Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 84-99)


7 MARCH 2007

  Q84  Chairman: Good afternoon, gentlemen. We are very pleased to have you both here. As you know, we are conducting an inquiry into the Middle East and Middle Eastern aspects of global security, and in a few weeks members of the Committee will go to Syria and Lebanon. As such, we thought it would be valuable to get experts in beforehand to give us their take on the current situation. I shall begin by asking you what you see as the domestic priorities of the Assad regime in Syria. Perhaps when you begin, you will introduce yourselves.

Patrick Seale: I am Patrick Seale. I have written a couple of books about Syria and have been going there fairly regularly over the last 40 years. If you are asking about the regime's immediate goals, I would say that, first, you have to understand that the Syrians have had two tough years, from 2003 to 2005. In those years, if the United States had not got stuck in the mire of Iraq, they would certainly have been next, and so they were very concerned. Secondly, when they were forced out of Lebanon by the international outcry after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Prime Minister, many of their enemies thought that that experience would also shake the regime and perhaps bring it down. So the Syrians had two very difficult years.

    Last year was somewhat better. The Syrians were beginning to breathe more easily. They are looking more confident now, but nevertheless there is a good deal of anxiety under the surface. What if the US attacks Iran? Would Israel seize on that as a pretext to hit Hezbollah again in a second round in Lebanon? Would Syria be drawn in? That is one concern.

    The second concern has to do with the investigations that the Belgian judge, Serge Brammertz, is conducting, as you all know, into the assassination of Rafik Hariri. His mandate has just been extended for a further year. The Syrians are worried about that. They are worried that it might increase their international isolation. They have been trying to prevent the ratification of the agreement on the international tribunal that was due to be set up to try the suspects. That is the background. If you are asking what the Syrians' immediate priorities are, of course one priority, which is common to most regimes, is survival. The regime wants to make sure that it survives and is not overthrown.

    It is worth saying that if you look around the region, you see so many countries have been shattered, either by internal upheavals or by external aggression. There is Iraq, of course, but you can also look at countries such as Algeria, Sudan and Kuwait; and Lebanon had its civil war for 15 years. What the Assad regimes—father and son—have managed to do to some extent is protect their country, giving the Syrians a certain immunity from all the things around them, from the spin-off from the Arab-Israeli dispute and from the violence in Lebanon and Iraq. Obviously, one of the Syrians' priorities is to continue protecting their country. That is a second priority, you might say.

    Of course, there are other priorities. The Syrians would like to end their present isolation and renew dialogue with the Europeans. In 2004, the Syrians initialled an association agreement with the European Union, but that has not been ratified and they would like it to be ratified. They feel that they have been unjustly labelled. You see they are part of what is called the Tehran-Damascus-South Lebanon axis. It is Iran, Syria, Hezbollah. The Syrians see that axis as the main challenge, the main obstacle, to Israeli and American hegemony over the region, so they feel that their stance is perfectly legitimate. They feel that they are being unfairly targeted and that the west is using double standards against them, even over the question of the Hariri assassination. They may well have killed Hariri—we are not sure about all the others—but they look next door to Israel and see that its official policy is the extra-judicial killings of its political opponents. The United States has killed tens of thousands of people in Iraq, so they feel unjustly targeted. The Teheran-Damascus-South Lebanon axis is very important to them. Those are their strategic partners, and they have been close to Iran since the emergence of the Islamic republic in 1979. Even before that, because the opponents of the Shah were in Damascus, their links with Hezbollah were very close—Hezbollah is their proxy force in the Lebanon.

    I have to make one important point: the United States, and to some extent France and the west generally, have been trying to exclude Syria from Lebanese affairs and have forced its troops out. For the Syrians, it is of vital national interest to retain influence in Lebanon and not to allow a hostile power to establish itself there in any dominant way. If you know the geography of that part of the world—and you are going there shortly—you will know that Damascus is in southern Syria about 20 km from the Lebanese border.

