Search Form
First, enter a politician or zip code
Now, choose a category

Public Statements

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

Interview

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

SEN. KERRY: If I could ask for a quick and seamless transition to the second panel, we'd like to get you up here as quick as possible. Thank you. (Pause.)

Well, thank you very much for your patience. If we could ask each of you to perhaps summarize, your full testimony will be placed in the record as if spoken in full. And we certainly appreciate your being here with us today.

Mr. Malley, why don't you lead off, and then Mr. Lesch and then Mr. al-Hokayem.

MR. MALLEY: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, members of the committee.

I think we're having this hearing at a very --

SEN. KERRY: Go ahead, you can -- do you want to remove -- she's going to make you not be Secretary Welch. (Laughter.)

MR. MALLEY: It's no problem for me.

SEN. KERRY: There you go.

MR. MALLEY: It's an honor.

This hearing takes place at a time of unprecedented challenges for our country in the Middle East, and you mentioned some of those crises, all of which are interconnected virtually in an unprecedented way -- Iran, Iraq --

SEN. KERRY: Why don't you just identify yourself for the record so everybody knows your background, quickly.

MR. MALLEY: Robert Malley. I'm the Middle East program director of the International Crisis Group.

Crisis in Iran, crisis in Iraq, crisis in Lebanon, in Palestine, the growing sectarianism, and all this at a time when U.S. credibility is suffering and at a time when there is an absence of an over-arching security framework that sets the rules of the game.

Syria is not necessarily central or decisive to all of these crises, but it plays a role in each and every one of them. It hosts, as we just heard, Palestinian militant groups. It provides aid and a transit point for weapons to Hezbollah. It has very deep tentacles into Lebanon, as you just mentioned. It is the only Arab country that has special ties to Iran. And it borders Iraq and has close ties with a number of groups and actors in Iraq. In other words, they can do something about every issue we care about. And in those circumstances, they could assume a spoiling role or they could assume a stabilizing one.

Now, with all due respect to David Welch and to the administration, what we've been doing over the last two years is not engagement. It's not the kind of genuine engagement that tries to see whether Syria can play a positive role. What it is is a list of demands that we put periodically to the Syrians without follow- through, without putting it in a global, comprehensive context, and doing it at a time when the Syrians are persuaded, rightly or wrongly, that our goal is to destabilize their regime, overthrow their regime, remodel the region in a way that is inimical to their interests.

Engagement doesn't mean surrendering our principles, surrendering our values, giving up on the tribunal, giving up on Lebanon's sovereignty, as you all rightly commented. It means having a frank discussion with the Syrians about whether there is an end state for the region that is compatible with our interests and that also meets their minimum needs.

French President Sarkozy, who was here yesterday, as we speak, has sent emissaries to Syria to discuss the issue of Lebanon and the presidential election. I don't think anyone here suspects that he's about to betray his commitment to Lebanon's sovereignty or to give up on the tribunal. But he reached the commonsensical conclusion that Syria plays an important role in Lebanon, and that it's better to try to engage with them than to keep them isolated, and being able -- and giving them every incentive to play a spoiling role.

Now I know -- we know the arguments against that kind of engagement. But let me just go through some of the opportunities, I think, that exist, and some of which you mentioned, on all of the issues that we have, opportunities that I think are not being seized.

On the issue of Israel and the groups that Syria harbors, President Assad has said multiple times that he's prepared to have unconditional negotiations with Israel. One could question the motivation; one could question the sincerity. And there certainly is plenty of reason to do so, but why not test them?

What do we lose by having President Assad send somebody to negotiate with Israel? In fact, even if his intention is simply to gain time, the simple fact of having Syrians and Israelis sitting at a table together at a time when so many in the region are denying Israel's right to exist, don't want to have a two-state solution, at a time when all of Syria's main allies, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, are against a negotiated solution with Israel, that itself will send a powerful message to the region and to those groups who would have to read the signals on the wall and understand that their days, if this negotiation succeeds, are going to be numbered in terms of the activities that they're engaging in right now. So it would have a moderating impact on Hezbollah, on Hamas, on Islamic Jihad.

Now, let's turn to Iran. As was mentioned earlier by Assistant Secretary Welch, it is an odd couple. But it's a couple that really is a function of the regional context.

There's an opportunity, I believe, today to try not to split them off. Syria has 25 years of the only country it really has had a relationship with has been Iran. And it's been a stable, continuous, trustworthy relationship. But there are very, very real tensions and contradictions in that relationship on every issue of importance.

On Israel, as I just mentioned, Ahmadinejad says that Israel should be wiped out, off the face of the earth. President Assad said in response to that, we want to have recognition and normalization once we're at peace. On the issue of Iraq, Iran is supporting the Shi'ite government, is supporting the Shi'ite militias, at the same time we have President Assad in Syria that has close ties with the Sunni insurgency. They have different goals for Iraq right now.

On the issue of Lebanon, there also are tensions because whereas Syria's main objective is to get rid of the tribunal, that's not Iran's objective. It's to strengthen Hezbollah as its instrument in Lebanon. So on all these three, there are tensions that rather than ignore, we should be exploiting. We also know that at this time, the relationship with Iran is quite unpopular in Syria, certainly -- (inaudible) -- Sunni level, at a time of great sectarian polarization in the region, but also at the elite level, when they question whether this is the kind of relationship they want to be stuck with, this monogamous relationship with Iran.

On Iraq: On Iraq again there's so many objective reasons why we should be working hand-in-hand with Syria. Syria has changed its policy towards Iraq, not in response to what we asked them to do, but because of their own -- their threat perception.

They used to be afraid of 150,000 American troops in Iraq. They no longer truly fear that they're going to turn around and go fight them. Their fear is now what's happening in Iraq: the breakup in Iraq, which could spill over; a Kurdish independence, which could inspire their Kurds; the Sunni jihadists, who you mentioned earlier, who may come back -- who are already coming into Syria, provoking real security difficulties; the refugees; the sectarian polarization in Iraq, which has implications for a minority Alawite regime in Syria.

