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Hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Near East, South and Central Asian Affairs Subcommittee - Syria: Options for Lebanon Panel I

Interview

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC

SEN. KERRY: (Strikes gavel.) The hearing will come to order.

Ambassador, great to see you again, and I apologize to folks for being a little bit late. We had an issue on the DOD conference, and there's a lot trying to happen in short order here. So I do apologize to colleagues and to the witnesses.

Ambassador Welch, we're very grateful to you for coming before the committee. Those of us on the committee know what a distinguished and long career you've had as a Foreign Service officer. I've had the pleasure of being with you in Egypt and seeing firsthand your skills. And I think I was there at the moment you got a phone call or you were about to become assistant secretary of State there during the transition.

You've also served as the principal deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. So you are well-versed in this region and area -- and we welcome you here -- having spent much of your time in the 1980s in key Middle East positions, including in Damascus.

This is not the first time that we've taken a hard look at the potential role that Syria could play in the Middle East. And we've had debates before here about whether to talk to this regime. Senior statesmen from both parties, from Lee Hamilton, Secretary Baker, weighed in on the potentially critical role that Syria could play in advancing primary national security interests and particularly with respect to preserving democracy in Lebanon, but also in stabilizing Iraq and advancing the Middle East peace process, dealing with Iran and combatting terrorism.

We're at a critical moment in Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East. And so we very much look forward to hearing your views on Syria's role in these regional questions, also sharing with us some thoughts about the administration's potential leverage sources with Syria and its overall strategy with Syria for going forward.

Let me just focus very quickly on the role with Lebanon. Syria, we all know, has had a long history, a long-standing policy in terms of Lebanon, and the policy certainly of dominating the affairs of the pro-Western government in Lebanon, which -- a government that almost three years after the Cedar Revolution is literally in a struggle for survival. You could say that the majority is attriting by assassination.

And it's a stunning situation. I was there just this past year and was struck not only to see this gaping hole still there in the ground from the Hariri assassination but to meet with one of the ministers who had undergone his 12th operation after having been bombed in his car. And I think he lost his 2-year-old daughter in that bombing. I mean, it's an extraordinary story of fear and survival and intimidation and many unanswered questions about it.

The government today, as a consequence of this, is in a state of -- it's on a precipice. The parliament is preparing to elect a new president in just three weeks. Should ongoing negotiations over a compromise candidate for president fail, the Syrian-backed opposition has threatened to form a parallel shadow government, an act that could severely destabilize Lebanon.

It's no secret that Syria and its supporters in the opposition, including Hezbollah, have worked to undermine Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government at every turn, and it's no secret that the money and weapons that empower Hezbollah come primarily through Syria and much of it from Iran.

So we are clear here that we stand strongly in support of free and fair presidential elections without intimidation, without interference. And that means leveraging Syria to respect Lebanese sovereignty.

An important part of this equation is the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which has been established to try the assassins of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the other anti-Syrian Lebanese leaders, and we look forward to hearing your views on where that is now.

And finally, on the reconstruction in Lebanon, when I was there last December I was struck by how Iran had seized the opportunity to win over the local population by channeling some half a billion dollars of reconstruction funds through Hezbollah. And that's obviously hard to count, but those are the estimates we heard.

We also were told of how Hezbollah flags were brazenly planted on bombed-out buildings, homes, from the war, and the message was clear -- Hezbollah will rebuild this, this is Hezbollah's property -- and in a sense an overt challenge to the authority and the legitimacy of any governmental issues, which were handicapped because of the lack of assistance. Since then, the United States has invested some $770 billion in supplemental assistance, welcome and significant.

We all know of the degree to which Syria has been contributing to the instability in Iraq. In March of this year, Iraq coordinator David Satterfield said that at least 80 percent of the suicide bombers in Iraq had traveled through Syria. And there are continuing reports of Syria's efforts to build ties with and host Sunni insurgents in Iraq.

In September, however, General Petraeus has said that the crossings had fallen to half or two-thirds of that level. So we need to understand today whether that is a message; is it an overt trend; is it something that we could perhaps use as an opening in dialogue.

Finally, Syria has played a counterproductive role in efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. We know that Syria has sponsored Palestinian militants like Hamas and helped rearm Hezbollah. The Israelis know it, and it's particularly telling that prime Minister Olmert recently said in a bipartisan group of high-level American foreign policy experts that Syria ought to be invited to the Middle East peace process in Annapolis later this month. So I look forward to hearing whether the administration plans to do that and what can be done to get Syria to play a more constructive role.

