots in neighboring states hoping to gain attention from the US with the aim of striking some kind of deal.
Assad seems to overlook the very basic fact that chaos in the region will eventually engulf the same country which is creating and supporting the chaos – his own. Being in such a dilemma, Assad will eventually become the victim of his own mis-designs. On the other hand chaos may in the end produce the democratic Middle East once the present order collapses, thus proving the accuracy of the vision of the current US administration. It is a matter of survival to the despots of the region (Assad/Ahmedinejad) to abandon their current strategy of destabilization. So why should they be rewarded for anything they do to ensure their survival? Why should anyone even contemplate talking to such failed duo of despots? They probably believe time is on their side! They’re wrong.

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December 16th, 2006, 3:01 am

 

15. John Kilian said:

Gibran,
When I read “chaos may in the end produce the democratic Middle East once the present order collapses,” I am thinking, this must be the words of a neo-neocon. The strategy of wholesale regime change by destruction of the state and undermining existing economic and social structures is a circuitous route to democracy. The Iraqi constitution and elections were made possible only where the US occupation maintained some credibility. Without some sort of stability all hell will break loose. It seems unlikely that Lebanon’s democracy will survive the strain of the recent destruction of so much of its infrastructure and the bitterness of so much loss of life.
Damascus is a kleptocracy, and the Syrians and their neighbors all deserve better. But simply destroying the Assad regime does not lead to something better. A cycle of violence has no basement; warfare does not naturally arrive at a point of equilibrium at which point progress will automatically proceed. The US bombed Cambodia to root out the Communists and this led to the Khmer Rouge. You believe Syria can do no worse than Assad? Iraqis used to believe they could do no worse than Saddam Hussein; then they met Paul Bremer.

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December 16th, 2006, 4:16 am

 

16. Charles G. Coutinho, Ph. D. said:

We should all I think congratulate Professor Landis for presenting us with such two wonderful postings: highly informative and interesting, in terms of Syrian policy both domestically and regionally. As per the specifics of Assad fils, statements: without appearing too clever by half, I must say, that his comments merely repeat what I myself said yesterday in the comments section of this online journal, id est, about the fact that Damascus will never willingly give up the alliance with Teheran. It might, conceivably balance it with ties to Rihyad, the EU and the USA, if there is ever a settlement which gives the Golan back to Syria. But, his defence of Persia shows clearly that for reasons of raison d’etat, the current regime in Syria is never going to cut loose from Teheran, come what may.

His comments about the regime’s domestic strength, and popularity, also show (as I maintained yesterday) that if the regime regains the Golan, it is much, much less likely to pursue a path of reform and Democratization, than otherwise. His thinking clearly shows that his
underlining thinking is: ‘we have managed to
outlast and in fact triumph over the Americans and their regional allies, why should we reform, and, why do we need reforms, if that is the case?’ Again, as I mentioned yesterday, historically speaking it is regimes who are weakened by defeats (diplomatically or militarily) which tend to choose the path of reform (from above). Regimes which are strong and or victorious abroad, tend not to. Afterall, war is in many ways the most visible ‘test match’, of states: those who lose, tend to either undergo a path of reform, or undergo some type of upheveal; those who win tend not too. Pur et simple.

One final thought, notwithstanding the attempts in the interview to try to separate the EU from
the USA, today’s Beirut Daily Star has a lead story from Brussels, in which the EU Heads of Governments collectively accuse both Damascus and Teheran of attempting to ‘destablilize’ the Near East, and warns Syria directly that unless it ‘stops interfering’ with the Lebanon, it will be unable to end its diplomatic isolation. Something which by the bye, I also noted recently, contrary to Professor Landis own longstanding surmise that the EU is ready to pursue a diplomatic line independent of Washington. As per what occurred in Brussels today, that is very much not the case. I have enclosed for Syriacomment.com readers the story in full:

EU accuses Iran, Syria of destablizing Middle East

Compiled by Daily Star staff
Saturday, December 16, 2006

The European Union accused Iran and Syria on Friday of destabilizing the Middle East, telling Damascus “to stop interfering in Lebanon” if it wanted normal relations with the international community. Significantly hardening the bloc’s tone, EU leaders said “Syria must end all interference in Lebanese internal affairs and actively engage in the stabilization of Lebanon and the region.”

