The panel discussion "The Escalating Conflict Between Syria, Iran and the U.S." took place at the 59th annual conference in November, 2005.
Michael Collins Dunn, Seymour Hersh, Hisham Melhem, Theodore Kattouf
Michael Collins Dunn
Editor, The Middle East Journal
Ladies and gentlemen, first a little bit of housekeeping. I am not Wyche Fowler. Ambassador Fowler is on his way to Bahrain. I’m Michael Dunn, I’m the editor of the Middle East Journal. In addition, Flynt Leverett, who was scheduled to be on this panel, has had a flight cancelled in Europe somewhere and is also unable to make it. We’re pleased to have Ambassador Ted Kattouf, who is currently the head of AMIDEAST (American-Mideast Educational and Training Services, Inc.) and has also served in Syria, to join us in place of Flynt Leverett to talk about Syria. Sorry about these last-minute changes but we’re glad to have as distinguished a panel as we do. We’re very grateful to Ambassador Kattouf for stepping in at the last minute.
Let me introduce our panel briefly and then we’re going to ask each of the panelists to speak for about ten minutes. The panel is dealing with Lebanon, Syria, Iran and the United States. It’s a big area of ground and after speaking with the panelists, I gather most of them are going to be talking about Syria and/or Lebanon. We may have to cover a bit of Iran in the discussion period, I’m not sure.
Seymour Hersh from The New Yorker is probably well known to all of you. He’s the author of a great many books, going back to his exposure of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam era. He is most recently the author of Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, which has created a bit of a stir. I think most of you will be familiar with Mr. Hersh’s work, if not with the man himself.
Ted Kattouf, as I already mentioned, is the head of AMIDEAST, the American Mideast Educational and Training Services. He had a long diplomatic career including service in Syria. Ambassador Kattouf will be sharing his views with us as well.
Hisham Melhem is known to many of you around Washington. He is a veteran Middle Eastern journalist here in town. I’ve known Hisham since our days at Georgetown a long time ago. Hisham is currently the Washington-based correspondent for Beirut’s An-Nahar. He also writes for Al Qabas in Kuwait, reports for Radio Monte Carlo, and is the host of “Across the Ocean,” a weekly talk show on Al Arabiya satellite TV.
So let me welcome Ambassador Kattouf, Seymour Hersh and Hisham Melhem. I will now get out of the way and allow them to speak. Let’s begin with Seymour Hersh.
Journalist, The New Yorker
I’ll try to keep this short because I think the questions will be more interesting. There’s no profundities here, except I will have to say, just to begin, that as you all know Ahmad Chalabi arrives tonight and is said to be meeting with Dick Cheney or probably walked in to see the man himself. The whole visit just redefines the word irony. One would expect he’d come back in chains but instead he’s coming back as the savior from the big, bad Iranians – I think that’s going to be this week’s pitch. I can’t imagine why else they would – he’s just back from Tehran and he’s going to tell them whatever he tells them.
I just happen to be one of those people who think we’re doomed in Iraq. We are doing some things better militarily. There are some young military guys, lieutenant colonels and majors, who really do understand something about how to go after bad people. But for every one of them, there’s three and four-star generals who just don’t get it and people here who just don’t get it. So there’s no way out.
What I do want to talk about for a minute is Syria, because I’m one of those – professionally it’s been a dilemma for me, because as some may know I was actually, ironically, seeing Bashar on February 14. I was with him that morning when Hariri got killed, although we didn’t know about it – I think I left a little bit after one and it wasn’t clear; I started seeing him at eleven.
In any case, I’ve been frozen in writing about it because obviously until we resolve the question of who did what, it’s very hard to get from month to month. I will tell you that I’m terribly skeptical. I think there’s been a major-league gang-up on the Syrian operation done by this administration. If you remember early in the Iraqi war, even as it began we were hearing particularly from Donald Rumsfeld how the weapons that we couldn’t find had to have been parked in Syria. Remember we heard all that. We are hearing an awful lot about Syrian involvement and we still hear an awful lot about Syrian involvement.
I can tell you that the intelligence people I talk to are – I think there are serious problems this man has, Bashar. I think one of them is that anywhere between 500,000 and 750,000 Iraqis are in Syria right now, many of them Christians, many of them supporters of the Ba’athists and Sunnis. For sure there’s a logistical – the military calls it a Ho Chi Minh Trail – a logistical pipeline. I’m just not sure what Bashar can do about it, certainly without our help. I’m just not sure what we can do to make it easier for him to try and control this support line, the line that apparently does exist.
But what doesn’t exist is some of the things we say. Most of the intelligence people tell me that the notion of Bashar openly supporting a flow of men and personnel across the border – that there’s a flow he can control. I’m not sure he can. The American intelligence community is very divided on it. There are many people – I would even put former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in this group – people who would tell you that the evidence is very slight and not at all clear that there’s a systematic high-level Syrian involvement in what seems to be basically an underground going, a flow of support going into Iraq.
I can also tell you I’m exceedingly skeptical, and I have been all along, of the point of view we’ve had about what happened to Hariri. The American point of view is that it was Syria, with the aid of some people in Lebanon. I’m also skeptical of the Mehlis report and the press about it. I think the White House, despite all the back and forth about how the American press corps was totally manipulated to its embarrassment about WMD, I would still argue we’re still being totally manipulated by this administration about Syria and Lebanese involvement. The answer in the Mehlis report, if you’re read it – there is no evidence. He’s woefully short of evidence. It’s a report that the more you read it, the less there is. I have it here, I was just looking at it again last night and this morning. It’s full of “it appears,” “it should be,” “it could be,” “it may be.” He has two inside sources, both of whom are very suspect. Both of his inside informants have spent time in Saudi Arabia. One’s connected to the former uncle Rifaat, who’s got his own problems.
So it’s just not a clean case. What he presents here is not clean evidence. Does it matter? I’ll never forget, about four or five months ago I was talking to one of my people inside who was railing on about the evils of Bashar in terms of Hariri. I said, wait a second. He may have done it, which is always a possibility. Syria may be up to its nose in everything everybody thinks may have happened. But there’s no evidence, none whatsoever. There’s just no empirical evidence. My friend says, this is one of those classic lines – this is a senior guy in this government – he said, “Oh, Sy. It matters not.” So there we are.
Professionally as a journalist, it’s very tough, because there’s a lot of things you could say about the Hariri relationship. Something that’s never mentioned in this country is the extent to which he was sort of this kind of a guy for the Saudis, represented Saudi money. There’s very little reporting being done in this country on the Hariri financial connection to Chirac when he was mayor, possibly even later. Certainly in campaign money. Our CIA has incredible intelligence about that connection, which may explain Chirac’s involvement. I think there’s questions galore about the French involvement. I think the French were ecstatic to have a card to play with us. The whole thing about 1559 and the Norwegian Larsen and all this stuff came up at a time when the French relationship with the United States was in very bad shape and now they’re all buddy-buddy. I don’t blame the French for taking any advantage. We’re a colossus, you don’t want to be on the outs with us.