I'll just put the rest of my comments in the record as if read in full. And Senator Lugar, I know Senator Coleman is coming; he's not here. Did you wish to make any comment, as the ranking member of the committee?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR (R-IN): Mr. Chairman, I have a statement that I'll put in the record, and I'll reserve the time for questions so we can expedite hearing our witnesses.

SEN. KERRY: Thanks. Appreciate it.

Ambassador, we look forward to your testimony.

MR. WELCH: Thank you very much, Senators. Senator Kerry, it's good to be here in front of your subcommittee this afternoon. This is a very challenging issue and I'm grateful for the chance to talk it through with you and your colleagues.

And I think now there's a proven record for Bashar al-Assad and his regime. A little less than a decade ago, he assumed power, and at the time, there was a bit of a leadership transition in other parts of the Arab world as well. So people looked to see what new leaders of Jordan, Morocco and Syria might be like. Today, I think, we have a record of some experience and understanding what Syria under President Assad's leadership is like, and let me just make a couple remarks about that.

This is a government that, unfortunately, has tried to assert itself in Lebanon, undermining Lebanon's sovereignty and security, directly and through proxies. It's a government that continues to harbor and support organizations that have been involved in terrorism and that continue to be involved in terrorism. It's a government that has allowed some of these people to cross its borders into Lebanon and into Iraq, countries that are -- nominally have favorable relations with Damascus. And this is a regime that continues to turn a deaf ear to its own people's demands for freedom of expression and freedom to participate in political life.

This problem with respect to Lebanon is particularly poignant and important right now, as Lebanon faces a presidential election again. It's got its, you know, history of political difficulties in Lebanon that mean that there's rarely been an easy Lebanese presidential election. And this one's certainly not made any easier by what Syria has been doing. Nominally, they withdrew from Lebanon in 2005, following Rafik Hariri's assassination, but we still see a very strong Syrian influence.

Their allies and -- last year, about this time last year, engineered the resignation or departure of an important element of the Lebanese cabinet in an attempt to collapse the government and make it inoperable. They accused Fouad Siniora of leading an unconstitutional and illegitimate government.

I think many of you have met Prime Minister Siniora, and you know he is a man of probity and courage. And he has withstood this assault on his government and on his patriotism with, I think, uncommon valor.

We don't know who is behind the rash of political murders in Lebanon, but there's a depressing theme to those assassinations and to the attempts. I don't know that there has been a pro-Syrian politician who has been targeted. Every single one of those killed has been known for their pro-Lebanon, pro-Democracy and anti-Syrian views.

Because we're -- we share with others a concern about Lebanon's government's inability to perform its duties and its need for support in ending the culture of murder with impunity, for political reasons, the Security Council decided to establish a special investigation of some of these crimes. And it also, at the request of the Lebanese government, because Prime Minister Siniora was unable to get his cabinet and his president to act on it, he requested the Security Council to assume some of the sovereignty of Lebanon in constructing a special tribunal to deal with prosecutions for these crimes. I'm pleased to go into the status of that effort, to set that up during our question-and-answer period.

He would have done it through the Lebanese constitutional process had he been able to. But the cabinet couldn't agree to it, and the Lebanese parliament wouldn't meet, and the president wouldn't act. So it was necessary that the Security Council do that.

Mr. Senator, you also mentioned Syria as a entrepot for the flow of foreign fighters and the supply of weapons and financing to both Lebanon and Iraq. Syria remains a source of instability in this regard. We're concerned that it continues not to impose some of the restrictions. It could that would reduce this risk and put behind their words some evidence of sincerity in those words.

Syria also continues to obstruct efforts at Israeli-Palestinian peace.

There are Palestinian terrorist groups that operate to this day from Damascus. Despite repeated demands from the international community for them to stop that and a growing consensus in the remainder of the Arab world that the path of peace, not the path of violence is the one that people want to see pursued.

I think, as my colleagues who have been before you and others in the committee on the issue of Iraq have testified, there is a disproportionate number of foreign fighters who do cross from Syria into Iraq, and that remains a serious problem. And despite the fact that Iraq has long borders with several other countries, it's notable that this border remains the preferred access route.

Syria could take decisive action against those who organize this jihad, as they call it, and the networks that support it. It could tighten its visa regulations on travelers from certain countries or institute new procedures to address that risk, as most nations across the world have done in recent years. They could do more to step up their work with their Iraqi counterparts to look at measures along the border. These are steps that we think it's entirely reasonable to expect that they should have done already.