So on all these issues, the Syrians have in fact taken some steps, over the last several months, since 2006. They've recognized the Iraqi government. They're dealing with it. They've made a greater effort at the border. I think even General Petraeus acknowledged that. They have cancelled the meeting of the armed opposition in Damascus, even though it had been planned. They've arrested some people. They've helped some of the tribes that are fighting against al Qaeda. They're not doing this in a coordinated way, they're not doing this in conjunction with us, and they're not doing this in a sustained manner. But that's what we could get if we'd spoke to them and we dealt with them and tried to listen to their legitimate interests and refused whatever illegitimate interests or means they're pursuing.

The most difficult case, the one -- the last one is Lebanon. And I think it's difficult for the reasons we've explored over the last hour. On that one, it appears that Syria's goals and the United States' goals are clearly antagonistic. Lebanon -- Syria wants to interfere in Lebanese affairs, and Syria wants to do away with the tribunal. No doubt in my mind about those two things.

But is our current strategy of erratic engagement with Syria and threats and sanctions only -- is that achieving any of our goals vis- a-vis Lebanon? Is it protecting Lebanon from interference? I don't think so. And again, I think our discussion of -- your discussion of the last hour made that point.

Is it stabilizing Lebanon? Is it getting us any closer to a different kind of relationship between Syria and Lebanon, normal relationship between two neighbors that have a lot of common interests? I don't see that either.

And in terms of the tribunal, does anyone think that at this rate Syria's going to turn over any suspects or, if the tribunal finds that they're guilty, turn over any culprits? Do they -- do we think that the tribunal, which is both about accountability and about deterrence and turning a page in the relationship between Lebanon and Syria -- does anyone think at this point, when the tribunal is viewed by Syria as a matter of life or death, when the believe that either they surrender to the tribunal -- in which case, they're afraid of the consequences -- or they have nothing else to look forward to, because nobody's giving them any incentives -- does anyone believe that Syria going to act constructively, that this is leading to the goals we all share in terms of Lebanon's sovereignty, independence and pursuit of the tribunal?

Another tack would be to tell the Syrians and make clear by our deeds, "We're continuing with the tribunal. No, that's an independent path, and we're taking it, and we're going to support it. But we're not trying to overthrow you or to destabilize your regime. And in fact we can engage with you, which will prove to you that we treat you as a legitimate interlocutor. We're going to put some assets on the table in terms of possibly resuming negotiations on the Golan, in terms of talking about what they would have to do to lift the sanctions," so that we put Syria in the position, number one, where it is more confident that we're not trying to overthrow them; number two, where they see that the tribunal is not an instrument of destabilization but rather is an instrument of trying to get Syria to turn the page in its relationship with Lebanon.

We give them something to lose if in fact they continue to try to undermine the tribunal, which is whatever they would have gotten through engagements with us and the rest of the world. That, it seems to me, would be a better path to try than what we're doing right now.

Now, having said all that, I've concluded with this thought. We now have, I believe, a real opportunity with Syria, and it is a critical -- not the, but a critical actor in the region. For anyone who travels to Damascus it's quite clear that they're in a very odd and paradoxical situation. They're quite confident because they see that we, the United States, are losing, in their view, in Iraq, in Palestine, in Lebanon, so they feel quite confident, but at the same time, they know they're in a very uncomfortable box. Some of the things I mentioned earlier, the civil strife in Iraq and Lebanon with very heavy sectarian overtones is hurting them because they have a majority Sunni population, a minority Alawite regime.

It's affecting the leadership -- the legitimacy of the leadership. You have a young leader who's presiding over a very old sclerotic system. He knows that it is losing steam. He knows it's losing legitimacy. He needs something to regain that legitimacy, and he needs something to break out of the box he's in right now. The economic problems are very acute. The refugee presence -- the presence of Iraqi refugees only added to it, but you have -- as I said, it's sclerotic system, which has not been able to reform. You have the oil revenues -- Syria oil revenues that will come to an end in about five years. You have the loss of external subsidies, Arab or otherwise, and all that means that here you have somebody who's looking for a different lease on life.

And finally, you have these regional contradictions that I mentioned that on every single front -- if you support -- by supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, he's alienating his Sunni base. If you support Sunni insurgents in Iraq, he alienates Iran. If you reach out to the Shi'ite-led government, in Baghdad it angers his allies -- in Iraq -- and it angers his Sunni population. It's an uncomfortable box. We should seize the opportunity by engaging with them in a frank discussion, being true to our principles, but also trying to take into account their legitimate needs.

Thank you.

SEN. KERRY: Thank you very much.

Mr. Lesch.

MR. LESCH: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for inviting me here. I think my value added here today is not to reiterate a lot of what Rob said, but to provide some insight into President Bashar al-Assad with whom I've met on a regular basis since early 2004 and met with this past Sunday -- in fact, I arrived quite late last night from the Middle East, so if I appear incoherent -- (laughs) -- then I hope you'll understand -- also to provide some insight to the Syrian regime as well as the perspective from Syria.

I think a positive Syrian role can be transformational in terms of U.S. interests and regional stability in the Middle East, one that could lead to a comprehensive Arab Israeli peace, the diminution of Iranian influence, the rapid dissipation of rapid anti-Americanism in the region, which, as we all know, is fertile ground for terrorist organizations; and the exertion of positive Syrian influence in Iraq, where, as Rob stated, the threat perception has changed and where their interests coincide much more with U.S. interests now and where there are markedly different interests with Iran as well. So there's fertile ground for cooperation, I think, in Iraq. Also, the exertion of positive influence in Lebanon and the war against global terrorism in general.