  Q85  Chairman: Can I just stop you there? We will come on to those areas in a minute. I should like to bring Mr. Shehadi in, and I apologise for the sun. I notice that you have moved to avoid it. The Prime Minister had the same problem in one of these rooms a few weeks ago, so you are in good company. Please go ahead.

  Nadim Shehadi: Thank you. I agree with most of what Patrick said. I will add that the priority is to show a modernising and reformist face to you, so when you go there you will meet people who talk about reform—mainly economic reform—and how they want to make peace with Israel. In a sense, the Assad regime is offering the world a deal in which it will completely transform the regime, reform the economy and help with Iraq and Palestine—where it has a strong card to play, with Khaled Mishaal being in Damascus—in return for concessions on the tribunal and, as Patrick said, return of its influence in Lebanon, which it considers to be a vital security matter for the regime. I would say that it sees regime security as much more important than Syrian security.

    I was in Damascus for three days last week, and the people I would normally have met are in jail for crossing some red lines. There are four red lines that you cannot cross in Damascus. The major one is Lebanon—Michel Kilo is in prison for having produced a manifesto for improving Lebanese-Syrian relations. Another is that you can talk about economic reform but you cannot talk about the role of the regime—that is, the President and his family, especially his cousin and others who have a big hand in it—in the economy. Another person is in jail for having set up a human rights organisation, which was going to be funded by the European Community. Its office was open, but two weeks later it was closed and he is in jail. Of course, any membership of the Muslim Brotherhood is now punishable by capital punishment in Syria.

    It is a paradox, because there is genuinely a lot of prosperity and a feeling of security and almost of glee in Syria at having won—by surviving the last two years, which were indeed very difficult—and won at the expense of the rest of the region being a mess. At the same time, they are clamping down very heavily on any political reform or civil liberties and stuff like that. There is a return to clamping down on any internal opponents.

  Q86  Mr. Horam: You mentioned the Hariri investigation and—I think, Mr. Seale—the anxiety that there is over that. How do you see that going? Would it really be possible for the UN to demand that the regime hand over Assad's brother and brother-in-law? Will they fight that to the death? Is that really not possible?

  Patrick Seale: I think that one has to be prudent in jumping to conclusions. The evidence has still not been produced. If you recall, there was a previous investigator, called Mehlis, a German. He produced a couple of witnesses who were subsequently discredited. Brammertz has taken over and submitted an interim report, which did not take matters very much further, but has now been given a further year, as I mentioned earlier. So we do not know.

    There are rumours flying around. What many people are saying is that the killing may not have been a purely political killing. It may also have been a mafia-style killing. Hariri was no saint. There was a lot of money swilling around the country at the time; there was money from Iraq being laundered through Lebanese banks. The killing may have been over a dispute about how the cake should be cut up—partly. Of course, he is well known to have had a quarrel with President Bashar and had probably been threatened. Now the question is, if Syria did in fact kill Hariri, did it also kill all the other people afterwards, or were some of those killings, at least, done by its enemies, in order to push things further into the mire, as it were? One has to be prudent and wait until the evidence is produced. The Syrians are saying, "Let's wait for Brammertz's conclusions before we set up the tribunal." They think otherwise, if the tribunal is set up first, it will be a set-up—the argument is that will be a political trial, as it were.

    You asked if Assad would be able to send his brother or brother-in-law to trial, if they were indicted. The truth of the matter is that his father was, in a sense, the founder of the modern state, which he ruled for 30 years. He died in 2000, when this young man took over—an eye doctor aged 34 at the time. The father had total control over everything and everybody, was total master of the situation, saw very few people, hardly travelled inside the country, let alone outside the country, and believed—I believe—in Machiavelli's maxim that to rule men you must turn your back on them. The father ruled by telephone in the middle of the night to his closest colleagues. The father was feared rather than loved, whereas the son has tried to be loved. The son sees a lot of people, takes a lot of—often contradictory—advice and has not managed so far to establish his total authority, so the regime is autocratic, and I absolutely agree with Mr. Shehadi's remark that we should not expect any political reforms. But the regime is a set of interlocking relationships, between the presidency, the Alawi community, the security services and business men close to the regime—some crony capitalists, as our friend has mentioned. There are several centres of power in the country.

