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.
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 regimesfather and sonhave 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
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 Haririwe are not
sure about all the othersbut 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 closeHezbollah 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 worldand you are going
there shortlyyou 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 reformmainly
economic reformand 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 Palestinewhere it has a strong card
to play, with Khaled Mishaal being in Damascusin 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 LebanonMichel 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 regimethat is,
the President and his family, especially his cousin and others
who have a big hand in itin 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 wonby surviving the last two years,
which were indeed very difficultand 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 andI think, Mr. Sealethe 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 uppartly. 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-upthe 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 overan 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 believedI believein 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 ofoften
contradictoryadvice 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 regimesome 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 scapegoatLibyan-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 uniquewe
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 dealingsit 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 regimeit was almost uniformcollapsed 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 Syriahis 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 threatthis summer proved itand 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 Israela
separate peacethat 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 organisationa
resistance movementor as a political party? Just how dependent
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 elementsnobody is
doing Syria that favour, in order to accuse it or put it on the
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 regioninternational legality and confidence in the
international community being re-establishedwill 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
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
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 equationyou leave it at the door when you enter Parliament
and become a representative of the whole countrybecause
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'asabout 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 Lebanonthe Taif agreement, which
is our constitutionthe numbers are not relevant to the
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
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
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 processthe 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 behindI do not know if I am making
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
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 Stateshis 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
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
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
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 peaceonly 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 tradea lot of smuggling of goods
back and forthand 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 small3,
4 or 5% maximumand 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.