Now, Syria, in my opinion, is the -- is a key to this because of its unique ability in the Arab world to play both sides of the fence, so to speak. It has been a traditional beacon of Arab nationalism and the Vanguard of the anti-Israeli front. Yet it is also a member, as we all know, of the 1991 Gulf War Coalition and participated seriously in bilateral negotiations with Israel throughout the 1990s.

As a result of the post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy shift in circumstances surrounding the war in Iraq, the Bush administration essentially said to Syria, "You have to choose which side of the fence you want to be on, and if you want to be on our side, you have to give up everything on the other side." President Bashar essentially said no to those. Syria's a relatively weak country with few strategic arrows in its quiver, and Bashar was not about to give up these arrows before any negotiations.

And it is all about strategic assets to Bashar as it was with his father. As he told me on one occasion regarding on Iraq about a year ago, he said, quote, "It is not" -- excuse me -- Iran. He said, quote, "It is not about our -- not about ideology, our close relationship with Iran. It is about interests. Whoever is better for Syria's interest will be its friend," unquote.

Now, Bashar is securely in power, and I'm 100 percent sure of that, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future, in my estimation. It is a shame that our image of him was so skewed and unrealistic at the beginning of his tenure in power simply because he was a computer nerd/ophthalmologist who liked Phil Collins music.

There was no way he could meet the expectations, given the dilapidated, broken-down country he inherited and the regional and international baptism by fire he immediately encountered. Therefore he, and some of his successes, were dismissed much too quickly by many, and certainly he feels this way.

Much of the congressional testimony regarding Bashar surrounding the Syrian Accountability Act in 2002-2003 was grossly ill-informed and unfortunate. He's been fighting that image ever since. Unfortunately, Bashar doesn't help matters at times with his own less than prudent comments, which were made for domestic and regional consumption but fed into the construction and confirmation of the negative image of Bashar and policy against Syria that was going on at the same time in Washington.

Bashar didn't adequately adjust to the shifts in U.S. foreign policy, and also Syria is just pretty bad at public diplomacy. Although Bashar has done a better job at this than his father, the Syrians still have a long way to go.

Now, although Bashar has a progressive and modernizing outlook, we must remember that he is Hafez al-Assad's son. He spent all of 18 months in London with advanced study in ophthalmology, and he is a child of the Arab-Israeli conflict and a child of the superpower Cold War. Therefore he felt compelled to defend traditional Syrian interests.

He's no longer the untested, inexperienced leader. He has been in power seven years, and one doesn't do that in Syria without having some level of capability. And I have seen him grow into the position with more confidence and more of a comfort level since I've been meeting with him.

He has been on the upswing politically, domestically, even regionally, since surviving the intense pressure of the Meles report in fall 2005, the investigation into the Hariri assassination, in part by default because of mounting U.S. problems in the region, and also partly due to his own maneuvering. I think the makeup of the February 2006 cabinet reshuffling in Damascus was a clear reflection of this upswing.

Now, Bashar has built up a reservoir of popularity domestically and even in the region for keeping the country together despite the external pressures, and also the instability in neighboring countries, and for being perceived as not having caved in to the United States or, as they say in the region, for having refused to give in to the American project.

He has effectively funneled the expected nationalist response and need for resistance into support for the regime that has also given the regime something of a pass, unfortunately, in terms of quelling signs of internal dissent.

Now, having said this, Bashar does not have absolute authority. It would be wrong to see the Syrian regime or Syrian security as a tightly knit, well-oiled, hierarchical machine, particularly Syrian security. In fact, here I was seeing President Bashar; when I landed at the airport in Damascus last Friday, I was detained and told I was blacklisted from the country because of some other projects in which I'm involved, rather innocuous cultural tourist projects; security in Syria obsessed with control. They had some concerns about this project. The right hand of security doesn't know what the left hand is doing. They don't know that I meet regularly with President Bashar, and they were very upset and apologetic when they found out.

Now, Bashar has to reach consensus, negotiate, bargain and manipulate the system. Implementation regarding domestic issues is a serious problem in Syria. He is fighting against systemic institutional, bureaucratic and cultural inertia that seriously retards any reform progress.

There's also an array of Faustian bargains erected under his father; i.e., unswerving loyalty in return for casting a blind eye toward personal enrichment and corruption that sometimes has the regime sincerely saying and wanting to do one thing while actions by important groups connected to the regime or actually in the regime do something quite contrary to this. There's really not much Bashar can do about it without undercutting his support base, especially in a threatening regional environment.

Bashar has, however, acquired control over foreign policy decisions, although the decision-making process still relies on too much ad hoc-ism, what I call ad hoc-ism. There's no national security council coordinating policy. Instead there seem to be informal committees that focus on various foreign policy issues. But Bashar, in my opinion, is the prime decision-maker now. This hasn't always been the case.

Now, despite this ad hoc-ism, Syrian officials have a way of getting in line with regime policy, mimicking declarations and pronouncements, often word by word. As such, I am confident an agreement with Syria -- Syrian-Israeli peace treaty, whatever -- would be assiduously maintained, as they have been in the past.

Finally, in my opinion, and echoing a little bit what Rob was saying, while many see Syria's ties with Iran, Hezbollah and various Palestinian factions such as Hamas as a liability, I actually see them as a potential asset in the current environment and state of things for the United States.

If Syria is given a real seat at the diplomatic table, certainly with the Golan on the agenda, which it very much wants, whether it be at this proposed conference in Annapolis or some other setting, it could certainly be used as a conduit and a positive influence process.

This is definitely how Bashar is trying to position Syria. He has touted, and rightly so, the crucial Syrian role in orchestrating the Mekin (sp) agreement earlier this year between Fatah and Hamas and the role in mediating with Iran for the release of the British sailors captured in the Persian Gulf, and in steering Hezbollah toward political compromise in Lebanon, particularly with the Barry initiative recently, although Barry has met with Hezbollah, but the Shi'ite response.