  Q87  Mr. Horam: How serious is the Hariri investigation? Does it threaten the regime?

  Patrick Seale: Of course it threatens the regime, in a sense, if incontrovertible evidence was produced that the order to kill Hariri came from the top. Even if some underling was involved, one would ask that underling who gave him the orders, and so forth. Certainly, it would at least increase the international isolation that Syria is now suffering.

  Nadim Shehadi: Yes, the investigation is a matter absolutely of regime security: I would say that it is the only thing threatening the Syrian regime's security at the moment. It is not a matter of being able to call the President or his cousin to a court, but of the suspicion that it would arouse within the regime apparatus about who would be sent in as a scapegoat—Libyan-style. There is a fear that that could cause a lot of internal suspicion among the regime's people.

    In a way, the Syrian regime is not unique—we had the same regime in Lebanon. Syria replicated its regime in Lebanon with the control of the security services, the corruption, and, as Patrick said, its financial dealings—it had a finger in every pie in Lebanon as well. That caused a lot of the draining of the economy during Syria's control of the country. One side of the regime—it was almost uniform—collapsed with the exit of Syrian troops from Lebanon, and the other half is definitely threatened because of the example that has been set to the population and opposition.

    We have to wait, of course, for the investigation, but the regime's and its allies' opposition to the investigation and tribunal is almost like a confession of guilt. The previous investigator, Mehlis, was accused of all sorts of things such as of having a Jewish mother who fought on the border in Israel against the Syrians and who died in the '73 war, which is why they say that Mehlis has a grudge against Syria—his mother is, of course, a Protestant living in Berlin. Part of the defence of the regime, therefore, involved an attempt to discredit the investigation and the investigator, and the whole UN process, in a sense, by accusing it of being an instrument of American policy against the Syrian regime.

  Q88  Sir John Stanley: May I come to the tortuous internal Lebanese political scene? Will you give us your advice on whether you think that the British Government and the EU should be trying to encourage Hezbollah and its coalition partners to rejoin the Lebanese Government? Or do you think that stability in Lebanon would be safeguarded better with Hezbollah outside the tent?

  Nadim Shehadi: I would say that Hezbollah is definitely a legitimate political party in Lebanon. It had legitimacy as a resistance against Israeli occupation. The situation changed after the Israeli withdrawal, so from a resistance to occupation, it became a resistance looking for an occupation to resist. That is where the Shebaa farms come in.

    There is a debate in Lebanon involving Hezbollah in order to convince it to join the political process and to lay down its arms and military agenda, which is seen as more in the interests of Syria and Iran. I am afraid that we lost that argument with Hezbollah in the summer. Part of Hezbollah's argument for the legitimacy of its armed resistance is that Israel is a threat—this summer proved it—and that the west and the UN are not a credible protection. It says that international legality will not protect it and so it needs arms and to build a resistance. That was proven last summer by the position that the US and the UK took on the Israeli attack on Lebanon. Hezbollah is now much stronger politically and it is more difficult than it was to take away its arms by political means.

    The real battle is in south Lebanon, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon and the international community should restore confidence in the international community as an instrument of peace rather than an instrument of the United States. That message is not only for Lebanon; it is for the whole region. The credibility of the international community in the Arab world was severely dented in the summer, and it needs to be restored with peace in Lebanon. That would cause Hezbollah to begin to lose the political upper hand that it has through holding its arms. It is very much like the situation in Ireland with the IRA.

  Q89  Sir John Stanley: Would you address my question precisely, Mr. Seale? Do you think that our policy should be to try to encourage the Hezbollah coalition to go back into the Government, or should we encourage it to stay out?

  Patrick Seale: You cannot really keep it out in the long term. It is worth recalling that Hezbollah represents the Shi'ite community of the south of the country and the Bekaa valley, which constitutes about 35% of the population.