I think in the long run, I don’t think Lebanon is a safer place. I don’t think its borders are as safe as they were when there was more Syrian control. I think there’s a lot of stuff going in the borders. If I were the Americans, I’d be very worried about Zarqawi – if there is a Zarqawi – or at least that movement, because his goal is, of course, ultimate goal – he’s a Jordanian. Also I hear there’s pressure on Lebanon. There’s more jihadist movement there. Conditions there, the French will tell you that every bomb that goes off is because of Syria and Syria’s influence. I’m just not sure they’re right and I’m not sure this administration is right, not only about Lebanon becoming a free democratic state – which it may just revert the other way – and also I’m not sure they’re right about whether or not they played the card the right way with Bashar. It seems to me he’s somebody that, my sense – I’ve been there three or four times, a couple times since even February – my sense, and this is a gut feeling, he’s more popular than we may think he is. It’s going to be much harder to move him out than we think it is. We really don’t know what’s going to happen next. He’s certainly rattled, rattled to the point where you could get him to do things with the Israelis on the Golan Heights perhaps he might not have done five years ago. You can certainly get him to play a constructive role in Iraq, which we’re not doing.
So as usual, we’re the yellow submarine. We’re eating ourselves, we’re disappearing. I don’t know, I think this guy, my president, believes still that he can bring democracy and that’s going to be his goal. Even talking about troop reductions, I think it’s all going to depend in terms of what he sees as his ability to get done what he thinks he can do, whether now or five or ten or twenty years, bring democracy. I think it includes his definition of democracy in Lebanon, Syria and Iran too. That is really deadly for the region.
President, America-Mideast Educational and Training Services, Inc. (AMIDEAST)
I’m actually pleased to be asked to be on this panel on short notice because instead of having two months and coming in unprepared I only had two hours and came in unprepared. The bad news is that I had to follow Sy Hersh and I’m not even going to try to be more provocative than Sy. He’s a master.
I served three times in Syria. I approach the whole issue of Syria, Syria-Lebanon, with a lot of humility. Having served three times there, I’m quite aware often of how little we know. We already had – we’ve heard from intelligence professionals earlier today and they were making the remark that they’re trying to make judgments, trying to build a wall of intelligence where you need a thousand bricks and maybe only have 175 or more or fewer. In Syria, that’s the case, much as it was in Iraq. Some of the Syrian intelligence organizations were trained by the Stasi. Some of them, like military intelligence, had Russian or Soviet tutelage. They’ve been up to now at least – Mehlis perhaps excepted – good at hiding their secrets, good at keeping people away from those who work in sensitive areas in Syria.
I agree with what Sy said that we shouldn’t underestimate the degree to which the Ba’ath Party and the regime is entrenched in Syria. Bashar, I know, did have some popularity. A lot of people thought that Bashar was hemmed in by the old guard and that if left to his own devices he’d be much more of a reformer than he’s proven to be to date. I don’t see – when I talk about the regime, I’m not talking about necessarily President Bashar al-Asad and his family, but I’m talking about the entire regime, the apparatus. It’s far more than the al-Asad family or even the certain Alawi clan.
My sense is that while there may certainly be vulnerabilities as a result of the Mehlis report and what could follow for the leadership at the top, I don’t see any organized opposition in Syria right now that’s going to fundamentally change the nature of rule in Syria.
I’ve actually been naïve enough perhaps at times to think that Bashar, if he’d chosen, could have been a change agent in Syria – maybe he still can be – in terms of allowing more civil society, less control. His wife particularly, who worked for J.P. Morgan in London and has an economics degree, has spoken both privately and publicly about the need for Syria to reform its economy, to adopt more market-oriented policies and the like.
But the fact of the matter is that after five years of rule, Bashar has precious little to show in terms of reform or progress, for whatever reasons. The regime has made some very serious mistakes. Like Sy, I’m not going to pass judgment right now on who was responsible for killing Hariri. It’s very controversial. Most Lebanese, I know where they’re pointing the finger. A lot of Syrians resent where the finger is being pointed. So I’m not going to try to get deeply into that, but certainly Syria dominated Lebanon and intimidated Lebanon. There’s no question that the extension of Lahoud’s term was orchestrated by Bashar personally and that intimidation tactics, as I said, were used to ensure that the vote went the right way in parliament. This has typified Syria’s approach when it’s had the upper hand in places like Lebanon.
I also cannot accept the argument that Syria could not have done this crime because Syria got hurt the most. That presupposes that the leadership is far-sighted and calculates very well the external effects of its policies. I have not found that to be the case. I recall, and I know that some in Syria don’t like me to recall this, but I have to recall that they were loading volunteers on the buses to go to Iraq to fight Coalition forces in the first weeks of the war. Those buses were being loaded right across the street from the US Embassy, a real thumb in the eye of this administration and not a move, frankly, we predicted the Syrians would make. So they are very capable of miscalculating. I understand the need of this regime, for internal reasons, to appeal to the Sunnis who represent at least two-thirds of the country, if not more, and there’s a lot of sympathy within Syria for the insurgency. Certainly Bashar is somewhat hamstrung by all of that. But I think he could have done more.
On the other hand, I have to say that the United States administration could have dealt better with Bashar. We went in right after the war and iterated a list of demands – or actually, reiterated a list of demands, because we’d made them in the fall of 2002. But it was a rather unfocused list. It wasn’t, here are the things that truly count for us, here are things we care about but we can discuss later if you can satisfy us that you have done the first two or three things on the list. Rather we went in there with some hubris and basically took the attitude that we had won in Iraq, we had won decisively, and Syria needed to be afraid – Syria needed to be very afraid and therefore it should do everything we wanted without expecting any quid pro quo. I know that Flynt Leverett, if he were here, he likes to quote a line of Bashar that Bashar has used quite a bit: “I represent a state, not a charity.” Therefore he expected to know – you’re asking me to do things that my father might not even have done in the context of a peace treaty with Israel, and you’re asking me to take this leap into the dark without knowing if there’s any safety net to catch me.
So I certainly am not going to exonerate what the Syrian regime has done. Far from it. But I think we could have also perhaps pushed Bashar in a direction that would have served the interests of both countries. I happen to think that having put 135,000 troops in Iraq, our top priority should have been Iraq. Right after the war we should have told Syria – you screwed up terribly. You’ve really not just angered the administration, you’ve angered the American public, you’ve angered the media, Congress. You need to make amends and here are some things you can do concerning Iraq and you need to do them quickly. If you do them, then we can get in a dialogue. But we didn’t do that and the regime in Syria has continued to show that it has a lot of ignorance of how its actions play out on the world stage, and it’s paying a high price for that right now.