In a statement at the end of their two-day summit in Brussels, they also charged that Iran was harming security in the region with its nuclear program and threats toward Israel.

“The European Council expresses its concern about the negative impact of Iranian policies on stability and security in the Middle East.”

EU leaders also warned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that his policies – including his dismissal of the Holocaust and anti-Israeli diatribes – have a “negative impact” on stability in the region.

“Iran needs to play a responsible role in the region,” the leaders said in their statement.

The EU declaration on Iran reflected disillusion after three years of fruitless talks between Europe’s three leading powers – Britain, France and Germany – and Iran on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at developing atomic weapons.

Ahmadinejad, who has stirred an outcry by referring to the killing of 6 million Jews in World War II as a “myth,” told a Tehran conference questioning the Holocaust that Israel’s days were numbered.

In remarks to the summit distributed to journalists, French President Jacques Chirac condemned what he called “a destabilization offensive” against the elected government of Lebanese Premier Fouad Siniora.

Hizbullah, backed by Syria and Iran, and other pro-Syrian opposition groups, have staged mass demonstrations to try to topple Siniora’s Western-backed government.

The EU urged Israel to stop violations of Lebanese airspace with overflights that have created tension with the mainly European UN peacekeeping force in Southern Lebanon.

It demanded Syria recognize and cooperate with a special tribunal for Lebanon, created to try those responsible for the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last year.

Hariri was a close friend of Chirac. His killing sparked mass protests that forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon under UN pressure.

France pressed ahead Friday with plans for an international donor conference next month on rebuilding Lebanon despite political turmoil in the country.

“More than ever, Lebanon needs our help,” Chirac said at the summit, adding the conference would be held on January 25 in Paris.

Chirac told reporters Friday that the 25 EU nations stand united in their support of “the democratic institutions in Lebanon and, as a result, in support of Siniora’s democratically elected government.”

“Our security and our prosperity depend also on the stability in this troubled region,” he said. “We cannot appear divided or inactive as a spiral of uncontrolled violence looms.”

Chirac noted Arab League mediators’ success this week in getting the Lebanese government and opposition to agree on a national unity government.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei said today’s political crisis “is not the most favorable context in which to hold this conference. We are doing everything so that it can take place on the scheduled date.”
http://www.dailystar.com.lb

EU leaders also condemned the killing last month of anti-Syrian Lebanese Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, and decried any other attempts to “destabilize Lebanon through political assassinations or terrorist acts.”

Also Friday, the EU extended by three months an aid deal for the Palestinians that bypasses the Hamas-led government that took office earlier this year.

Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel has meant diplomatic and economic isolation from the international community and triggered a financial crisis for the Palestinians.

EU leaders said “the protracted deterioration” of the Palestinian situation justified continuing the World Bank-monitored aid scheme that has funneled hundreds of millions of euros directly to Palestinians.

This came as Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview published Friday that the US and Europe must talk to Syria and Iran if they want a comprehensive solution to Iraq and other Middle East conflicts.

Assad told Rome’s La Repubblica newspaper Damascus was ready to cooperate with Washington to resolve regional issues and challenged Israel to open up to Syria.

The Syrian president sought to downplay Syria’s backing of Hizbullah in Lebanon, saying that his country holds influence on the Shiite group, but doesn’t interfere in Lebanese affairs.

“Don’t you see that Hizbullah is backed by a large part of the Lebanese population? It is wrong to portray it as a Syrian or Iranian puppet. Hizbullah has its own interests, its own vision. They trust us, so we can influence them,” he was quoted as saying in the interview.” We never lost our influence in Lebanon. But it is not interference.”