    As my colleague said, we must not forget that Israel invaded Lebanon five times, in '78, '82, '93, '96 and 2006. After the invasion in '82, which killed about 17,000 people, the then United States Secretary of State, George Schultz, attempted to broker an agreement between Lebanon and Israel—a separate peace—that would have put Lebanon into Israel's orbit. Syria managed to subvert that, but the Israelis stayed on in Lebanon for 22 years, from '78 to 2000.

    It was only after the '82 invasion that Hezbollah was created; it had emerged by about '85. Through guerrilla harassment, it managed to drive out the Israelis in 2000. The population of the south suffered constant assaults. I have only mentioned the main ones, but there were almost daily assaults of one form or another. The people needed protection but the international community did not give it to them, so Hezbollah was both a military force and a welfare organisation that provided education, schools and so on.

    The fundamental weakness of the Lebanese situation, and the problem that underlies the whole debate, is that the present institutional arrangement in Lebanon is a power-sharing agreement between Sunnis and Maronites. If you are a Shi'a, the highest position in Parliament that you can achieve is Speaker of the House. You cannot become President or Prime Minister. Those institutional arrangements clearly need revision to give the Shi'a a bigger stake in decision making. How exactly the governmental arrangements should be made is the issue underlying the debate.

  Nadim Shehadi: Shi'as are about half the Muslim population in Lebanon, but they are not uniform. No single party represents all the Shi'as, all the Sunnis or all the Christians, but through the electoral system, Hezbollah and Amal have won the elections since 2000. There is great diversity among the population; electoral reform would result in more diversity in the system.

    The Lebanese system is based on power sharing, as Patrick said. The power-sharing agreement has proved to be, in a way, the only system in the region that prevents a takeover of the whole system by a single group. Every single politician in an important position, such as the President, Prime Minister or Speaker of Parliament, has a veto power that can paralyse the whole system. Right now, the Speaker is refusing to call for a session of Parliament. He is refusing to call for even an ordinary session; he refused before to call for an extraordinary session to approve the tribunal. He is doing so in order to avoid being put in a corner where there will be a vote on the tribunal. So the power-sharing arrangement gives power to all the important positions, and it is impossible for any group or party to take over completely. The system just locks into paralysis until another consensus is reached.

  Q90  Mr. Keetch: I would like to stay on Hezbollah, gentlemen. You said earlier, Mr. Seale, that there is an axis between Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. I want to try to understand just how dependent Hezbollah is on Syria and on Tehran, too. Could it exist without their support? If their support was cut, would it fall apart, either as a military organisation—a resistance movement—or as a political party? Just how dependent is it?

  Patrick Seale: The first thing to say is that Hezbollah is not a creation of Syria and Iran. It is a genuine Lebanese movement, representing the southern community, which has suffered most from Israeli aggression over the years. Without doubt, the Iranians had a hand in the formation of Hezbollah in the early `80s, and no doubt they also supplied a good deal of its funding and indeed arms. A lot of the arms were coming from Iran through Damascus airport to Hezbollah. There is a certain dependency there, but not a total one, and the more successful that Hezbollah has been in standing up to Israel, the more autonomous it has become.

    The second point that one should mention is that Hezbollah serves different purposes for Syria and for Iran. Iran sees Hezbollah as a sort of forward defence, a forward deterrence; if Israel attacks Iran, then Hezbollah will attack Israel. Iran sees it that way. The Syrians see Hezbollah slightly differently. They see it in terms of ensuring that a hostile Government do not emerge in the Lebanon, which is their real fear, because as I said a moment ago, with Damascus being so close to the border, any hostile power achieving a dominant position in the Lebanon would be like a gun at the head of the Syrians.

    So there is a complex relationship between these three parties. To an extent, they are mutually dependent. It is a very interesting relationship and, of course, they are seen now as the target of the United States and Israel.