Now, Bashar has repeatedly stated that the Palestinian track -- he reiterated this on Sunday -- can go out in front of the Syrian one, which I thought was quite clever. And Bashar and Syrian officials have repeatedly held out an olive branch, as Rob mentioned, to Israel, unconditionally calling for the resumption of negotiations, albeit with U.S. involvement.

In fact, as many have pointed out, including many Israelis, it is unprecedented that Israel is refusing to take up the unconditional offer of an Arab state with which it is not at peace. Indeed, the Israelis are the ones making the conditions in line with U.S. policy.

Now, again, the ineptitude sometimes of Syrian public diplomacy makes this an awkward process at times in terms of communicating their positions to the West, and certainly to the Israeli public.

Finally, in closing, the United States has a history of negotiating with countries with whom it has a clear disagreement. It is unfathomable to me, knowing what the Syrians want and the role that they can play, why we continue to refuse to engage in a sincere dialogue with Damascus.

The missed opportunities of the 1990s led, directly and indirectly, the Madrid peace process to, among other things, the -- (inaudible) -- intifada, the war in Iraq, the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war. In fact, Hezbollah probably would have been totally emasculated by now if there was an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty, and there should have been -- a historic missed opportunity in the late 1990s -- and some might even argue 9/11.

I fear what will happen if this opportunity is missed. If the U.S. says, "Jump," Syria will not say, "How high?" It will be cautious, primarily because of the tremendous level of distrust that has built up between Washington and Damascus in recent years. But with hard work and serious intent, the relationship can move forward.

I do want to mention two things in reaction to what Assistant Secretary of State Welch said. One of the members of the committee asked the question about the meeting between Secretary of State Rice and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem that occurred -- was it in May? -- of this past year, or this year, in Sharm El-Sheikh regarding the situation in Iraq.

The Syrians tend to discount Secretary of State Rice, rightly or wrongly. They consistently tell me, both Bashar as well as Syrian Foreign Ministry, that after that particular meeting, Arab officials, probably foreign ministers, informed the Syrians that Vice President Dick Cheney's office or himself had called these foreign ministers saying to dismiss everything that Rice had said because she did not speak for the administration. I have no idea whether this is true or not. The Syrians seem to believe it's true, and they're acting accordingly in terms of discounting the initiatives of Secretary Rice.

Also one last thing on the Lebanese assassinations. Syria certainly is a suspect, and I agree with Syria being a suspect. But, you know, inter- and intrasectional rivalries are so antagonistic in Lebanon that it is difficult to pinpoint who is doing what.

In the Middle East there's a tendency to have conspiracy theories about the CIA. There are CIA conspiracy theories galore, which, of course, is ludicrous. And we need to make sure that we don't do the same thing and ascribe similar capabilities to Syrian security. They do some things well, but overall it's a pretty inept group.

Thank you for your time.

SEN. : Thank you, Mr. Lesch.

Mr. El-Hokayem.

MR. EL-HOKAYEM: Thank you. Emile El-Hokayem, research fellow, Henry L. Stimson Center.

First, thanks for this honor and opportunity to testify on Syria today. The challenge posed by Syria to regional stability in the Middle East is very complex and multifaceted. Until a few years ago, Syria was a partner of the United States in the search for peace. Now it is entangled in all the conflicts in the region.

Syria is certainly not the ultimate threat to either the region or U.S. interests, nor does it cause the kind of ideological- political-strategic challenge that Iran does. However, it has proven intransigent and belligerent on a number of key issues for the international community.

For the sake of time, and because a lot has been covered earlier, I will focus on this Lebanon-Syria relationship. Nowhere has Syrian reach been as visible and problematic as in Lebanon. Syrian heavy- handedness and mismanagement of Lebanese politics has created very deep resentment against Syria in Lebanon, which cuts across sectarian lines.

Lebanon's transition from Syrian rule to full independence, sovereignty and stability has been very strenuous for Lebanese society and Lebanese politics.

The upcoming Lebanese presidential elections will be a momentous step for the future of Syrian-Lebanese relations. These elections could open a new face, not only in bilateral relations between those two countries but also between Syria and the rest of the world. But the prospects for such a positive outcome are very dim, because Syria perceives these elections as an opportunity to defeat its Lebanese and foreign foes, and Syria fears that the victory of these foes will further weaken its hand next door.

Critics of the current policy argue that it hasn't worked, that U.S. interests with regard to Syria go beyond Lebanon, and that sidelining Syria invites more interference in the stabilization. The problems with this argument are manyfold. First, the United States and Europe engaged Syria for very many years with no reciprocation from Damascus on any of the issues raised. Notably, during the 1990s, it's very to difficult to pinpoint at what Syria has given Lebanon during, you know, the height of the peace process.

Syria was also allowed to set Lebanon's security and domestic politics for 15 years, ultimately overplaying its hand. Syria was also given many opportunities to shape more favorable outcomes for itself, but chose instead to provoke an escalation.

It's not a lack of engagement, but Syria's maximalist and unresponsive posture that has precipitated the current crisis.

Critics must also acknowledge that U.S. policy towards Syria is not unilateral or even controversial with America's allies. It is a mainstream, multilateral policy, endorsed by the European Union and key Arab states and formalized through U.N. Security Council resolutions.

In those circumstances, what to obtain from Syria in return for unconditional engagement is very unclear. It will take a long and arduous process of dialogue to start seeing the benefits of this strategy, if any. A main concern is that all the progress made on the Lebanese front since 2005 could be reversed in the meantime. This will not happen unless a dual process of U.S. engagement of Syria and of Israeli-Syrian peace talks becomes more important to Washington and Tel Aviv than to Damascus.

Then even modest Syrian cooperation on Iraq and Israel could become reason enough not to challenge Syrian behavior in Lebanon.

While there is no doubt that Syria is legitimately adamant in its desire to recover the Golan Heights, it is my judgment that it also wants a dominant say in all matters Lebanese, which amounts to very serious breaches of Lebanese sovereignty and the de facto (rights ?) over Lebanese affairs. So long as Syria refuses to normalize relations with Lebanon by delineating the borders, exchanging embassies and ending its interference in Lebanese affairs, it will be very difficult to overcome Lebanese fears and suspicions over Syria's real intentions or the substance of a bilateral U.S.-Syrian dialogue.