We've been willing to talk to them. We have a diplomatic mission in Damascus. We are not represented at the level of ambassador, of course. We withdrew our ambassador after the murder of Rafik Hariri, and we have not returned an ambassador yet. But we are able to talk to them. Secretary Rice has met with her Syrian counterpart twice this year, once in the spring and once just recently. Their words are on the face of it fine, but we need to see behind those words more than that; we need to see actions.

On the Lebanese election, Senator, the -- it's coming down to the final days now before the constitutional end to Emile Lahoud's term. We have day by day worked on this issue with our partners in Europe, particularly France, but also the principal European troop contributors to UNIFIL who played a very active role in trying to organize and sustain a common international call to allow these elections to proceed on time in accordance with the constitution and free of any interference or intimidation.

Last Saturday, Secretary Rice had a meeting with several of her counterparts on the margins of the Iraq ministerial in Istanbul, and they declared this position forthrightly and publicly and then delivered it to Syria. This group included not only France, a traditional partner for the United States in this regard, but also Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and the secretary-general of the Arab League. I believe that this is an important statement of common purpose and of a common normative value about what ought to happen here, and we hope that the Syrian government pays attention to it.

As you know, we've exercised a number of punitive measures, and we could take more.

We have used authorities under the Syria Accountability Act to prevent certain transactions with Syria. Because Syria is a state sponsor of terror, there is a complete ban on any arms-related exports or sales to Syria. There's a strict control on dual-use items and prohibitions on U.S. economic assistance. You know, in a region where we have decent relationships with almost all the surrounding countries, it's extraordinary that Syria stands out as kind of a dinosaur in this respect and has been unable to construct a more normal relationship with us and its neighbors.

We continue to talk to the Syrian government about the issue of Iraqi refugees. As you know, they're host to quite a number of Iraqis who've fled to Iraq, and in this respect, we do appreciate Syria's decision to renew cooperation with us to -- on our programs to address this humanitarian issue. We think that that's -- it's vital that it play this humanitarian role, and there are quite a number of Iraqis in Syria, probably over one and a quarter million. And that -- I think the majority of those displaced outside Iraq in the region.

And until recently, Syria has mostly kept its borders open to those trying to come out of Iraq and has not sent them back. Iraqis do have access to some critical social services there, and we understand, as do others in the international community, this places an unusual burden on Syria. We're trying to help in that respect. We've directed some assistance toward the needs there. Our assistant secretary for Refugee Affairs visited in the spring, visited Syria to discuss these issues, and just recently, we sent our new senior coordinator for Iraqi Refugees, Ambassador Foley, to Damascus, where he reiterated our commitment to providing help to Iraqis living in Syria through the U.N. and through international partners. We have an agreed frame work with the Syrian government with UNHCR to carry out refugee admissions processing in Syria, and some number of Iraqis are being referred to us by UNHCR so that we can go through the resettlement process here working with the Department of Homeland Security.

The Syrian government has a poor human rights record in the treatment of its own citizens. Despite the new -- relatively new regime there, that really hasn't changed from President Assad's father's day. They continue to imprison human rights activists and harass others. They refuse even the most limited steps toward transparency and participation in the political process. Their parliamentary elections were not much to speak about earlier this year. In May, the president of Syria ran without opposition under a referendum to renew his mandate as president. There was little risk that it would not be renewed.

These concerns in all these areas, Senator Kerry, are documented in conversations with the Syrian government going back some years. I, as you know -- not merely because I'm a diplomat but because I've worked in this area a long time -- I'm all in favor of talking to people. The question is not whether to talk, but how we talk to them, what are we talking about and what are they going to do about issues that divide us or issues of common concern. Should they take positive steps, I think we'd know that and we would consider further dialogue and engagement.

But these are really important issues which have cost us, cost the United States in lives and in money, and we, therefore, would expect that any engagement would be purposeful. I have no illusions about the difficulty of this problem.

With that, sir, I'm happy to take your questions on these subjects, and I'll come back to some of the ones that you mentioned in your opening statement.

SEN. KERRY: Thank you very much. We'll do -- we'll start off with a seven-minute round and try and get through here.

Mr. Secretary, first of all, with respect to the -- I mean, it's not hard to paint a tough case about Syria's behavior. We all understand that. I listed many of those things, and they are well known as a matter of public record. The question is, what's the policy that sort of deals with that? I think that's where we may have some concerns, and there are legitimate questions.