  Nadim Shehadi: I would like to add that what Patrick said about Syria applies to any country; no country would like to have a hostile Government next to it who are used against it. That does not apply just to Syria or just to the Lebanese border; it applies to all Syria's neighbours. The way forward is to have an arrangement between Syria and Lebanon whereby Syria recognises Lebanon, establishes diplomatic relations, recognises the border and stops arming Hezbollah as an instrument of Syria in order to block the Government, which it is doing now. Also, of course, if it is carrying out the assassinations, it must be rendered accountable for them, because it cannot be a coincidence that all the people who were assassinated in Lebanon in the last six years were anti-Syrian elements—nobody is doing Syria that favour, in order to accuse it or put it on the spot.

    Relations between Lebanon and Syria in the long run have to be adjusted, but it is only when the region feels that there is such a thing as international legality and that neighbours can live in peace with normal relations, without one trying to take over the other for security reasons, or any other reasons. It is the same excuse, I would assume, that triggered the invasion of Poland or anything similar. It is a very easy excuse to make.

    Hezbollah is exactly what Patrick said it was, but there is a bit more to its relation with Iran. That is because Lebanon, in the '60s and '70s, was the only place where political expression could be heard in the whole region, including Iran. The radical elements of the Shi'a population in Iran, Iraq and other places could find expression only in Lebanon, where they also interacted with other opposition and radical groups such as the PLO, the Syrian opposition, the Egyptian opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood and all that.

    In a way, the Iranian revolution was born within Lebanon as much as Lebanon was influenced by it. We exported the revolution there and then it came back to us. If you consider that Hezbollah is that element of radicals within Lebanon that is linked to Iran in that way and that they do not represent the whole the Shi'a population but have the upper hand because of the vindication of their programme, then you see that peace in the region—international legality and confidence in the international community being re-established—will also give them a smaller share of power and will bring stability to Lebanon, especially if they stop being so dependent on Syrian arms deliveries and Iranian money.

  Q91  Mr. Keetch: Can I ask you specifically about the events following the war in the summer? I suppose that if I were a Hezbollah commander I would think that I had had a pretty good war. The general view was that the Israelis would swot them like flies, and that did not happen. First, what has the effect of that conflict been on the Lebanese army? It sometimes seems that that is a force that we hardly ever hear about. It seems to be there, so what is it doing? Is its role growing or diminishing in stature? Secondly, and specifically about Hezbollah, we have had reports about a new defensive line being built north of where UNIFIL is. Are they being disarmed? Are they still capable? Are they still preparing another assault on Israel? What is their military strength?

  Patrick Seale: They are not being disarmed and they do not intend to be disarmed. They are the only deterrent force in the region, literally. They are the only Arab force that has stood up to Israel since 1948, so they are not about to throw all that away. If I may just add one word on the link with Iran, the Shi'a population of south Lebanon have had links with Iran since the 16th century. When Iran became Shi'a in the 16th century they brought people from south Lebanon to teach them how to do it. It is a very old relationship. It is not something that is new.

    Secondly, the Syrian-Lebanese relationship is a special relationship. It is not like any other relationship in the region. These two countries were carved out of the same flesh. When the French created greater Lebanon in 1920, they added to Mount Lebanon great swathes of Syrian territory. Of course, throughout the period between the wars, those bits of Syrian territory wanted to go back to Syria, so the relationship was very close.

    The other point is a rather controversial one. Lebanese sovereignty and independence have always been rather partial. Right from the beginning it has always had a sort of Big Brother. It was France in the early years between the wars and from its creation, right up to the post-war period. Then it was Abdel Nasser in Egypt, or Israel in the early '80s, or Syria in recent decades. It was Syria that managed, in a way, to push everybody else away and say, "This is my sphere of influence." That remains the case today.

    Those people who say that Lebanon must move into some sort of utopia, by itself, as a sort of internationally protected Switzerland, are talking about pure utopia. Some of you may know the name of Khaddam, a former vice-president of Syria. He once said that Lebanon has only two neighbours, Israel and Syria, and it must choose. That remains the situation today.