Asked if he was ready to work constructively with Washington, he said: “Certainly we are ready to do so. Because if you don’t resolve regional questions – Iraq, Lebanon, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – it will be we bordering countries that will pay the highest price.”

Syria had “excellent relations” with many factions in Iraq and could support a national conference on the future of the country, he said.

Assad added that the Uni-ted States and Europe “must talk to Tehran.”

US President George W. Bush is under strong pressure to accept the recommendation of a bipartisan Iraq Study Group to talk to Tehran and Damascus in a bid to stabilize Iraq and help extricate US forces.

Assad said the ISG report vindicated Syria’s position that it had to be listened to.

The Syrian president added that Israel should also take up Syria’s offer to hold talks. “I say to Olmert: ‘Take a chance. Discover if we are bluffing or not.'”

But despite his call for dialogue, Assad also said Syria is preparing for the possibility of a war with the Jewish state, since he claimed Syria expects Israel to launch a war against it” at any moment,” according to the interview.

“War is always possible in our region. It is natural to prepare [or it],” he was quoted as telling the newspaper.

Asked about this week’s conference sponsored by Iran questioning the Holocaust, Assad said: “Listen, Europe has a complex about the Holocaust. We don’t because we didn’t do it.” –
in http://www.dailystar.com.lb.

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December 16th, 2006, 4:32 am

 

17. Gibran said:

John,
You seem to have missed the whole point. Assad seeks to be rewarded for something he is willfully doing that may lead to his own destruction. Whether the ensuing chaos may bring democracy or not is beside the point. In fact chaos is not necessarily a sure outcome of his demise. Syrians may still come up with quite few good leaders without having to go through the pain. It is only Assad and his supporters who put forward the chaos theory in order to emphasize the misconception of the lack of alternatives. Assad’s game is played in the name of so called real politics which is in fact pseudo real. He is operating with the mentality of 1980/90 era politics. He cannot adapt to a world that has drastically changed since then. Thus, his meddling in Iraq is inspired by Hafez’s perceived successes in Lebanon in 1984 when the US marines abandoned Beirut as a result of the well known bombing of their compound. Assad the son is seeking to emulate Assad the father but in a different arena – Iraq. He will not succeed. His gambit is too exposed to be repeated in Iraq. Assad the son is too weak to fight a war and lacks the political skills to play the regional power broker he is so desperate to reclaim after his numerous defeats and humiliations. In short the son is wearing a shoe that is too big to his feet. The US could easily ignore his presence and he will whither to political wilderness by the simple fact of the rampant corruption that surrounds him.

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December 16th, 2006, 4:51 am

 

18. Akbar Palace said:

John Kilian stated:

“The same conflict that raged in Algeria continues today in Iraq and Lebanon. How can the US and Israel be responsible for all of this?”

John,

First rule of fundamentalist, terror supporting dogma is: The US and the Zionists are ALWAYS at fault. Ask Ivanka.

The rest of your post is right on the money.

Nizar Al Ahmar said:

“It is urgent for the President Assad and it is critical for the survival of his regime to know that we know that he did not mean a word of what he said in the interview.”

It is also critical for the survival of his regime continued conflict with his neighbors. Without the external conflict, the Assad legacy collapses. Good points.

Tarek says:

“this regime has been proven to be full of thugs and its end will definitely come – I hope soon – for the sake of the Syrian people.”

Inshallah!

Gibran said:

“On the other hand chaos may in the end produce the democratic Middle East once the present order collapses, thus proving the accuracy of the vision of the current US administration. It is a matter of survival to the despots of the region (Assad/Ahmedinejad) to abandon their current strategy of destabilization. So why should they be rewarded for anything they do to ensure their survival? Why should anyone even contemplate talking to such failed duo of despots? They probably believe time is on their side! They’re wrong.”