Isolation can work, but it has rarely, rarely worked when it's more unilateral than multilateral. And, you know, none of the other major partners with whom we deal have withdrawn their ambassadors or have engaged in major sanctions or have joined us in a serious way to sort of leverage Syria to something different.

So can you share with the committee perhaps -- well, first of all, can you share what was the gist of the conversation that took place between the secretary and the foreign minister? What did we ask? What is the state of play in terms of our expectations from Syria and perhaps even Syria's expectations, if there are any, about what they get in return from us if they do something?

MR. WELCH: The United States has, broadly speaking, in its foreign policy arsenal a robust selection of punitive measures that it could apply against countries that are taking actions against our interests. And you're correct, we have applied quite a number of those vis-a-vis Syria.

Other countries have chosen to respond differently.

Let me point out a couple things that others have done. The European Union has not replicated the steps we've taken exactly. But I would describe relations between Syria and the European Union as essentially frozen. Many of the countries in the Arab Middle East have tried to improve their relations with continental Europe through the European Union Association Agreement process. That agreement between Europe and Syria is presently frozen.

The political dialogue between Europe and Damascus is equally very narrow. So it's only on the problems; it's not on the opportunities. And I think that's a powerful signal to Syria of how gravely it has put itself in isolation from Europe.

Second, within the Arab world, relations are very difficult between Syria and what you would normally expect to be its Arab friends. The relationship in particular between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Emirates -- countries, I mentioned, that joined us in this demarche to the Syrians -- is very cool. At a time when many of the Arab oil exporters are enjoying economic boom, their investments are going elsewhere in the Arab world, and I don't think that's a coincidence.

Finally, you know, it's not exactly relevant, Senator, to your question. But it is an irony, I think, at a minimum, that of all the members of the Arab League, the only two countries that do not have ambassadors in each other's capitals are Lebanon and Syria. There is no formal diplomatic relationship between the two.

You know, one would think that these two countries would share a long border and, in many respects, some common history; would be able to have a better relationship. That is not because of the Lebanese. That is because of the Syrians.

With respect to the discussion between the secretary of State and the foreign minister of Syria, I've known this gentleman for many years. He's a professional, and I would describe it, sir, as a professional conversation. We said our piece on the things that concern us. He said his.

I think the Syrians would like to see a better relationship with the United States, but he did not table anything that would be -- that would back up his express desire to see that relationship improve.

Thank you.

SEN. KERRY: Did we table anything; i.e. "If you do X, Y, or Z, here is the kind of response that you might see from us"?

MR. WELCH: As I mentioned, Senator Kerry, were they to take actions in the areas that concern us, we're confident we'd be able to see that.

SEN. KERRY: Yeah, but you see, this is the problem. What I hear from people who indicate to me is that we basically go into these conversations and say to them, "You've got to start doing this, X, Y and Z," and that's sort of the end of the conversation. And then they speak their piece and say, "Well, you know, here's how we feel about X, Y, and Z," and that's the end of the conversation.

MR. WELCH: Let me give you an example, sir, of what I mean. There is a problem with the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq. Some of the source countries know that and cooperate with us on dealing with this issue, as you know, sir, including countries with which we have a strained political relationship. They have been willing, uniformly, to take measures to deal with this threat.

To this day, Syria has no visa rules that would inhibit the entry of military-age males from any Arab country into Syria, and this is the single most potent threat inside Iraq today. And if they wanted to do that, they could do it. I've been posted in Syria. It's a place where they could regulate entry pretty easily.

SEN. KERRY: When I met with President Assad, I raised that issue with him. I met with him twice now in the last two years, and both times, he said, you know, "Your people come over and they tell us, well, we ought to be doing this or that. When we actually wind up doing it, we never hear from them again." And they suggested that there were some very specific things on the border or in turning over certain individuals that we had identified that they were prepared to do and in some cases did. And I said, "Mr. President, would you be willing to go out and stand up publicly and say this and create a sort of public demonstration of this effort?" Now, he said yes.

Now, I don't -- I'm not dumb enough or inexperienced enough to just take that at face value, but you certainly put it to the test, it seems to me. If the president of a country says he's willing to do that, it seems to me the secretary of State could say, "Okay, let's see if you really are," and you go out and you put it to the test and go from there. And then one step begets the next.