The continued importance of Lebanon to Syria has many dimensions, but let me be clear. Much of the daily interaction between the two countries is legitimate, the product of strong and old societal ties, and that both countries are bound to have privileged relations in the future. But Syria's current approach to Lebanon is dictated by regime interests in Damascus rather than a healthy long-term vision of the relationship. Lebanon needs not be a threat to Syria's stability, but this is Damascus' (call ?).

Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, repeats to his foreign visitors that Syria is not a charity. Should Syria cooperate with the United States, he expects full U.S. engagement. But this route could lead to sacrificing a number of important processes. The international tribunal in the Hariri assassination could help. U.N. Secularity Council Resolution 1701, which ended last year's war, could be transformed into a conflict management mechanism in which Syria would have a major say, going back to the situation of 1996 where Syria had -- became a recognized actor in managing escalation between Lebanon, Hezbollah and Israel. And it also could jeopardize the U.N.- led process to normalize relations between the two countries.

In examining whether the United States should engage Syria, the Senate should consider why Syria has failed to cooperate with every attempt to obtain Syrian cooperation on Lebanon, and some countries have offered very attractive incentives to Syria. One only needs to look at the delighted reaction of the Syrian leadership following the visits of American congressional delegations and European foreign ministers over the last years and invitations to participate in Arab League meetings, and the utter lack of Syrian responsiveness afterwards.

Syria continues to await renewed international recognition, or at least acquiescence to a central role in Lebanese affairs. Syria calculates that in due time, international fatigue with the Lebanese political crisis, new leadership in the United States and Europe, (necessity ?) over Iraq, the capacity of its Lebanese allies to sustain pressure on the Siniora government, and sheer steadfastness, will reward its obstinacy.

In the short term, this means that a power vacuum and even instability in Lebanon are seen as more harmful to the governing coalition and foreign allies than to Syria and its allies in Lebanon.

This is why unconditionally reengaging Syria is tantamount to subordinating the sovereignty and future of Lebanon to the fortunes of the peace process, Syria's cooperation on Iraq, or the fluctuation in the Persian Gulf. And this after more than a million people turned up in the streets of Beirut to peacefully demand the end of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon.

Let me end by saying that keeping Syria in the cold is not a long-term solution to Lebanon's or the region's problems, nor is the threat of further coercion. If Syria still considers peace with Israel and normalization with the West as strategic choices because of the very tangible political and economic benefits that would then flow, then it could demonstrate its seriousness by putting an end to its destructive role in Lebanon.

There is a path ahead that involves restarting the peace process between Syria and Israel, and it will require U.S. diplomatic leadership after the Annapolis conference. Simultaneously with U.S.- Israeli initiative to restart peace negotiation with Israel, Syria should commit to the Quartet and the U.N. to demarcate its borders with Lebanon, exchange embassies, and abide by U.N. security resolutions regarding Lebanon. In exchange, the Quartet would endorse the resumption of peace talks. The United States would agree to suspend sanctions and send back its ambassador to Damascus. And the European Union would commit to press ahead with economic and trade discussions.

Syria's refusal of such a deal would be only construed as a desire to continue using Lebanon as a negotiating card and an asset. More worryingly Syrian obstruction could simply reflect a continued desire for hegemony in Lebanon, validating the worst fears of a very deeply insecure Lebanese population. This is why dissociating Syria's foreign affairs from its obligation towards Lebanon is a very serious mistake. It's ironical but only fair for Lebanon to constrain Syria's policy options after Syria did so for so long. Thank you.

SEN. KERRY: Thank you very much, Mr. el-Hokayem. I think your testimony is important. It helps us really kind of draw the lines here and engage, so I appreciate it.

The one distinction that I would draw if I may is that I wouldn't measure a congressional visit and sort of suggest, gee, because the people went there and, you know didn't elicit anything. I was one of those people who went there, and I had no anticipation that it per se elicited something, because we can't negotiate and we have nothing to offer.

We're there to learn and sort of glean what opportunities may be. But there's no way that an administration in another country with a(n) administration here that they view as -- in any number of different lights, potentially even as wanting their regime change, until they get assurances, is going to give anything.

So I have no surprise there. I mean, that's not a measurement to me.

But it is interesting for you to suggest, as you have, that their intransigence and behavior is sort of a per se negation of some of the other suggestions that have been made here. And what I want to do is get both Dr. Lesch and Mr. Malley to sort of respond to that, see if we can get you all engaged a little bit. I think it would be helpful.

So listening to what you've just heard, Dr. Lesch -- you've just come back and you've been a student of this, of both the individual Assad, Bashar al-Assad, as well as the governance. What is your reaction as you listen to this sort of hard, very restrictive approach that you've heard, which is essentially the status quo and sort of where we are?

MR. LESCH: Well, Mr. Chairman, I'm distressed by it. As I mentioned in my testimony, Syria presents, I believe, under current conditions, a great deal of opportunity. Bashar al-Assad wants good relations with the United States. He has been consistent with that ever since he came to power. He's expressed anger, frustration at times with me regarding U.S. policy, and --

SEN. KERRY: Does he want them with a preparedness to give up what he views as a long historical and cultural right with respect to Lebanon?

MR. LESCH: He's not going to give that up. Syrians are not going to give that up. Lebanon is important to Syria --

SEN. KERRY: So then how do you have a good relationship with the United States if you're not willing to respect sovereignty and democracy in Lebanon?