  Q92  Chairman: If that is Hezbollah's position, how on earth can UN Security Council resolution 1701 be implemented?

  Patrick Seale: Well, it has not been implemented. For example, daily Israeli overflights continue. The ultimate resolution would be, of course, a regional peace settlement. In that case, we could imagine a situation in which the Hezbollah armed forces would be integrated into the Lebanese army, and Shi'a commanders would be in senior positions in that army, which they are not at the moment. You can imagine such a thing happening if there was peace. A lot of these problems would disappear if there was peace.

  Q93  Mr. Moss: May I come back to something that you both said a little earlier? I am a bit confused about the percentage of Shi'a in the Lebanese population. A figure of 35% was mentioned, but later, I think that Mr. Shehadi said 50% of the Muslim population.

  Patrick Seale: Nobody knows exactly.

  Q94  Mr. Moss: It is not a vital statistic. I just think that we ought to have some idea of the proportion of Shi'a to Sunni, for example. Half of my question, which I shall come on to now, is whether there is a dimension of a Sunni-Shi'a conflict both locally in Lebanon and of course internationally. How big is that ingredient?

  Nadim Shehadi: There has been no census in Lebanon since 1932 that has taken account of the sectarian balance or numbers because, regardless of numbers, under the power-sharing arrangement in Lebanon, there is a principle that the country is multi-confessional and that all religious groups are represented in Parliament, according to some agreement reached and renewed in Taif in 1989. It is a continuously evolving situation. The principle is that you keep sectarianism out of the equation—you leave it at the door when you enter Parliament and become a representative of the whole country—because the sectarian share will no longer be an issue when you are inside.

    As for the real numbers, the only indication that we have comes from the electoral register, which in Lebanon is not voluntary, but comprehensive. It is not accurate because it is not adjusted as quickly as one would want for deaths, births and especially emigration. Furthermore, it is only for those over the age of 18. Surprisingly, according to the numbers on the register, there are slightly more Sunnis than Shi'as—about 28 to 29%. However, that is only according to the electoral register. Depending on the age spread, the Shi'a might be a little bit more or less. That depends on immigration as well, of course. Various numbers are being thrown around that would amount to the Lebanese population being 150% of the numbers. However, in reality, according to the political agreement in Lebanon—the Taif agreement, which is our constitution—the numbers are not relevant to the power-sharing agreement.

  Q95  Mr. Moss: To come back to the question that I asked, is this a reflection of a Sunni-Shi'a conflict, both locally and internationally?

  Nadim Shehadi: There is certainly a reflection in Lebanon of the broader Sunni-Shi'a conflict in the region. After all, Lebanon is the place where the Shi'ite revival really emerged. When the radical Shi'as were being kicked out of Iran and Iraq by the Ba'ath regime, Lebanon was their only refuge. We have learned to live with that, however, because Lebanon is a place that is used to having several contradictory ideas and different political agendas, and where the only reason why they can coexist is that the system guarantees that none of them will take over completely. We are very concerned about the increasing radicalism in the whole region, and especially the reflection it has on the Sunni-Shi'a divide amongst radicals.

  Patrick Seale: I should like to address that point, if I may. As my colleague mentioned, there is an Islamic revival throughout the region, as we all know. Part of that Islamic revival is a Shi'a revival, which, of course, was greatly boosted by events in Iraq. Not only is Iran a major Shi'a power, but the Shi'a are now in power in Iraq and they are hammering at the door in the Lebanon, as they are in some of the Gulf states like Bahrain, which has a Shi'a majority but Sunni rule. There is also a large Shi'a minority in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich province. Right across the region, the Shi'a are demanding a greater say.

    Unfortunately, particularly in Iraq, that has led to something like a civil war between Sunnis and Shi'as, ethnic cleansing and horrendous killings. But it is worth noting that, of the two most powerful non-state actors in this region, Hezbollah and Hamas, one is Shi'a Hezbollah and the other is Sunni Hamas. These two are working quite closely together and this is very important. It means that they are jointly challenging the sort of western global order which says that these are terrorists, that only our order is the legitimate one and only nation states can have a monopoly of violence and that resistance is terrorism.