What’s going on? Everyone is agreeing with me! Professor Josh, MSK, are you listening???

John Kilian replied:

“But simply destroying the Assad regime does not lead to something better. A cycle of violence has no basement; warfare does not naturally arrive at a point of equilibrium at which point progress will automatically proceed. The US bombed Cambodia to root out the Communists and this led to the Khmer Rouge. You believe Syria can do no worse than Assad? Iraqis used to believe they could do no worse than Saddam Hussein; then they met Paul Bremer.”

Here’s where we part company. Comparing Paul Bremer to Saddam Hussein is rather poor example. I know many are tempted to blame the US, but those blowing themselves up everyday aren’t Americans.

Unfortunately, democracies cannot be created overnight. The US democracy is now 230 years old and survived a civil war where over 600,000 souls perished. Take that as an example.

Dear Charles G. Coutinho, Ph. D.,

I hope you don’t believe everything you’ve posted.

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December 16th, 2006, 5:22 am

 

19. Joshua said:

Charles,
Thanks for the Daily Star article and for your analysis over the last week, which I must say I agree with.

Many of Asad’s financial reforms of the last several years were hastened and driven along by the tremendous pressure placed on the Syrian economy by the West, and particularly the US. Switching to the Euro, hastening private banks as a means to circumvent sanctions on the central bank, and preparing to float government bonds have all been excellerated by the need to safeguard Syria from sanctions and to show the Syrian people that Syria could escape the US threat despite defying US pressure. Once the pressure eases, so will the urgency of reform.

But I also suspect the President has other reasons to continue economic reform, which he has spoken of consistently since assuming office. He is eager to remain popular. Once the West is not threatening him and bolstering his legitimacy by the simple fact that he can safeguard Syria’s stablility and security, he will have to produce in other ways. Syrians want economic reform and more wealth. Political reform is not on Asad’s agenda.

As for Europe’s present hard line on Lebanon, what else can it do at this juncture? Lebanon faces the threat of breakdown. George Bush is preparing to ask Europe for backing for one last push to get Iraq right, and Europe has no answers of its own to the terrible condition of the Middle East. It finds itself hostage to Bush’s agenda. What is more, France owns the Syria-Lebanon question in the EU and cannot abandon Siniora at this delicate juncture. The rest of Europe must follow unless they want to wrestle the Syria-Lebanon portfolio away from France, and who would want that hot potato?

All the same, I don’t suspect that many Europeans are optimistic about Bush’s plans or abilities to carry through. They will permit him to play out his hand in Iraq and Lebanon. Bush must be promising them some action on Palestine. What do they have to lose? It is Bush’s nickel.

They will wait until the US public cannot sustain the expense or disappointment of Iraq, which will come soon enough, then they will push the US again to change course in the Middle East.

The many visits of European foreign ministers to Damascus over the last several weeks were an attempt to sound out Asad and push the debate toward engagement, but President Bush has stuck to his guns, fought back the wave of pressure, and insisted it is no time to change course. What is more, the Gemayyel assassination and Ahmedinejad holocaust conference make it very hard for any country to insist this is the time to engage. But they will be counting the months if things do not improve in Lebanon or Iraq.

If Lebanon should crumble under the opposition’s pressure, or, what is more likely, if there is no resolution to the present crisis and the political situation remains paralyzed for several more months and Iraq continues to deteriorate in the absence of a political deal between Sunnis and Shiites, then what will Europe do? They will have to make the best of a bad situation, which will mean creeping back toward Damascus and looking for new solutions. The US will have to do the same.

Europe cannot be seen to stab the US in the back at this point. It will wait for the Democrats and congress to wear down the President before resuming the effort to engage. In the absence of a unified foreign policy, Europe remains condemned to follow the US.

I suspect that President Bush has only four or so more months to produce some results in the Middle East. After that it won’t be only the European wheels that fly off his foreign polic chariot.