Finally, I’ll just say that if there should be proof of Syria’s culpability in the killing of Hariri, I hope that any sanctions or any punishment would be directed at those responsible and we would not take a meat cleaver approach or a shotgun approach and punish the entire Syrian people for the possible acts of some in the leadership.
Host of "Across the Ocean", Al-Arabiya TV
I don’t know if we can discuss a complex issue like Syria, Lebanon, Iran and the US in ten minutes, but let me try.
When Hafiz al-Asad passed away more than five years ago, something strange happened in the region. Syria has shrunk, and Syria has shrunk considerably in terms of its prestige and role and importance in the region. By sheer guile, a bit of luck, and abundance of political cunning the likes of which Damascus did not experience since the heyday of the great Caliph al-Mu’awiya, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty in 661 – no Arab ruler exercised influence from Damascus the way the Old Fox, or the Old Asad, did for 30 years. His rule was the longest reign of an Arab ruler since the Umayyad dynasty and probably the most important since the Umayyad dynasty, with the exception of course of the great Salah a-Din. Hafiz was cool, occasionally cruel, but he was always – I used to refer to him in those days that he was the man who could probably write the sequel to Machiavelli’s Prince. He was that cool. He used violence only when violence was necessary. He was not known for his use of gratuitous violence, like his neighbor Saddam Hussein. If you dealt Asad a weak hand, he would play it brilliantly. If you dealt Saddam a strong hand, he would play it stupidly.
Asad, more importantly, was aware of his limitations, like every smart leader. He mastered the art of brinksmanship because he knew where the brink was. He was a calculating, cunning, very rational man, aware of his limitations. If you want to summarize his political life and his political legacy, you would have to say that he was embarked on this ceaseless quest of building coalitions to compensate for Syria’s weakness as a unitary state facing the Israeli challenge on the one hand and the Iraqi challenge in the east. Hence, his obsession with the triangle of Damascus, Cairo and Riyadh, which was the triangle that went to war in 1973. Three years into his reign, he went to war against Israel. Those who are very charitable to his son say five years is not long enough to judge him. What Hafiz had, the son did not have. Therefore the son – and the son always rises in the Middle East, as you can tell – did not rise to the occasion five years hence.
I would argue that in the mid-1990s, Hafiz lost some of his political dexterity and he began to make a series of mistakes. One of them was – and because of his illness after the loss of his son Basil, who was the heir-apparent – Hafiz began to invest in his son, Bashar – as we say, the spare and not the heir. He failed to anticipate the Israeli-Turkish rapprochement, which is a major strategic blunder on his part. The way he handled the Ocalan case, those of you who know Turkish affairs will attest to that.
But I would argue that one of his biggest mistakes was, if you will, to bequeath the realm, so to speak, to his son, a 35-year-old, inexperienced young man. Bashar’s era, I would argue, shows the pitfalls of political inheritance in the Arab world. It’s very hard, five years after he began his rule, to point to a single domestic, regional, international decision that this regime made that was wise or far-sighted. I’m not being harsh on it.
Under Bashar, it was no longer true to say that the Ba’ath regime in Damascus had an Alawi core. Always it had an Alawi core. But Asad, being the coalition builder that he was, the smart man that he was, tried to build coalitions within Syria with the mercantile class and the Sunnis and others, the Christians and other various communities. And in the region he tried to build this concentric circles business, when he had his alliances with the Lebanese, the Palestinians, beyond that the Egyptians and the Saudis. He was the only man in the region who could have good, warm relationship with the Saudis and good, warm – not too warm – but good, practical marriage of convenience with the Iranians. Only Hafiz could pull something like this.
Under Bashar, this veneer of Sunni Arab nationalist regime began to disappear. In its place we saw the rise of a crude dynastic rule. It’s all about the family. It’s a family affair. For many years now among Syrian oppositionists, the joke is it’s a Mafia family, it’s Don Corleone’s family. If Hafiz was the old Vito, the argument goes, Bashar wanted to be Michael Corleone, to turn the business from racket business into legitimate business. But obviously I would not even say he is Michael. He’s not even Sonny, even though he has the violent proclivities like Sonny. Definitely he’s like Fredo.
Bashar and his family lived in an insular world. They lived in denial. They were very slow, whether you like it or not, in accommodating and absorbing and understanding the changing regional and international environment – or even the domestic environment. Maybe it was his bad luck that George Bush was elected – obviously it is bad luck; that Ariel Sharon was elected; that 9/11 occurred; that the Americans invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq; and for the first time the United States became Syria’s new neighbor to the east.
They failed to read the United States carefully. They failed to anticipate the passage of the Syrian Accountability Act. They failed to see that their early support – the Syrians, like most Arabs, opposed the invasion of Iraq. This is a reality. The Arabs as people, as societies, opposed the invasion of Iraq. Most Arab governments publicly said that they opposed the war in Iraq. Some of them were winking – the Jordanians, the Kuwaitis and others – and the Syrians were definitely within their rights to oppose the war in Iraq. It was a breathtaking, historic, strategic move on the part of the United States to engage in social, economic, political engineering on such a massive scale. History is going to judge that; this is not the time to talk about it.
But I think they made a blunder in not only opposing the war – which is their right and I think they should have – they made a blunder in putting themselves on the side of Saddam, in Saddam’s camp. You can ask Ted Kattouf, who was our ambassador in Damascus. The American Embassy is literally across the street from the Iraqi Embassy. He saw with his own eyes buses full of jihadists and volunteers going to fight the war in Iraq. If you want to be on the side of Saddam, you have to bear the responsibility of being on the side of Saddam. They were on the side of Saddam in the name of Arab nationalism, in the name of international law and legitimacy – but they were on the side of Saddam Hussein because the only bright spot in an otherwise bleak Syrian economy was the bartering that was taking place between the Iraqis and the Syrians, the smuggling of oil and all that. Again, a family business. Ba’ath business, if you want to call it. Mukhabarat business, tribal business, you name it. Of course, you always have to justify your actions in the international arena by invoking international law and justice and this and that. But it was a major blunder on their part.
In Lebanon, Bashar exercised a tighter control over Lebanon. The loss of Iraq and his increased isolation in the region and the world made him strengthen his alliances with Hizb’allah in Lebanon and with Emile Lahoud, the president in Lebanon who was seen by most Lebanese – probably an absolute majority of Lebanese – as a Syrian stooge. Bashar, unlike his father, was in awe of Hizb’allah, was in awe of the leader of Hizb’allah, who is extremely charismatic – young, smart Sheikh Nasrallah – who became at one time for most Lebanese the stuff of legends, when he was fighting the Israelis in South Lebanon. He did something to the Israelis that no Arab army and no Arab society did – forcing them to withdraw under fire, and in the process losing an 18-year-old war. Bashar was in awe of this man. Hafiz had a healthy disrespect for all these Islamist groups, to the point where he was willing to engage them in pitched battles.