MR. LESCH: He has said to me this past Sunday that they're willing to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon, meaning draw borders, exchange embassies, recognize borders, et cetera. In fact, he had agreed to a Saudi-Egyptian initiative, is my understanding, a year or a year and a half, two years ago, where such things would occur in exchange for some role for Syria in terms of a say in national security in Lebanon -- Lebanese foreign policy for a --

SEN. KERRY: Now, is that a statement that's made with an assumption that if things continue as they are, he'll be dealing with a government that he has essentially planted in place and can count on to be subservient to him?

MR. LESCH: He wasn't that specific, and he's not going to be that specific.

SEN. KERRY: Well, I mean, I'm trying to, you know --

MR. LESCH: Yeah.

SEN. KERRY: -- let's read through the --

MR. LESCH: Yeah. I mean, one of the things -- the Syrians see Lebanon strategically, as well as economically. You know, they see -- they saw the Israeli invasion in 1982 as an attempt to outflank Syria, and it was. And they saw American attempts afterward as a way to do what the -- through diplomacy what the Israelis couldn't do militarily.

The current situation -- they see the current situation in similar terms, where they see the United States trying to do, through diplomacy, what the Israelis couldn't do militarily in terms of the Israeli-Hezbollah war. So they're fearful of Lebanon becoming a source of instability inside Syria, a source of subversion. They don't want it to be, you know, a host country for what they view as this American project for transforming the Middle East, which would transform the regime in Syria. Again, that's the way they see it.

SEN. KERRY: Well, doesn't that make them therefore an inalterable enemy of democracy? I mean, opposed to the capacity for Lebanon to actually be a full-fledged sovereign nation --

MR. LESCH: No, I don't think you can look at it that -- in that Manichaean fashion. I think there is room for compromise. I mean, Syria obviously would like a regime in power that's not against Syria. I think they are resigned to the fact that their relationship, as it existed in the past, is not going to be there anymore -- when the troops were there.

They have said across the line, from Bashar on down, "We are never sending troops back into Lebanon. That is a thing of the past." But obviously, being such an important neighbor, when there's such economic interdependence, they would want a positive relationship and a regime in power that is not bent, from their point of view, on --

SEN. KERRY: So how do you and Mr. Malley define engagement in a way that doesn't, in effect, fall into this trap of rewarding and giving something for nothing and so forth, as defined? Both of you -- why don't you go ahead, Mr. Malley?

MR. MALLEY: Let me make three points on that. First, maybe I just have more confidence in our diplomacy to be able to talk to somebody without surrendering on our basic values. I think we've done that in the past, and I think -- I just don't understand the logic of saying that if we spoke and engaged with Syria and tried to get things from Syria, whether it's on Iraq, on Israel, on Hamas, on Hezbollah, that that would be tantamount to surrender --

SEN. KERRY: Well, Mr. Hokayem suggests that they've had a number of years, through the '90s and others, to show some evidence on any of these things and they haven't. What's your response to that?

MR. MALLEY: Well, the main point -- the big difference in the '90s -- in the '90s, we not only turned a blind eye, we had no problem whatsoever. And I'm sorry to say I was a member of the administration that had no problem whatsoever in Syria's behavior in Lebanon. I mean, we gave them the green light to intervene, and we had no problem with their policies. It may well have been a mistake, but that was not the proper test. The test came when things changed in Lebanon.

And that brings me to my second point. I think it's fair to say we have to be firm on Lebanese sovereignty, Lebanese independence; there should be red lines. I don't see how the strategy today is achieving those goals. We've all spent the last two hours talking about Syrian interference. So certainly a policy of pressure and sanctions is not achieving that goal, because Syria today feels it has far more to lose by "giving up," quote, unquote, on Lebanon than by acquiescing on the demands that are made, because it doesn't see an incentive on the other side of the ledger, at least. So I would feel that if we take this position, we may risk destroying Lebanon, because that's what Syria is capable of doing, in the name of trying to protect it.

Now, that brings me to my third point, which is, I think that the really fair question we need to address -- is there a relationship between Syria and Lebanon that is acceptable to the Syrian regime and acceptable to us? That -- I think's the question. I mean, the one thing we know that we can't accept is Syria intrusion and violation of Lebanese sovereignty. The one thing we know Syria can't accept is a hostile regime in Lebanon. But is there something in between that we could accept? Frankly, I don't know. I think we have to check that and test that. What I do sense from talking --

SEN. KERRY: Do you -- I'm going to let you finish, but I just -- do you agree with that formulation?

MR. LESCH: Yes, in fact, I do. Yes, Mr. Chairman, I do and think that there is some room to compromise. And certainly we should explore these things, because I think Syria and Bashar al-Assad is willing to explore them as well.

SEN. KERRY: Go ahead, Mr. Malley, finish up.

MR. MALLEY: What -- are we in a window? I mean, what we want to do -- there's been a period of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon in the '90s, followed now by a period of very great intrusion, interference, in political and military ways. We want to get to a point, if we can, where the relationship between the two will be the relationship between two neighbors, in which neither government is hostile to the other -- I don't think -- as I said, I don't think Syria will accept that -- in which they have normal relations. And Syria's relationship with Lebanon -- it has influence, I think, as Emile said, it's always going to have influence, family ties, the huge economic dependence that Lebanon has on Syria.

I mean, the sanctions against Syria hurt Lebanon as much as they hurt Syria, and the fact that it has allies in Lebanon.

Can we construct an end state in which Syria's comfortable with a non-aligned Lebanese regime that is independent, sovereign, that is not used as a platform to try to overthrow a destabilizing regime in Syria as has happened many times in the past, in which there are, as Emile said, there's diplomatic relations, demarcated borders where Syria gives information on the many Lebanese who have disappeared over the years as a result of Syrian actions? That's the test. I don't -- I truly don't have the answer, but I think many Syrians today, when I speak to them, they recognize that, number one, the ways of the past are no longer; number two, that they've paid such a high price for what they did for the benefit of the very few within the Syrian regime who enriched themselves through corruption and who -- many of whom have now had to pay the price of no longer being in the regime or no longer being in the country.