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December 16th, 2006, 5:29 am

 

20. Akbar Palace said:

Professor Josh –

Thanks for the info on Syrian economic reform. It sounds so exciting! I bet pretty soon all the labels in American department stores will say, “Made in Syria”!

Regarding the American pressure on the Great Syrian Leader, it is amazing to me young Bashar can take this abuse. He’s such a nice guy, and he really only cares about all this reform and Syrian security. He knows, like everyone else, that if something were to happen to him, the rest of Syria would suffer, and we can’t have that.

As we know, all the funneling of weapons to the Hezbollah “resistance” and the murder of those Lebanese opposed to Syria is in the best interest of a strong Lebanon. It’s so encouraging!

Meanwhile Donald isn’t so optimistic. I wonder what troubles him…

http://www.dfw.com/mld/dfw/news/opinion/16224448.htm

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December 16th, 2006, 5:43 am

 

21. Charles G. Coutinho, Ph. D. said:

Dear Professor Landis,

Thanks for the lovely compliments! You are probably correct as per both Europe and American policy vis`a-vis Syria, with one caveat: to wit that for Bush et. al., the Lebanese question is not per se important, is is merely a symbol. Two years ago, it was a positive symbol, the first (really the only) fruits of the Iraq project. Now, that positive result is in danger of being overthrown. Or at the very least rendered moot. But, the point here is that for Bush, Rice, et cetera, what happened in the Lebanon, was meant to be one part a harbinger of what the Iraq project was about, to the region as a whole, and one part, PR success (‘Cedar Revolution!’ Prague=1989, Beirut=2005).

If the Cedar Revolution is reversed, than that is one more debit on the whole Iraq project. Which pretty much everyone in much of the USA, and much of Official Washington (of which you know and are much more personally familiar with than any of us), thinks is a disaster at this point. Consequently, the Lebanon, recedes into importance. Will the USA attempt to keep the status quo ante in Beirut? Yes. Will it attempt to forcefully do so? No. Right now, which is the endgame of the whole Iraq mission, the Lebanon is merely (I think I have used this expression before, but it fits perfectly), a ‘sideshow’ in the Shawcross sense of the word. Think Indochina circa 1971.

So, if the Siniora government collapses, the USA will huff and puff, but, that will not result in a meaningful change of American policy. Both towards Syria or Persia. Much less Iraq. As for
Bush himself: I truly think (again I could be absolutely wrong about this) that he is truly the last of the Mohicans, and, will not give in to reality on either Iraq or Syria, until forced to by overwhelming pressure. The only question is when that will be? My own guess for what it is worth, is when Senator McCain, who is just returning from Iraq, and, who still believes in a military victory, changes sides, and comes out for a policy of withdrawal, and, negotiations with Syria and Teheran, then and only then, will Bush capitulate to reality. Again, I could be wrong, and, the endgame as you say could be much shorter, say four or five months. Hopefully for the people of the region, it will be sooner rather than later.

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December 16th, 2006, 6:04 am

 

22. Alex said:

Akbar Palace,

Thanks for linking Donald’s interview.

to me, this is the most significant part:

CT: You’ve read the Iraq Study Group report.

DR: I haven’t. I’ve read reports of it and gone through the executive summary

They do not want to listen, and if they were forced to listen, they ignore what they just heard … They only listen to “stay the course”.. which is becoming the American version of our favorite Baath Slogan… only more dangerous to world peace.

You have Baker, Carter, Brizinski, Djerdjian, and others (including Bush Sr probably) warning that the war will eventually cost 2 trillion dollars, and that it can not be won…

But after teh presidetn talks to Baker .. some random Neocon advisor calls … he decodes whatever Baker just said in a way that always reinforces in the president’s mind the beauty of “stay the course” … and at the end of the day … selective retention erases Baker’s words, and we go back to “stay the course”…. one more day, 100 more dead Iraqis.

What’s the alternative for the proud President from Texas? accepting that he made a huge mistake that led to the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians? And that fixing this mistake requires among other things calling that tall and arrogant “I told you so” president of that small country?