I mean, it wasn't as if Henry Kissinger knew exactly what Mao or the others were going to do when he first went to China, but he went. And we had a goal. What is the goal here? I mean, I don't see quite how this process of isolation and of telling them what they have to do without some process to build a mutuality gets you anywhere. That's what I think is frustrating.

MR. WELCH: Well, we would share your frustration. And we would prefer not to be in a vicious cycle where the only answer to what we think are -- is credible information and well-presented and documented information, where the only answer is, "Well, yes, I've done some of it, and they would know it, you know, they should know it."

We did present them, for example, with a list of persons of concern who we believe were conducting actions in Iraq, and their answer was, "Well, you know, we'll look at that." And that was over three years ago. And to this day, they are hosting many of these same people in various parts of Syria and allowing them to operate.

This is not -- sir, this is not a U.S. request. This is a part of a mandatory Security Council resolution that all countries in the world do their best to interrupt this kind of traffic and support. So, you know, my belief is that, you know, the facts are as they are. As I said, there are long land borders for Iraq with other countries in the region, but this problem seems to be primarily located in Syria, and that has to be for a reason.

SEN. KERRY: Well, I don't want to abuse the time here. I did raise the question of some of those incomplete things, and I must say that the response that needed to be put to the test that came from them was that they were upset that there had been no follow-through on the other things that they had done, so they sort of stopped, by admission. I mean, that's at least the way they framed it.

And again, unless there's some sort of ongoing initiative more than just sort of saying, "You got to do this," and they say, "You got to do this," and nobody does anything except you get mad at each other and continue down the road, it seems to me you never get over those kinds of -- or you never gain the high moral ground of being able to show people that you've actually gone to the lengths of demonstrating your bona fides in a more public way, I guess is the way to put it.

I mean, this is a battle partly for the Arab street and for the hearts and minds of a lot of people. And right now, given what's happened with Hezbollah and given what's happened with Hamas and given what's happened in Iraq and given the rise of Iranian ability to sort of look with impunity on any of our saber rattling and so forth, it's not as if the, you know, leverage is increasing for the administration. So one wonders really where that strategy takes us.

We'll come back to that.

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

SEN. COLEMAN: The challenge we have is, how do you engage Syria without undermining the success of the 2005 Cedar Revolution? How do you engage them without some belief, some sense that, you know, political assassination is off-limits, recognizing democratically elected government is a precondition, stopping the flow of arms and support from Iran through Syria to Hezbollah is a precondition? And for me, what I struggle with is, how do you believe, even if the answer is yes, what is it that you can see? How do you measure? Those are two parts to the question. One, what kind of commitments do you have to have, basic commitments? And then how do you measure whether they're believable?

MR. WELCH: Well, I think in this case we are going to be distrustful, to be candid, first. It's not an instance of trust but verify, it's -- the fact is, there is a poor record of Syrian effort and cooperation on these issues that concern us, so the burden is on them to overcome that. We will do our best to verify it when they commit to something.

And I'll give you an example of what I mean. The -- Senator Kerry was asking: Did they take any action at all against some of the people identified as persons of concern to us in the past? Sure they did. But it was a minor subset of the large group that we turned over to them for investigation and action. Just this -- in the last few months, the Iraqi government has come to us to say, you know, we have a big difficulty with the Syrians because they're hosting opposition conferences in Syria of people who know are involved in actions inside Iraq. One of the things we've tried to do is support the Iraqis in going in, since they're -- they can do this now; they're fully sovereign, have a relationship with Syria -- and putting their case right out there in front.

Finally, Senator, I don't think we should -- the United States should trade or balance off any of these issues. These are things that all the other responsible countries in the region are not doing. So why would we trade the interest of Lebanon against Syria's misbehavior in Iraq? That's just not going to happen.

SEN. COLEMAN: And is it fair to say that the sovereignty of Lebanon is not negotiable?

MR. WELCH: That's correct. And the tribunal and the investigation is not negotiable either. That investigation should be allowed to proceed where it will go, without any interference, by the United States or by anybody else, including, of course, Syria.

SEN. COLEMAN: Thank you, Ambassador.

SEN. KERRY: Thank you very much, Senator Coleman.

This has been a long panel. We have another panel, too, of experts who can help shed on some light on this, so we want to get to that. But just a couple of quick things before we wrap up this panel.

Mr. Secretary, you've been generous with your time. We appreciate it.

First question. On the flow of arms coming through Syria and coming from Iran, to what degree has that, if any, impeded the activities of UNIFIL in the south? Has it had a negative impact on the UNIFIL efforts?