The irony today is you have a state of 18-19 million people – Syria – relying on a non-state actor named Hizb’allah to maintain the little that was left of its regional influence. That’s the irony.
It’s a different world than the one we used to, when the Old Man was playing on that scene, and he was really fascinating to watch. This little upstart officer who made Syria, in the words of an Arab Lebanese politician at one time who said – I’ll use the Arabic phrase. He said [in Arabic]. He transformed Syria from an object of play to an active player. Those of you who remember Patrick Seale’s classic book, The Struggle for Syria, when he talks about how since the Second World War the Iraqis on the one hand, the Egyptians on the other hand, wanted to exercise influence in the region, to become region-influential. The only way to do it is to exercise control and influence over Syria. Hafiz changed the rules completely, and hence his importance.
Today Hizb’allah is Syria’s main ally in Lebanon. Today Hizb’allah is the most important influential political/military organization. Today Hizb’allah, whether they like it or not – and I’m not crazy about the situation in Lebanon – today Hizb’allah is a state within a state. It’s a highly organized political movement that has a highly trained military wing. It has its own media empire, Al-Manar and all that. It has presence all over the world, almost like embassies, where money is collected and support is maintained. It’s a first-rate operation, ten times more effective than the old state-within-a-state that Lebanon witnessed in the late 1970s and early 1990s, the PLO state in Lebanon.
The special relationship that exists between Lebanon and Syria – this is a special relationship emanating from history, from culture, from geography, from intermarriage. The closest people to us Lebanese are the Syrians and the Palestinians, socially and culturally. That special relationship that we all believe in, and I still do believe in it, was abused to the extreme by the Ba’ath, by the Syrian regime, by the Mukhabarat, especially in the last few years. Many of us in Lebanon grudgingly accepted the Syrian military presence because – me, I’m one of them – as a Lebanese, I found it very difficult to ask the Syrians to leave while the Israelis were occupying my land. The Syrians provided Hizb’allah with logistics, weapons from Iran, and the Syrians sat on the fence watching the Lebanese doing a stellar job in forcing the Israelis to engage in low-intensity guerrilla warfare that was extremely effective.
But they abused Lebanon to the extreme. They penetrated every facet of life in Lebanon, and unfortunately with the collaboration of most of the political class in Lebanon. Equal opportunity abusers – Christians, Druze, Shi’a, Muslims, Maronite, you name it. There is blame to go around. They treated Lebanon like a fiefdom. If you want to use the Mafia analogy, they treated Lebanon the way a big Mafia family treats its borough.
Bashar’s decision to extend the term of Emile Lahoud last year was phenomenally stupid and short-sighted. He did it when he knew that the man was utterly seen as a Syrian stooge in Lebanon. He knew that he was going to alienate the French. By the way, the Old Asad was extremely brilliant – in the mid-1990s, he dragged the French into the mix. When the Israelis and Hizb’allah were fighting each other in South Lebanon, he forced the United States and Israel to accept France as a major player in the so-called April Committee. France was reintroduced to Arab-Israeli peacemaking or whatever resolution by Hafiz Asad. Bashar alienated them later on.
I fully agree with Sy that there was a personal relationship between Hariri and [Chirac]. After 1559 was passed – when Bashar promised Hariri before that he’s not going to extend the term of Emile Lahoud, then he reneged for one reason or another – I don’t know; nobody knows – Hariri was angry. He went and talked to Chirac. Chirac came to the United States to participate in the G-8 Summit in Sea Island, Georgia, last year. Bush was pontificating, as always, about freedom, democracy, the Greater Middle East and all that. Chirac said, Mr. President, wait a minute. You talk about democracy in Iraq – look how difficult it is. You talk about democracy in Palestine – those poor people are under occupation. Let’s talk about the oldest Arab democracy. Let’s talk about the oldest parliament in the Arab world, which is Lebanon. Bush liked the idea. This was one way to rebuild the French-American relationship. That was the evolution that led to 1559.
Two weeks after 1559, Bashar told a senior UN official that Hariri will never become again the prime minister. We won’t [indiscernible] as a prime minister and we will never forgive him for 1559. Hariri was assassinated. I don’t know who did it. In my heart of heart, I believe they did it. Every Lebanese, or most Lebanese will tell you that they were responsible for a long series of political assassinations in Lebanon, beginning with Kamal Joumblatt in 1977, the grand mufti of the republic, two presidents and Hariri. All these men have nothing in common politically, different religious backgrounds. The only thing they have in common is either the actual or potential ability to challenge Syrian presence in Lebanon and to build coalitions that go beyond their limited parochial, sectarian constituencies. No proof but the investigation continues.
Iran today is the only, sole friend of Syria in the region, now that Syria has lost not only the French cover but the Arab cover, i.e., their relationship with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Now Syria is more dependent on Iran. Interestingly enough, the Syrian-Iranian marriage of convenience, which was begun by Hafiz Asad and Khomeini, is one of the longest enduring political relationships in the modern-day Middle East, since 1979. These two parties knew each other very well. There was no love, it was not cozy, but it was extremely business. I help you here, you help me there. And both agreed on Hizb’allah and Lebanon. The Lebanese in the 16th century helped spread the Shi’a faith in Iran, hence the traditional relationship between the Shi’a of Lebanon and Iran. The Syrians needed the Iranian influence in Lebanon and Syria and Iran and Hizb’allah cooperated against Israel, against United States interests. So this was a very interesting, complex, multidimensional kind of relationship.
Is the United States on a collision course with Syria? It is not likely. Definitely it is not inevitable. I would agree the United States could have acted differently early on, although in hindsight Bashar was provided with a short window of opportunity when Colin Powell was in government, and before the war. Now it’s too late. Fair or unfair, it’s too late. That window of opportunity was not used by Bashar quickly and intelligently and in fact he deceived Colin Powell – at least, that’s the American version – when he told him, We’re experimenting with this pipeline between Iraq and Syria, and then we will stop. That did not happen for a variety of reasons, I’m not sure – maybe Sy is probably correct, or Ted. He’s not in a position to – we still don’t know to what extent he’s exercising power. The joke in Damascus is that Bushra is the real leader and she’s exercising it through her husband and her younger brother.
No, we are not on an inevitable collision course with the United States. The United States-Syrian relationship has always been precarious. But when Hafiz Asad was around, Hafiz knew his brink. He always managed not to alienate the Americans totally. When in 1991 the Americans came and asked him for support, he was smart enough to throw his lot with the Americans against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. He reaped a great deal of financial benefit, increased statute in the region, money and a participation in the Madrid peace conference. Asad knew how to play the game. I think Ted is correct – Asad, the Old Man, will not give you anything for free, as a smart leader. He wanted always a quid pro quo. Maybe the Americans did not know how to deal with Bashar or give him an offer he could not refuse (since we talk about The Godfather). Hence we are in this situation.