    Let us not forget that Israel stayed in Lebanon for 22 years. The Israelis have remained in occupation of Palestinian territories for nearly 40 years, inflicting the most atrocious hardships on the local population, which we do not have to go into here. Complex things are happening in the region but it should not only be interpreted as a Sunni-Shi'a battle region.

  Q96  Mr. Purchase: You have painted a difficult, complex and interwoven picture and I want to pull back some of those layers for a clearer view. Much is said about the support that Hamas and Islamic Jihad have from Syria. Is there much evidence to support that claim?

  Patrick Seale: Hezbollah and Hamas?

  Mr. Purchase: No. Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

  Patrick Seale: I did not mention Islamic Jihad.

  Q97  Mr. Purchase: No, I did. Do you think there is evidence to suggest that the Syrians are supporting both those organisations, particularly in the Palestine territories?

  Patrick Seale: There is certainly evidence that they are supporting Hamas particularly. As Mr. Shehadi mentioned, the head of the political bureau of Hamas, Khaled Mashal, whom the Israelis tried to kill in Amman, lives in Damascus. The Syrians feel that part of their legitimacy as a regime is support for the Palestine cause, if you remember that from 1967 to 1993, the time of the Oslo accords, Palestine was right at the top of the Syrian agenda.

    In 1993, Yasser Arafat and the PLO did a separate, secret deal with the Israelis at Oslo, so the Syrians felt that that broke ranks. From then on they started pushing their own agenda, the recovery of the Golan Heights. In more recent years, they have established the link with more radical Islamic groups, which are their Palestinian cards, as it were. There are two major tracks in the peace process—the Syrian track, or the Syria-Lebanese track, and the Palestinian track. The Israelis traditionally have played one track off against the other, pretending to move forward with one and frightening the other. The Syrians' position is that the tracks should proceed simultaneously. In a way, that is why they need the Palestinian track, to make sure that they are not left behind—I do not know if I am making any sense.

  Q98  Mr. Purchase: Yes, that is fine. Please develop that, to the point of commenting perhaps on Syria's relationship now with Israel.

  Patrick Seale: Well, President Bashar has called repeatedly, in recent months and years, for formal negotiations to begin with Israel. The Israelis have shown no interest; in fact, Prime Minister Olmert declared that, during his premiership, Israel would never return the Golan Heights to Syria.

    The United States has also taken that line, and has told the Israelis that they should not engage in negotiations with the Syrians. The Syrian position is that they do not want back-channel deals; there have been a number of them in recent weeks and months, and we could go into them if you are interested. They want formal negotiations with Israel, in which they would hope to recover the Golan Heights.

    I am sure that you all know that this whole peace process started in the days of 1991. Nothing much happened on the Syrian track until 1993-94, when Prime Minister Rabin pledged to the United States—his famous "deposit in the American pocket"—that Israel would withdraw totally from the Golan Heights, in the context of a peace agreement. When Rabin was assassinated in November 1995, Peres took over from him, and endorsed that "deposit", or commitment. When Ehud Barak came to power, in 1999-2000, he refused to endorse that deposit. As a result, the Syrian-Israeli track collapsed. Now there is talk of reviving it, and the Syrians are no longer saying, "You have got to endorse that deposit". They are saying, "We are prepared to start negotiations with no preconditions", but the Israelis are still saying, "No, no, sorry, we are not ready".

  Nadim Shehadi: One of the reasons why Syria's call for peace with Israel is not credible in the eyes of the world is that it is looking like an opportunistic thing. The regime looks squeezed. It is threatened by the tribunal. Regime security is at stake, and one big carrot that it can present to the international community is that it is willing to make peace with Israel. Regardless of whether peace is reached or not in the end, the process of re-engagement will end the regime's isolation and will also give regime security a boost in that sense. That is why I think that there may be some scepticism about Syria.