MR. WELCH: The -- there is no armed Hezbollahi presence that UNIFIL has detected in its area of operations. So if -- someone -- I don't know if it was you, Senator -- mentioned Hezbollahi flags flying in certain places.

SEN. KERRY: Yes, I did. Yeah.

MR. WELCH: As you know, flags in Lebanon and many places in the Middle East are political banners and that --

SEN. KERRY: No, no, no, these were -- this was a very specific effort that took place immediately after the war with Israel --

MR. WELCH: I see.

SEN. KERRY: -- and the bombings that took place, and before families had even returned, in an effort to win favor the families, there was a real campaign out there to sort of stake a claim and then to be engaged in very generous rebuilding and relocation efforts.

MR. WELCH: Right. I see. Well, to the best of my knowledge, there is no armed Hezbollahi presence. UNIFIL is not reporting that there is. I -- they are a very capable organization, however, Senator, and I cannot say that they are not able to infiltrate into that area.

They have a good deal of local support.

SEN. KERRY: Well, I was just wondering -- obviously they are infiltrating and every evidence we have is the weapons are coming in, and they are rearming and we understand that as far as the dilemma.

But the question I had is whether it's interfered or affected any of the UNIFIL --

MR. WELCH: Not yet, sir. The attack against Spanish peacekeepers that occurred and resulted in several fatalities was denounced by Hezbollah. I'm not entirely sure who was responsible for that, but it does seem that they were. There have been some rocket firings also from that area -- from the UNIFIL area against Israel -- just one that I recall, and I believe that was by an extremist Palestinian group.

The worrisome thing about Hezbollah is that it's not comforting that they aren't there because even beyond the Litani, beyond the UNIFIL area of operations, they're able to launch longer range weapons against Israel.

SEN. KERRY: And with respect to President Assad's meddling in Iraq and the support for Sunni insurgents, which we also know is taking place, is there any evidence or any potential that that could spill back over into Syria and have an impact on the Sunni majority of Syria with respect to Alawite sort of division? Is that -- do you have any sense of that? Is there any speculation about it or?

MR. WELCH: I think the Syrians have reason to be concerned about Sunni extremist groups and Kurdish extremist groups as well. As you know, there's a big population of Kurds in Syria. I believe that there have been confrontations between the Syrian government's internal security forces and some groups in Syria. It's not entirely clear to us why that's happened, but there have been incidents there, and given the history of the minority regime in Syria, which, as you know, faced great pressure, including violent pressure, from the Muslim Brotherhood in the '70s and early '80s, I would not be at all surprised if they were to have a difficulty from spillover from the al Qaeda-influenced elements in Iraq.

Senator, just an editorial comment on that, that ought to be even more reason for them to begin to control this problem in cooperation with others.

SEN. KERRY: I would think so. One would think so, at least.

Well, that -- I appreciate that. I don't know if my colleagues had any follow-up questions at this point.

Let me just say that I think it's the -- one thing I will note, that in the conversations -- Senator Dodd and I spent about two hours with President Assad as recently, I guess, as this January, and we've discussed the Hariri commission investigation, and frankly, you know, we detected, neither of us, any effort or any hint that that ought to be on the table, that that was a point of negotiation. In fact, it was very clear that that should go forward, and I mean that was at least the represented position. I don't know there was some back channel effort there. One can imagine all the speculation and reasons why they wouldn't want it to. But at least in those conversations there was plenty on the table, and that was never part of it. So I think that, again, we did rely to the department, you know, those things that we thought were opportunities to follow up on.

That said, we all know that Syria has long had its tentacles deeply reaching into Lebanon, and we also know that this dangerous process of assassinating the majority is, in the view of every member of this Congress, an abhorrent and unacceptable approach.

And I think those legislators, who are unbelievably courageous -- I met with, you know -- (well ?) Hariri when he was here the other day and with other members in the last weeks, and they are courageous. They live an extraordinary life of day-to-day risk and fear. And I think it's very important for us in this Congress to make clear to them how much we admire their effort to practice democracy and to stand up for their values, which we share, and how deeply committed we are to seeing them succeed and to seeing this election process respected.

And the Syrians need to know that the Congress is looking at this with every ounce of vigilance we can, and that in whatever ways this Congress can find a bipartisan approach to deal with it, we will look for or it. And I hope that that message is heard in whatever ways it can be.

So with that said, we thank you, Mr. Secretary. We thank you for the work you're doing and thank you for spending this time with us. We appreciate it very much.


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