I think the Americans today are insistent on squeezing Syria regardless of what happens inside Syria. I don’t find too many American officials losing sleep over the question of what happens when the house of cards crumbles. This notion that it’s us, the Ba’ath, with all the corruption and whatever, or the chaos of the Islamists – that kind of bogeyman is not scaring a lot of people, and it shouldn’t. Analytically speaking, I don’t like it when people say it’s either the Ba’ath or the autocracies – in this Arab country or that Arab country; most Arab countries are under the rule of autocracies in one form or another, one less violent than another – or the chaos of the Islamists. In a place like Syria, there has to be and there is – and we are seeing it now – a political spectrum. There is even debate today, notwithstanding the intimidation by the government. There is the business class, you have the intellectuals, you have the academics, you have a lot of people who are raising hell because they are blaming their government for leading Syria to that dead end.
What is lacking in the American discourse, and that’s a critique of this administration, is the issue of empowering the Syrian people. We tell the Syrians, We want you to do A, B, C in Iraq; A, B, C in Palestine; A, B, C in Lebanon. But what is the stake for the Syrian people? We don’t talk about democracy for the Syrians. We don’t talk about accountability. We don’t talk about empowerment. We don’t talk about all of these things. I think that is lacking in the American approach to Syria. America cannot change the political system in Syria. It’s not America’s job to do this. All we have to do is look at Iraq and see the mess that you are in because of that. But America can be consistent on this issue and speak clearly to what they expect from the Syrian government and tell the Syrian people what they can do and cannot do for them.
Question & Answer:
Questions & Answers Michael Collins Dunn: I’d like to use the privilege of the chair first of all to ask for a very brief comment from each of the panelists on Ghazi Kenaan. Ghazi Kenaan was the most powerful man in Syria on Lebanese affairs for many years. He was the interior minister. He was the most senior of the inner Alawi people who was not directly related by blood or marriage to the Asads. Nobody’s mentioned his “suicide” – put the quotation marks where you will. Can we have a brief comment from as many of you as are willing to comment?
Hisham Melhem: I think he was suicided.
Michael Collins Dunn: Assisted suicide.
Hisham Melhem: There was a cartoon in the Arab world making the rounds on the Internet. It shows “suicide the French way” – somebody slit his throat and drinking wine in a tub and dying. “Suicide the Russian way” – drinking vodka, whatever. Japanese suicide – hara-kiri with the sword. Syrian version of suicide – somebody’s hands are tied behind his back in a chair and somebody’s shooting him.
Ghazi Kenaan is not the kind of guy who would commit suicide. I mean, nobody knows. You hear all the stories, somebody was just normal and then the next day he or she killed himself or herself. I don’t know. But this man who exercised power ruthlessly in Lebanon, a man of the world, a man who loved his wealth – you know, again, remember that line in The Godfather, since we are talking about the ultimate political movie, when somebody commits suicide with the understanding that his family will be maintained, his wealth will be maintained. The powers that be said to him, Look, we’ve reached the end of the road here. Why don’t you kill yourself, otherwise we will kill you. Nobody in his village believes that. Most of his friends, according to anecdotal information we get from the Syrian opposition types in Damascus, nobody believes that he committed suicide.
By the way, five years ago a former prime minister under investigation because of corruption charges, he was under house arrest – lo and behold, he got access to a gun and he killed himself. There was a joke in Damascus that he shot himself twice.
Seymour Hersh: Is the assumption that has something to do with Hariri? All I like to do is – empirically we don’t know. Hariri was – Kenaan told Mehlis, so I understand, and I’m sure if you ask you’ll find this is true, he received an awful lot of money – Kenaan testified that he was in the pay of Hariri for many years, many millions. So if he didn’t commit suicide or he was killed, it seems to have nothing to do with Hariri’s death. The answer is we don’t really know.
Theodore Kattouf: Perhaps Dr. Jack Kevorkian had a Syrian-Armenian cousin. No, I agree with Sy that we don’t know the details, but I also have to admit that if one is going to speculate, I think Hisham has speculated pretty well about how this might have come about.
Seymour Hersh: Are we going to speculate ourselves into a regime change here? Is that what we’re doing? Because I don’t think it’s quite as innocent as my colleague does. I think this administration at some level is very interested in regime change, extremely interested in it. It’s just a question of how far they can push and when. They’d like to do it. You’re not dealing with rationality here.
Question: Some of the questions here specifically do relate to regime change, so let’s move into the regime change question. One of the questions that seems not to be answered a lot of the time by advocates of regime change in Syria is, regime change with what? Are you talking about a senior Alawite general, replacing the relatively weak Bashar with potentially a much stronger strongman? Are you talking about Rifaat coming back? Are you talking about the Muslim Brotherhood? What are you talking about? What are the alternatives to the present regime in Iraq? Would anyone care to comment?
Theodore Kattouf: I’d just say there’s a difference between a coup and regime change. One of the reasons that Hafiz al-Asad lasted as long as he did is because Syrians of a certain generation remembered the instability in Syria and the coups and counter-coups and foreign meddling. As Hisham said, Syria seemed to be a plaything for others rather than a player. Hafiz al-Asad ended that and he got a certain amount of credit that he was able to – or in other terms, he had political capital that he could expend.
Right now, I think you have to say, with the way the Mehlis report seems to be shaping up, that there could be people even within the regime – we talked about Ghazi Kenaan, and I don’t know why Kenaan was killed but certainly there’s been some speculation that he could have been seen by some as a potential rival. So there might be other potential rivals out there we’ve never heard about. Everybody knew Ghazi Kenaan. I’m sure there are others within the military or perhaps military intelligence, et cetera, who we haven’t heard about, who might be ambitious. But it’s a very difficult thing to overthrow, even within the regime, to overthrow a regime this entrenched.
It seems to me the other thing that could result in a collapse of the regime would be if something provoked people to come out into the streets day after day and you had to use the military to try to quell that. That’s sort of always the nightmare for authoritarian regimes and no one knows how that one would come out.
But I don’t see an obvious replacement for the regime that exists now, which is not the same as endorsing the regime. It’s just that they’ve set it up that way.
Hisham Melhem: I would agree that Syrian society in general, like most Arab societies in recent years, moving more and more toward a kind of conservative milieu or environment. We see more women in Syria wearing the scarf, more young men going to mosques. This is the story in most Arab states. In the old days, when I was young, I used to refer to the Syrians as the least religious of all Arabs. This is a country, a complex human mosaic. Thirty-five percent of Syrians are neither Arabs nor Sunnis. Practically 2 million Christians, a strong Alawi – 8-10 percent, probably 11 percent of the population. You have the Druze community, the Armenians, the Ismailis and the Kurds, almost 2 million people. All of these groups will be opposed, and some of them probably fight to the last man or woman, against an Islamic republic in Syria. This is a country in the 20th century that was known for giving the Arab world the secularist ideology. Arab communists – the Communist Party in Syria was established in 1926. The Ba’ath Party was established by a bunch of young secularist Arabs in the 1940s, 1945 I think. Syria was not known as a place where the Islamists held sway, notwithstanding what happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s, culminating in February 1982 with the pitched, bloody battle in Hama, in which both the government and the opposition was ruthless and brutal and extremely violent.