Nope … it is easier to “stay the course”

Which leads me to Bashar’s freindly tone (or, President Assad’s friendly tone… according to Alix). And the similar tone Walid Moualem used… they are trying to make it easy for the American president to talk to them. They will insist on their “We told you so”, but I’m happy with the endless repetitions of the “we want to make peace with Israel, and we want to help the US in Iraq” … for those of you who ever designed commercial orpolitical ad campaings (anyone here?) .. you know that when you need to change opinions (especially long held opinions) repetition is needed … lots of repetition.

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December 16th, 2006, 6:31 am

 

23. Charles G. Coutinho, Ph. D. said:

One more question for Professor Landis or anyone else on this site, who has an interest: ‘what if anything will cause Damascus, to give up its current alliance with Teheran?’ Will Assad give up the ties that have built up since the early 1980’s, if he gets back the Golan, and, is given something approaching a carte blanche in the Lebanon, by the Western Powers? Or, are there both internal as well as external reasons for Assad to perhaps modulate, but, not really cut loose from his alliance with Persia? I myself, can see him, trying to balance off, his alliance with Teheran with re-establishing good ties with the Sunni Arab bloc in the region. But, I truly doubt that he will ever reverse course, and, just drop Persia, even perhaps for the Golan.

But, what does the rest of the SyriaComment.com readership think?

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December 16th, 2006, 6:34 am

 

24. Alex said:

Charles,

You used the right word “balance” … the Syrans (thanks To Hafez Assad) are paranoid about it… which saved them from endless challenges the past 36 years.

They will only do it if and when things change to the degree that make it “necessary”, and not only “possible” to cut ties with Iran.

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December 16th, 2006, 6:50 am

 

25. Charles G. Coutinho, Ph. D. said:

One final one for the evening, rather late here in Manhattan Island: in Friday’s Washington Post, Rice issued a complete non possumus [no, no, no!], to the idea of talking with Syria and Persia over Iraq. She states that the “‘compensation’ required would be much too high”. And, that if they were self-interested in stabilizing Iraq, they would do so anyway. For les beaux yeux of Uncle Sam, as it were. And, that
far from the current situation in the area being
one of strategic failure and collapse for the USA, as per Rice:

“This is a time for pushing and consulting and pressing and seeing what we can do to take advantage of this new strategic context”.

Which means that I was wrong before, that Bush is not the last of the Mohicans: now there are two!
The interview is in http://www.washingtonpost.com.

Bon Nuit!

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December 16th, 2006, 6:55 am

 

26. Gibran said:

Are you saying for les beaux yeux of Uncle Sam? I’d say it is rather for les beux yeux of Bashar himself! As you may well know ‘real’ (read pseudo real) politics goes both ways. Assad may continue toying with destabilization until he burns himself and perhaps Syria with him. Real politics dictates the recognition that the US is part of the region by the mere fact of its direct presence in Iraq, not to mention its indirect presence in other places as well. Bashar will do himself a great favor to accept this very simple truth. His opposition to the Iraq invasion was rooted in his fear that he is next on the American agenda. What has changed since then to eliminate this fear? Basically nothing. The US is still in Iraq and the sword of Damocles is still hanging on his head. It is more so now than on the eve of the invasion. The US could very well play him out to the finish line in his game of self annihilation. Can you guess who will lose?

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December 16th, 2006, 7:45 am

 

27. why-discuss said:

Gibran

US is in a mess in Iraq and Afghanistan… Do you really think they are a sword of Damocles to anyone?? US needs every single support they can get to get out of the Iraq mess… and Syria is one of the suport. They will have to swallow their pride and deal with Bashar, whether we like it or not..