    May I return to the army question? Lebanon was constituted with a very Levantine formula, which is based on how a Levantine trader would live in the Ottoman world. He would be a protected person, without the need for arms. The formula is based on balance of power between the different confessions. An army was always seen as a big threat, because we are surrounded by countries where the army has taken over. We can talk about a 28 or 29% Shi'a-Sunni balance in Lebanon. In Syria, the Alawites are 10% of the population, and they have absolute control of the country through their control of the army.

    So the army in Lebanon was always kept very subordinate to political will, rather than having its own strength. The army cannot act without political will, and the political will is always achieved by consensus, so it is very difficult to get consensus to get the army to move in any situation. It was especially difficult last summer, when the war was seen as not being desired by the Lebanese Government, and they did not want to be dragged into a war that was triggered by an act of Hezbollah, possibly in consultation with external powers like Syria and Iran. Also, the Lebanese Government did not want to react to confront the Israeli overreaction, which destroyed the country. The way that the Siniora Government chose to confront that was to try to redirect the process, so that an international legality could be formed to protect Lebanon. That is what Lebanon always relied on. Instead of having an army, it relied on international protection. In that, the precedent is also Ottoman because the western powers gave protection to Mount Lebanon in the 19th century.

    Patrick is absolutely right in saying that that system is no longer viable in the present day, because western protection failed in the summer. An alternative would be the two programmes that are now fighting it out politically in Lebanon through demonstrations and political involvement on the ground. The question is whether Lebanon is viable as a riviera or a Monaco, as it was before, or whether it should be a militarised bunker and very militant in confrontation with Israel. The answer lies in whether the international community can provide protection, mainly against the sort of Israeli aggression that we saw last summer.

  Patrick Seale: Can I—

  Chairman: Unfortunately, I do not want to go back to Lebanon. We were trying to fit in some questions on Syria, and before we conclude I would like to let Ken in again.

  Q99  Mr. Purchase: Pulling back another leaf of the same problem, there is some evidence of recent activity with regard to Syria's approach to Iraq. Can you offer us any insights into what that activity might ultimately lead to in terms of Iraq-Syria relations?

  Patrick Seale: I shall try. Could I just begin, in one word, by responding to what my friend said earlier?

  Chairman: One word, please.

  Patrick Seale: It will be. The Syrians' quest for peace is not opportunistic. They want to build a modern state and they know that to build a modern state you need peace—only in peaceful conditions can you attract the foreign investment that you require.

    Relations with Iraq were deplorable for many years. There was a breach between the two countries in 1966, and it lasted for a very long time. It was only in the late 1990s that trade relations picked up a bit. Then Iraq became Syria's major trading partner from 1998 to 2002, the years just before the American invasion. In fact, one of the first things that the Americans did was to bomb the Syrian trade office and cut the pipeline that passed through Syria. Nevertheless, there has been a great deal of suitcase trade—a lot of smuggling of goods back and forth—and that remains the case. Many Syrian factories produce goods for the Iraqi market.

    Of course, the Syrians do not want the Americans to have too easy a time in Iraq, because they think that the Americans will win there and they will be next, so they have allowed a few Jihadists, as they are called, to go across that territory to continue the fighting. All the experts say that the foreign element in the insurgency in Iraq is still very small—3, 4 or 5% maximum—and that the insurgents are domestic insurgents. The Americans' great mistake was to dissolve the Iraqi army. The 400,000 men thrown on the street with their weapons became the core of the insurgency.

    Syria has maintained good relations with many groups and factions in Iraq, including tribal groups, the Iraqi Ba'ath party and others. It believes that it has a role to play in the stabilisation of Iraq, but so do its neighbours such as Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The meeting that will take place in Baghdad next Saturday will, for the first time, bring all those neighbours together with a lot of outside parties, such as members of the Arab League, the European Union and the Conference of Islamic Organisations, to hammer out some sort of agreement. It will be a test of whether the will is there among the neighbours to rebuild the Iraqi state as a unitary state.

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