I think the Islamists in Syria – one could argue, again, listening to some of my Syrian friends – may have mellowed a little bit, may have realized the limitations of their power. There is an interesting thing in the region. The Islamists in Syria, who are now saying they are for peaceful democratic change, don’t have to look at Iraq. They would have to look north to Turkey and see that there is a different approach to Islamic politics. The Islamists in Turkey reached government and authority and power by elections, elections that were seen as fair and democratic. The world did not change radically because today Turkey is essentially ruled by an Islamic-leaning political party. Because they were seen as a legitimate political party, the Turks, who have been extremely close to the United States for sixty or seventy years, could say no to the Americans when the Americans pressured them to use their territory to invade Iraq.
So it’s interesting what’s happening there. Judging by the Damascus Declaration, all these movements that we’ve seen in the last year or two within Syrian society – people trying to revive civil society and all that – I’m not sure whether I accept this either/or approach, either us or the Islamists.
Seymour Hersh: Can I just say this? Man, there sure are a lot of bad governments in the world, and I wish we would start looking a little more at the one in Washington, that’s all. Just the thought of bombs in the Old City of Damascus is terrifying. Yes, he’s weak and there’s a lot of problems, but I thought we went to war to stop international terrorism, jihadism. Here we are going after secular governments. Makes a lot of sense to me.
Question: A couple questions for Sy Hersh. You’ve written in the past predicting the possibility of US military action against Iran. Do you think the US at some point will use military force against either Iran or Syria?
Seymour Hersh: I think we’re using a lot of military force right now in a funny way against Iran. We’re doing an awful lot of very aggressive stuff. We’re doing a lot of very aggressive covert operations. You read the story in the paper today perhaps about UAVs and unmanned intelligence devices. We’re doing very provocative stuff on their borders. We’re doing stuff in Baluchistan, we’re doing stuff with the MeK, we’re doing stuff out of the K-2 base up north in Uzbekistan. We’re doing stuff off carriers, we’re flying very aggressive sort of toss-bombing missions off the coast. We’re jacking around an awful lot with them, I guess in the hope of a country that sees itself as followers of Cyrus the Great will be terrified by our images. We’re not talking to them, just as we’re not talking to Bashar and we’re not talking to the Syrians. We’re not talking to the insurgency as much as we should be. There’s some talking going on now, much too late.
So here we are. We’re a country – yes, there’s a lot of problems in the Middle East, particularly with the leadership everywhere – but here we are, a country not communicating with people in Iran, Syria, the insurgency for many years. At a place when I think any three-year-old who has – any of us who have a three-year-old in nursery schools, and the two boys would fight, where the teacher would say, you two have to talk to each other. It’s almost completely irrational to me that there isn’t more pressure, more public dissent inside America about our absolute, iron-clad refusal to talk to people with whom we have a disagreement.
So I think, yes, there’s a lot of provocative stuff. It isn’t over yet. My friends in the military, we have the same conversation that we all said in January 2003 – there’s no way he’s going into Iraq, he can’t do it. There’s no way he’s going to do something in Syria. There’s a lot of troop movements on the border there, in case you haven’t noticed. It could be posturing but there’s been a lot of troop movements lately up toward Syria. No way he could do something with Iran. Of course the elephant in the room that nobody ever talks about is Israel, and Iran is still the existential threat for the Israelis. God knows what they’ll provoke us into doing. They moved one of their submarines into the Indian Ocean recently, the Israelis. Rattled the Iranians to no end – had cruise missiles on it. So there’s a lot of stuff going on.
Question: We have quite a few questions related to the Mehlis report, the Hariri assassination. I have a comment here from Mr. Mutalali, who was an advisor to Mr. Hariri, saying that what Mr. Hersh said about Mr. Kenaan telling Mr. Mehlis that he took money from Hariri is not true. The last statement Mr. Kenaan made to the Lebanese radio was to deny that. He’s referring here to the phone call that Kenaan made the night before his suicide was announced to Lebanese radio. The story about Hariri paying Kenaan was part of the smear campaign against Mr. Hariri that was still going on after he was assassinated. Would you care to comment?
Seymour Hersh: Yeah, $10 million was the amount of money he said he had taken from Hariri. That doesn’t make it true, but that was his testimony, and I stand on what I said. Obviously I can’t tell you how I know it. But I know it from incredibly reliable figures and it doesn’t make it true, it just makes it something he said, Kenaan.
I would offer another explanation. My God, we deal with all this strategic stuff. There is something called depression in the world too. People do a lot of dumb things. If he had been linked right away somehow to the assassination, that would have been interesting. I think the Mehlis report, from the beginning the presumption was – of all the investigations – the presumption was absolutely, categorically this: we think Syria did it and it’s up to you guys to prove us otherwise. So it’s been a very funny standard they had on this.
I don’t know, Syria could well have done it. It could have been done with the president’s connivance. All those remarkable tape recordings that allegedly Mehlis has about all these people sitting around and discussing the killing – in front of Bashar, discussing the killing of Hariri – are just wonderful. I’m glad we have such great stuff but I don’t trust it very much.
Michael Collins Dunn: We have a number of questions relating to the Mehlis report and I’m not sure we’re going to have the time to get into them in detail. Perhaps we can deal with some of the other questions first and then if we have time we can deal with the more specific charges a bit. As many of you know, the Mehlis report is fairly extensive and it does deal with quite a few minutiae.
Seymour Hersh: It’s 54 pages. It’s not impossible to read.
Michael Collins Dunn: It’s not impossible to read. I’ve read it. I think probably everybody at this table has read it, so it’s not impossible to read. One should probably read the unedited version, not the edited version, the one that doesn’t have the names deleted.
Question: Why is the story of the videotape of Abu Addis, the person who was shown on a videotape claiming responsibility, why has that been sidestepped and overlooked? I’m not sure it has been. It received quite a bit of attention in the Mehlis report, but if anyone would like to comment on that.
Hisham Melhem: It’s discussed in the Mehlis report –
Michael Collins Dunn: Perhaps they meant we sidestepped it. Perhaps they meant this panel sidestepped it, I’m not sure.