So I think that the realization among the elite -- maybe not among the very elite in the regime, but among the Syrian elite -- that the relationship with Lebanon as it occurred over the '90s was not entirely to their benefit, and they may be thinking of a different way to have a relationship that is more normal between two neighbors.

SEN. KERRY: Mr. el-Hokayem, do you want to respond?

MR. EL-HOKAYEM: Yes, thank you.

As usual the trick is in the details. Dr. Lesch talked about President Bashar al-Assad mentioning his willingness to normalize relations, and actually, he made a statement about this three weeks ago. It's available in the public domain. It was conditional normalization. He basically said I will formalize relations with the government not directed by -- (inaudible) -- and a government that I consider friendly, which brings me to the point brought up by Rob Malley, which is that Syria can live with a neutral and non-hostile government in Lebanon.

Well, let's look at the criterias that such a Lebanese-neutral, non-hostile government would have to fulfill in order to considered -- be considered so by Syria. Well, they include things like subordinating its security policy and foreign policy to Syria -- things that would happen probably anyway because Lebanon, for instance, is not going to start a peace process with Israel because of domestic considerations. But this would be clearly a Syrian red line. Another thing, for instance, would be -- and then to security and defense cooperation and assistance between Lebanon and foreign allies.

The list of -- it would also --

SEN. KERRY: But all of those things -- I mean, you're making presumptions about those things. You know, all of those things are, quote, "negotiable" until they're not negotiable. And if you're not engaged in a discussion, you have no way of really beginning to push back, leverage other interests. I mean, you've got a major peace process with the Golan Heights on the line. You've got a lot of things here that are leveragable. You may have this whole Sunni-Shi'a division that comes back to haunt President Assad in ways that there may be longer-term interests.

I mean, there are a lot of different interests here. You seem to be unwilling to get face to face to actually explore those rather than just say to them, "Here's what you got to do; goodbye."

MR. EL-HOKAYEM: No, not at all. Actually, I think that Syria needs to be talked to. And you mentioned earlier your visit and other congressional visits to Syria. I personally welcome those. I don't see these as threats, when Secretary Rice meets with Foreign Minister Moualem, I think all these are good things. The problem is that you have a number of processes, U.N. processes that have been started that could be jeopardized in the process.

What matters more than the U.S. negotiating posture is how Syria interprets things. And when we see how they interpret some very small moves, like President Bashar al-Assad's handshake with King Abdullah, and for the next three, four months we all heard about Syria and Saudi Arabia joining hands again, that all the disagreements between the two were solved because of this. Well, we realized a few months later that it wasn't the case, that Syrian-Saudi relations are at their worst.

I'm not worried about the international community not knowing what it wants from Syria. I'm worried about Syria interpreting moves by the international community the way it wants to.

I worry also about Syria defining red lines that would be then adopted by it's Lebanese allies. If Lebanese parties have problems, have issues they want to raise with the current governing majority, that's fair. This is part of a normal political process. The problem is when suddenly you internalize the red lines of your patron.

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

SEN. KERRY: If I can just respond to a couple of those things. You know, I -- the reality is that -- I think one of the witnesses said it earlier -- that, you know, President Bashar Assad is going to respond to what he perceives to be in his and in Syria's interests. And right now, regrettably, for a host of reasons, our foreign policy has lost leverage and credibility in the region. We're not exactly in the leverage seat here. And so it's very difficult to, you know, sit here and sort of define in this context what all the plays can be.

The fact is that if were in a better position vis-a-vis Iran, so that our saber-rattling and threats could actually have some legitimacy in anybody's eyes, or were in a stronger position with respect to the Mideast peace process over these last years -- and we have, in fact, by indifference, in my judgment, actually empowered Hamas to some degree to be stronger because we didn't help President Abbas and others to develop into, you know, sort of a cogent partnership. I mean, there are a whole bunch of reasons -- that you can't exactly make the full judgment here. And I personally think it's going to be very difficult to get much out of that region until there's a huge shift in this administration.

But on the other side of the coin, this notion of not engaging -- not being involved, and sort of reacting to how you measure everything that has happened in the past, therefore, that's what's going to happen in the future -- I resist that. And I'll tell you a story: I was at Admiral Bill Crowe's funeral the other day, in Annapolis. Admiral Crowe, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a four-star admiral, took it on himself to invite the Russian marshall -- field marshall of Russian forces to the United States to visit our military installations.

And the military hated the idea. And of course you can imagine what some people on the right wing did in America. The people on the right just vilified him for doing that -- that's a terrible idea. Well, lo and behold, he came over here and he went to many of our different installations. And, in fact, Admiral Crowe told him one day at Fort Myer, took him over to Fort Myer -- and had told everybody on the base, this is what I'm going to do, people knew -- he said, "You go walk around for the day. And you ask anybody anything you want to ask them." And he did.

Well, later he became the adviser to Gorbachev on proliferation issues, nuclear weapons, et cetera, and he was at Reykjavik when Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan made their decisions. And he was the principal adviser because he had learned what the Russian military, you know, didn't understand -- which was the power of the United States, the real power, the real strength of our country -- because he came over here and saw it, and just didn't operate from their slogans, and from their stereotypes and presumptions. I think that's -- it's a great lesson about how you define interests and get people to see things that they don't see today.

And in my judgment -- you know, we have no illusions -- I have no illusions about the historical imperative that President Assad feels, and Syrians feel, with respect to Lebanon. And we are, all of us, dealing with a part of the world that has been defined by Winston Churchill, and the British, and the French, and mandates, and a lot of other things; and you've got these tribal -- unbelievably, almost feudal interests that are trying to be managed in a very modern and complex world. It's not easy.

We don't do a very good job thinking about it, understanding it, of playing some of those interests. I think that -- I'm not sure exactly what it is, sitting here today, but I think, from what I've heard from people in the region, and from the interests of the people in these countries, we ought to be sophisticated enough to be able to play to the -- the ability to define something out of this. I mean, if you looked at the Balkans a few years ago, you'd never thought you'd had 10 years of NATO managing the peace system in which not one troop has been killed. Nor even a bunch of other parts of the world where you make things happen that are different from what you perceive because that is the art of diplomacy. And you have to engage in diplomacy.