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December 16th, 2006, 6:15 pm

 

28. Gibran said:

Why_Discuss

Your presumption is based on wishful thinking. The US is on the border of Syria and not vice versa. The sword of Damocles is therefore still hanging on Bashar’s head since the eve of the invasion. It is Syria that should come to terms and recognize its inability to maneuver being surrounded on all sides by hostile neighbors. The US can continue playing Bashar’s childish game until he withers into obscurity or overthrown. Are you aware of civil disturbances that took place in Aleppo and Qamishly recently (Dec. 10) and even earlier in October?

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December 16th, 2006, 6:38 pm

 

29. Antoun said:

Assad: “We have influence in Lebanon, we never lost it. But that does not mean interferance. Our influence does not come from a relation with a super power. We get it from our history and our geography. It is a geopolitcal position. You see, Lebanon and Syria used to be one region, and this applies also to the surrounding region, including Iraq. We have the same families, same language, same tradition. As for the geographical ties, Lebanon is surrounded by Syria, the depth of Lebanon is Syria. But it is a two-way relationship: Lebanon also has influence in Syria because of its position and its social ties”.

I am not contending the accuracy of this statement, to the contrary, he’s absolutely right.
The region will always be intertwined as a result of the connections he mentioned above. Indeed, Assad realises his strategic, geographical position as the head of Damascus grants him great “natural” influences over other states, and thus highlights its importance as a regional player.

However, the main reason I have highlighted this comment is to demonstrate a possible insight into Syria’s policy in the region.

Is it really advocating a Greater Syria policy with such comments? Syrian nationalism as opposed to Arab nationalism in Bashar’s Syria? Perhaps not in the sense of annexing and forming one nation, but perhaps it aspires to be the chief of the other “petty” states who will always be tied to Damascus.

Does this also demonstrate a shift in internal power bases in Syria? Is the SSNP becoming more influential on Syrian policies, while Baathist pan-Arabism drowns out?
Assad’s above statement edges very acutely to the line of the SSNP.

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December 16th, 2006, 7:25 pm

 

30. ivanka said:

Ehsani2,

I think President Bashar is right when he says this:

“Our policy is based on the will of the people. That is why we are very strong.”

Let me explain how: The approach of most Arab regimes towards their own peoples is populism. People feel very strongly about Palestine and about the US role in the region and especially in Iraq. What all these regimes are going to do is say “we support the Paletinian cause we are Arab nationalists, we are we are..” This is what the people want to hear.

When Bashar says this, he even appears credible because he himslef is threatened by the US. In fact the people, who fear the US and as many polls show are very anti-American, identify with this point of view.

Populism does make you popular. Bashar is very very popular right now. This is normal, he owns all the media and tells the people what they want to hear. He is even made more popular, and this intersects with your analysis in a post some time ago, by the fact that he represents stability and there is so much chaos going on.

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December 16th, 2006, 8:47 pm

 

31. Syria said:

it is great to analyse but let me tell you about the regime in Syria. Do not believe anything they say about democracy or modernızation. They lie and sort of go with the flow by words. But they rob their people of all their rights and play western diplomats and they can afford to because: leaders stay there forever.
1.While a western leader tries to get things done during their presidency Syrian leaders are not worried about time because they reelect themselves.
2. Most Syrians are cowards + ignorant and believe in “fate”. They care about getting married and earning money. Thats it! Syria will never change unless coward syrians make a serious move. SO there you have it! The US missed an opportunity and so did Israel in the last few years. Now Baathists are having champaigne and laughing their heads off at Westerners and at activist idiots like kilo who have no idea how the world powers work!
mahmood kussani

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December 20th, 2006, 5:07 pm

 

32. Sory said:

Hii and Salam
I’m a new member in this “free space” about my country ….I’m Syrian.
I interest to read all these rich information and discussion about what is going on in Syria. Although I’m Syrian, I have little idea or little understanding for what is going in this lovely country but this is normal for a Syrian guy.
I want to thank you all for this rich posts and discussions and I would like to join you in this form.

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December 21st, 2006, 7:43 pm

 

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