Hisham Melhem: I was in Beirut when Hariri was assassinated and I think very few people wanted to believe that story. It looked fishy and sounded fishy. I think Mehlis dealt with it well. This operation was extremely sophisticated. To talk about an individual or a small group of people carrying out an operation that required a great deal of intelligence, monitoring, financing, I find it very difficult. There are a couple of intelligence services in the region that are capable of doing this. One group or two groups I could point out to. We never heard of that group. This fellow disappeared, there’s no DNA evidence. There is enough in the Mehlis report to raise questions about the veracity of this case. I do believe it rings hollow.
Seymour Hersh: Every day there are suicide bombers hitting very well defended American targets in Iraq. Is every suicide car bomber sophisticated beyond belief and it takes an enormous amount of intelligence? I’m sort of staggered by this notion that somebody couldn’t put a lot of stuff into a bomb and run it into a car, particularly with a guy who’s not unknown where he goes and how he travels. Why is this assassination, which obviously it was, why is this something that suddenly has to be magical, has to have weeks and months of planning? People run car bombs into things all the time.
Hisham Melhem: Yeah, but you see a convoy of Americans driving across the street, all you need is a bunch of people, somebody with a car, tell them the American convoy is going to be here, and then you do that.
Seymour Hersh: You see a guy coming with a lot of security – he comes in a lot of motion. All you need is somebody to tell you he’s coming, he’s going this way, bam.
Hisham Melhem: This guy had jamming equipment. There was a lot of conversations before. There’s a lot of evidence that is technical in the Mehlis report that has nothing to do with circumstantial evidence, in which he talks about the political environment, the security environment, that led to the man’s assassination. It’s not beyond the capability of the Syrian regime to do that. They’ve done it before. This notion, as Ted said, that Syria was hurt – they felt they could absorb it. They absorbed it before, they got away with murder before.
Seymour Hersh: That’s a separate question. My question to you is, why is it so magical that it has to be – this notion that it has to be planned for weeks. One of the things Mehlis says, he concludes “it appears,” “it’s likely that,” “it’s probably because,” there’s all this language in it. It’s very tendentious what he says. He says, “The evidence that has been collected is almost entirely witness statements and circumstantial evidence. It’s probably not sufficient to convict anyone.” He also says that it seems unlikely this could have been done without extensive planning by the Syrian and Lebanese security forces. I can’t think of a dumber way to run an assassination operation than doing extensive planning with a lot of people you don’t have ultimate control of. Why couldn’t it just be some guy killing him?
Hisham Melhem: I’m not necessarily ruling it out completely. What I’m saying is that this is a stolen pickup. This is a thousand pounds of explosives. The pickup was seen by witnesses at a Syrian base. There are many details.
Seymour Hersh: What was seen, the pickup? The car was registered, the only thing they could determine–
Hisham Melhem: It was stolen. Stolen from Japan.
Seymour Hersh: How many cars are stolen from Japan? A lot. Does the report say who stole it, how it got there? It has no information about any of this.
Hisham Melhem: Sy, we all agree this is a preliminary report. There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence, a lot of technical data, that points to the involvement of the Lebanese security officers, senior officers, who were appointed essentially by the Syrians. Even morally and politically, the Syrians were in total control of Lebanon. They did not even bother to investigate this whole thing.
Seymour Hersh: I wouldn’t challenge you for one minute on any of those things. Just getting back to the empirical basis for what you’re saying. The empirical basis is not in this report.
Hisham Melhem: The empirical basis is that the Lebanese security officials tampered with the crime scene.
Seymour Hersh: Oh, no question.
Hisham Melhem: There was so many incriminating evidence, all of it points – the convergence of evidence points to Syrian involvement and Lebanese involvement. I’m not saying 100 percent the Syrians did it. All I’m saying, the Abu Addis story rings hollow.
Seymour Hersh: If you read the New York Times these days, the day before the report came out they quoted – my newspaper admits the Judy Miller crisis about having been misled by this government on WMD. They report – a diplomat, they say, they don’t even say in the New York Times. This was the day before the report came out. They report a diplomat, clearly connected to the UN because it was written by the guys who cover the UN – they didn’t say Western, it seems clear it was an American. Bolton or somebody like that, doesn’t matter. Saying that they’ve read the report and it shows categorically it goes to the top of Syria, it was Murder, Incorporated, the New York Times quoted this guy as saying. When the report came out, the New York Times – which I hold to the highest standard, as someone who worked there – doesn’t bother to correct what it said earlier, that it was nothing like that in the report.
I think you have to separate the politics from the report, is all I’m saying. I think the press in particular has done a lousy job of separating the politics and the report, because the report doesn’t deliver what the politics say it does.
Michael Collins Dunn: Let me raise a couple questions here in relation to this, if we’re going to go into the Mehlis report in some detail. In the first place, I was impressed with the forensic detail in the Mehlis report. The information about the cell phones, the information about the car – although some aspects of when the car crossed from Syria and who drove it are based on a single source. The Mehlis report does not purport to be an indictment. It purports to be a preliminary report urging the need for further investigation.
Seymour Hersh: That’s not how it was covered in the press by and large.
Michael Collins Dunn: I’m not speaking to how it’s covered in the press. I’m speaking to what’s in the report. I think that what the report clearly does suggest is that the evidence that has been uncovered points toward Syria and toward the Lebanese security services and doesn’t seem to point anywhere else at this point. Therefore they feel the need to have greater Syrian cooperation in the remainder of the investigation.
But let me ask a question here, and this is a qui bono sort of question. I understand why the Administration would want to spin the Mehlis report – to force regime change in Syria. I can understand why Jacques Chirac might want to spin it. I can understand why the Saudis certainly are concerned and angry about Rafiq Hariri – as Prince Turki pointed out this morning, Hariri was a Saudi citizen.
Question: Why would Mehlis, one of the most respected prosecutors in Germany, a man who has pursued very intricate terrorist investigations for many years and was one of the chief prosecutors in the State of Berlin – why would Mehlis and the United Nations want to spin it this way?
Seymour Hersh: I don’t think they did. I’m not saying they did. I’m saying Mehlis’ report, if you read it carefully, is a very balanced – talking about a circumstantial case that can’t be proven in court. You could have written a completely different take on the Mehlis report than has been written. The spinning, I’m not suggesting it’s coming from Mehlis or the UN. The spinning is coming from elsewhere, probably my government a lot too, and certainly the French and the Saudis are spinning this very hard. I’m not accusing Mehlis of anything. He seems to have done a very honorable, straightforward report.
Hisham Melhem: I think we’re talking about two things. We’re talking about the coverage, and I have no problem with what Sy was saying. And we’re talking about the Mehlis report. Here you have 30 investigators from all over the world, with 70 staff members, and we know that what was in the report was practically a portion of what he has. That’s why he put the Syrian government on notice: cooperate if you want to absolve yourselves. The Syrians did not cooperate, only eight months after the murder of Hariri and regardless of what Hariri did or not. I’m not defending Hariri here and his political legacy. This will be left for another panel and another book or whatever. The point is probably he was one of the few senior Lebanese officials who were murdered who did not have blood on his hands, like others who were killed by various groups or various government or another in the region.