And it seems to me that there is so much opportunity staring us in the face here, to sort of begin to explore these kinds of things without any naivety or illusions about the difficulties, or the complications of getting people to change those interests that are centuries old or aspirations that are current and modern.

But I'll tell you this, I think if you continue down the road we're going, I mean, by any measurement, how is Lebanon safer? How have we strengthened our position in the region? I mean, these are very legitimate questions to be asked. And if you want the Lebanese government to survive, as we do, the status quo appears to be stacking up against them.

You want to respond, I can tell. (Laughter.)

MR. EL-HOKAYEM: Well, I fully agree with you on the need for, you know, more U.S. leadership/engagement in the region. I hope -- it should have happened yesterday, if not before.

The issue for me here and for Lebanon as a whole is -- relates to the experience of the '90s; relates to the international acquiescence to Syrian domination in 1990 because of the need to bring Syria on board against Iraq. It also relates to the fact that Lebanon was not allowed to have a(n) independent, even semi-independent foreign policy for 15 years during the peace negotiations.

The issue today for the million Lebanese who demonstrated on the streets on March 14, 2005 is whether this was worth it -- whether it was worth it to demonstrate peacefully; to turn to the international community and say, "We agree with a multilateral process." These people would not have showed up in the streets of Beirut in a violent encounter against the Syrians. They waited. And then the time was ripe.

The question is whether the international community can sustain its effort to restore sovereignty and stability to the country and formalize normalized relations with Lebanon's most important neighbor. U.S. leadership will be needed. Progress on the Palestinian front will be needed. Progress on the Iranian front will be needed. Progress on the Syrian front will be needed, of course. The question is, how do you insulate Lebanon from other large calculations that it has already paid the price for?

Thank you.

SEN. KERRY: Senator Coleman, any -- you all set?

SEN. COLEMAN: I thank, actually, Mr. El-Hokayem, who summed up what I was going to say. I think that is the issue right now.

And I am one that's always believed that I need to discuss and we need to meet. And -- but I just think we always have to be realistic as to expectations. We have to be careful of the consequences of -- certainly in this part of the world -- of what we do publicly.

And Mr. Chairman, I would just hope that there would be -- there's opportunities out there, and if we could see some very real movement -- again, not A, B, C and D but just some concrete steps that demonstrate the sincerity of what, you know, Dr. Lesch and Mr. Malley are talking about, I think we could move to another phase.

SEN. KERRY: You can, Senator, but you've got to have an overall strategy that you're actually trying to implement. And it won't work if the conversation is "You've got to do A, B and C before you even get somewhere." You've got to -- it's a process, and it's hard to describe completely, but it's missing. And I think people who have been engaged in this understand that it's missing. I think that Mr. el-Hokayem thinks it's missing.

And so I don't -- I mean -- we have to take steps that guarantee those courageous people who went out in the street, who voted overwhelmingly, who elected a democratic government -- that that's sustained. But just measure the outrage that existed in the wake of the Hariri assassination. It moved a whole army out of Lebanon. The world came united to there. It's the absence of our engagement and maintaining that credibility that's allowed us to drift backwards from that kind of point. We know what we can achieve, and I believe that if we got back into that game in a serious way, we could re-tap into that same kind of energy.

And I'll tell you, the decision to move that army was a decision for survival, self-interest. There's no reason for us not to create that same kind of compelling force for self-interest again. But I don't think -- but you've got to have clean hands to do it. You've got to come at it in a way that you're able to leverage the situation, not be on the defensive. And I think we're excessively on the defensive right now.

Do you want to add anything, or do you want to close up here?

MR. LESCH: Sure.

I think there is more that the Syrians can do. Not severing the relationship with the Palestinian groups or Hezbollah or Iran prior to any engagement or any process or any peace process, but there is more that they can do. They -- as I've said repeatedly, they are bad at public diplomacy. They don't even know what the term means at times. But they also see public diplomacy now -- after what they feel as having been rebuffed to many peace overtures to Israel and openings to the United States, they see it as a sign of desperation, an appearance of being weak. They see what's happened before with those Arab leaders who have engaged in public diplomacy, with Anwar Sadat, Arafat, and Bashar has no desire to mimic that and their fates.

They also have a history of playing their cards close to the vest, perhaps too close to the vest. I've always -- I've been telling President Bashar, you know, you really need to hire a public relations firm to be able to communicate your vision and your views to the West and especially to the Israeli public in order to turn things around without having to do a Sadat and go to Jerusalem.

SEN. KERRY: Well, I understand that. And I must say, in my experience here on this committee dealing with some things, I learned that. And when I was chairman of the POW-MIA committee and I had to -- I was engaged in negotiating with the Vietnamese during that period of time, we were trying to open up prisons and historical centers and all kinds of things. The stereotypes and the preconceived notions and the clumsiness with which people would respond had nothing to do with their real intent and often was just -- you know, remember once literally flying within one month on two weekends for 12 hours on the ground, both times, in Hanoi, just to clarify those things and to work through them.

And by doing that, we managed to keep a process on track that was about to be lost for the misconceptions and clumsiness, and in the end allowed President George Herbert Walker Bush to lift an embargo and President Bill Clinton to normalize relations, and here we are today.

So I believe in these things. You can do it. But you've got to kind of have that basic sense of direction, which unfortunately I'm not sure we're on today.

Enough said. Thank you all very much. Very informative, very helpful. We'll leave the record open for --

SEN./MR. : Twenty-four hours.

SEN. KERRY: We'll leave the record open for 24 hours, in the event that there are any questions to be submitted. And then we'll leave it open for the period to have those answered.

Thank you. Appreciate it.


Source:
Skip to top
Back to top