The point is, what happened was horrendous. You can have a long list of grievances and reservations and critique of Hariri’s approach to governance in Lebanon. That’s not the real issue. The issue is that these people think they got away with a lot in the past and they may have felt that they’ll get away with this.
Seymour Hersh: Who’s “these people”?
Hisham Melhem: The Syrians and their friends in Lebanon.
Seymour Hersh: But that’s not what the report says. You’re entitled to your opinion but it’s just your opinion. That’s all I’m saying.
Hisham Melhem: He says there is a convergence of evidence that leads to Syrian officials and senior Lebanese officials involved in the killing of the man. There’s a lot of forensic stuff, a lot of recordings, a lot of transcripts. If you look at how he found out about these cell phones in particular and the way he debunked the Abu Addis story – there’s a lot there. Essentially he is saying this is part of what I have. Time will tell. All I’m saying – I said this initially, this is a preliminary report. There is something about the Syrian behavior. When you form a committee to investigate a murder like that in an area you have total control of, eight months after the crime, that says something. There was tampering with the crime scene. We know that, it’s very clear. And it was not only the Mehlis report, it was Fitzgerald before. Again, these are honorable investigators with international reputations. They may make mistakes. All I’m saying is I have to put it in the political context and the historical context.
Michael Collins Dunn: Let me say one more thing here and then I want to get at least one more question in here before we run out of time. I think that while you’re technically right that the circumstantial evidence is probably not enough as presented in the Mehlis report to convict in court, based on what’s in the Mehlis report I would not want to be Jamil Al-Sayyed’s defense attorney.
Seymour Hersh: Why?
Michael Collins Dunn: Because I think there’s an awful lot of quotations not just from one or two sources, but an awful lot of evidence – including the tampering with the crime scene.
Seymour Hersh: If you ask Americans, and maybe the Ambassador can’t speak about this publicly, they will tell you that he was in the service about 30 years and his last 10 or 12 as the key guy, he was one of our best and most relied upon intelligence asset in the region. Is that a fair statement, Ambassador?
Theodore Kattouf: I honestly – it’s not that I am afraid to respond, it’s just that I don’t have sufficient information.
Seymour Hersh: I can tell you that the Americans I’ve dealt with have said that about him for a long time. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t – it doesn’t mean he’s not up to his eyeballs in planning murder. But it does mean we should be careful what we say about some people because I’ve always found him and my contacts with him to be very pro-American. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t – he certainly was pro-Syria too, I guess. But also Lebanese. I think the idea that we can automatically assume that he was up to it, I don’t think there’s anything in the report that says categorically he was. That’s where I’m at. I just know that some of these guys that we’re blaming, particularly Jamil, our Central Intelligence Agency and other people will tell you he’s been an enormous asset. He was a terrific asset for the Germans when they did the negotiations with Hizb’allah over the release of the Israeli prisoners. He’s been considered by European and American intelligence people to be a very high-rated public service. That doesn’t mean he’s not guilty. It doesn’t mean he isn’t into it. But there’s nothing in this report that would make you say this guy is totally, completely guilty. It’s all full of probable cause, “likely that,” “probably.” It’s what he writes, to his credit, upfront in the summary. He’s caveat-ing it all over the place. I don’t know what the standard was, but I think the standard was basically Syria had to disprove it wasn’t guilty, and that’s a funny standard.
Question: There are a great many questions we weren’t able to get to. We have a couple minutes left, I would like to combine several of them. There are a number of questions relating to the Syrian opposition, the Damascus Declaration. Is the Syrian opposition as represented there a viable opposition? What do you think of the internal opposition in Syria that is attempting to emerge?
Theodore Kattouf: The regime in Syria, like most authoritarian regimes in that part of the world, wanted to control virtually every aspect of public life. You can’t just start a civil society organization – an organization on the environment, the Boy Scouts, whatever – unless you register with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. It’s a long process and you get regime approval to do so. So there’s no independent civil society that’s truly permitted in Syria. I’m not saying there aren’t Syrians who band together to save the Old City of Khaleb or Aleppo. Yes, of course that happens. But generally, if you’re trying to have some kind of a formal organization, it has to be registered. It’s monitored, it can be shut down.
Clearly, one would like to see more space for civil society in Syria. I think Bashar al-Asad, particularly now, would be well advised to take the lead and not be bludgeoned into this. But I think there’s also a danger that given the pressure the regime is under, there will be elements within the regime who will say right now what we need is a very hard line, a very internally tough policy. We need to hunker down. We’re going to be under all this pressure from the Americans, maybe even from France and the EU. We need to get control of our own society and we have to make sure that there’s no internal subversion – i.e., there’s no opposition to the regime whatsoever.
So I have to admire the people who signed this declaration. It takes a lot of courage to do that. But it’s not at all clear whether they will be really permitted to flourish.
Hisham Melhem: Forty-five years ago, Syrian society was like any society. Kind of liberal, up to a point. There was a semblance of political life, parties. That was before the rise of the one-party rule. Syria had a vibrant civil society. With the advent of one-party rule essentially and the Ba’ath Party – here let me debunk something that you find when you read a lot of stuff about Syria and Iraq among Western scholars and journalists. They refer to these regimes as secular regimes. There is nothing secular about Saddam Hussein. If you are at the receiving end of his brutality as a Kurd during the Anfal campaign, which was essentially a genocidal campaign, or if you are at the receiving end of his “justice” if you are a Shi’a in Iraq, there’s nothing secular about this regime. A lot of sectarian, awful, foul smell to it.
The regime in Syria, as I said earlier, even under Hafiz, and Hafiz’s luck or lack thereof as a minority ruler, had an Alawi core to it. Now it’s more than that. You talk to the majority of the Syrians or the majority of the Iraqis, they really don’t buy this notion that this is a secular government. They practice a secular form of takiya. They claim that they are secularist, but essentially they are sectarian. That’s something one has to keep in mind. I’m a secularist to the bones. I have no use for organized religious groups, be they Christian or Jews or Muslims. The Ikhwan in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood, is a fact of life. I’m not thrilled about them. I don’t like what they stand for. I don’t like it when I see a ten-year-old boy or girl in Lebanon marching in the streets with a bandanna on his or her head that says “ana shahid.” I want these kids to live, not to die. To quote George Patton in that movie, “Let the SOB on the other side die for his country and you live for your country.”
Michael Collins Dunn: We are going to have to wrap up here.
Hisham Melhem: Okay, let’s leave it at Patton then.
Michael Collins Dunn: I know we could go on for quite a while here but thank you very much, and let me thank the panel very much on behalf of the Middle East Institute.
About this Transcript:
"The Escalating Conflict Between Syria, Iran, and the US" was the second panel at MEI's 59th Annual Conference, which was held on November 7-9, 2005.