Bill Nelson defied US administration wishes and met Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.
In recent weeks, US politicians have urged that the Bush administration engage in dialogue with Syria, an Arab country considered by the White House to be a state sponsor of terrorism and a conduit for fighters both in Iraq and Lebanon.
Earlier this week, John Kerry, former Democratic presidential nominee and current US Senator from Massachusetts, said his country’s foreign policy in the Middle East was in trouble and that talking with Syria and Iran should be an imperative.
But Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and co-director of the Center for Peace Studies at the University of Oklahoma, believes the Bush administration will simply not budge on the issue.
A senior Fulbright scholar in Syria in 2005 and operator of a Website called SyriaComment.com, Landis says the current view among the neoconservatives in Washington is that Syria is ruled by an “evil” dictatorship.
Aljazeera.net: Is it a good idea for the US government to isolate Syria?
Joshua Landis: I don’t think it’s going to succeed in accomplishing any goals for the United States. It does accomplish goals for some hardliners which is that Syrians are bad people, the Syrian government is an evil government from their point of view, and should not be engaged, should not be talked to and that maintaining that line is important to American values, to western ideology which is democracy promotion.
And many in Washington feel that we’re not going to go back – as the Hamilton-Baker report recommended – to dealing with dictators.
Condoleezza Rice’s big position in dealing with Syria is that for 60 years we made a mistake in believing that supporting the status quo and dealing with dictators creates stability.
She says this is a false stability and we’re not going to do it again. And I think there are a number of vital elements of this administration that believe that it’s an important principle to cling to.
You’ve spent many years in Syria … The US and Syria have a mutual distrust, will talking alter the situation?
Talking will change things, doing will change things. Syria wants a number of things done and if it can get that through engagement then I think Syria will be delighted to engage.
And that list goes from the number one of the last list – at least what the Syrians claim is number one – is getting the Golan Heights back, re-opening some kind of dialogue with Israel, which would lead to the Golan being returned up to the 1967 borders.
Number two, is retaining influence in Lebanon and being the primary factor in influencing the direction of Lebanon’s foreign policy, certainly keeping Lebanon from being this western aircraft carrier that promotes anti-Syrian groups.
Third, would be some kind of influence over the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in order to wage this war for Arab values and a happy settlement of the Palestinian problem.
And, of course, there’s influence in Iraq, and so forth.
How important is Lebanon to Syria?
It’s vital. The defence types in Damascus argue that Syria’s incline to instability during the 50s and 60s was attributable in some parts to Lebanon being used as this aircraft carrier.
Now we can’t forget that in 1956/57, the US-trained 300 Allawite guerrilla commandos who were members of the PPS of Antoine Saade’s Syrian Social Nationalist Party to help other Syrians pull off a coup in Syria and the CIA were training them in the Chouf Mountains.
Also, all the opposition people in Syria would go to Lebanon and it was from Lebanon they waged a war against the Syrian regime to keep Syria in the western orbit at a time when Syria was torn between Russia and the US.
So it’s this kind of memory; then, of course, Israel threatened to invade in 1975, which led Syria go into Lebanon in order to keep Lebanon from becoming a Palestinian mousetrap should the PLO and Muslims have won their struggle against the Christians, so Syria intervened in order to make sure that it didn’t happen which they believe would have invited an Israeli invasion.
So Syria has had to go into Lebanon, intervene in Lebanon’s affairs on a number of occasions and we can see 1958 as another example of the Eisenhower doctrine where American troops landed in Lebanon and intervened against Syria’s support for the Nasserists anti-Chamoun movement.
This has been going on ever since the independence of both countries.
Because Lebanon is only 30km away from Damascus, Syria clearly and historically views Lebanon as a strategically viable interest and also we can add the economic factors and we can add on ideological factors.
Clearly in the war for the Golan Heights, Lebanon is the biggest and most important playing card in Syria’s struggle to get respect from Israel and to give the Golan back.
And we saw this summer, Hezbollah’s good showing against Israel opened a dialogue at least about the present debate about whether the Golan Heights should be returned, and whether Israel should have dialogue or whether the US should have dialogue with Syria because Syria is clearly an important player.
Syria as a transit point for weapons to Hezbollah has great influence over Hezbollah.
Again, Lebanon becomes the main playing card in Syria’s efforts to get the Golan Heights back.
Condoleezza Rice accused Syria and Iran of working to undermine the Lebanese government led by Fouad Siniora and said Washington would not negotiate Lebanon’s future with anybody. Will the US administration stick to its guns or bow to pressure because of Iraq?
It’s sticking to its guns. I mean the moment for dialogue was a few months ago. And the US has banded down what was a rather vivacious call by many different people in Israel and within the US establishment to open dialogue with Syria.
And that did not appeal because in order to do that, the US would have to let Syria play a more prominent role in Lebanese politics.
And Bush seems committed not to do that. Lebanon has become a central pen pang in his rapidly failing policy of bringing democracy to the Middle East, reforming the greater Middle East, which you do not hear much about anymore.
But Lebanon is the last bastion of the successes Bush had in 2005.
Is the United States hoping to use the international tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese premier, Rafik Hariri, to find the government of Bashar Al-Assad guilty and thereby bring about regime change?
Well, that certainly is the hope of the extreme right wing. It’s the hope of some of the reformers, some of the Syrian opposition people like Farid Ghadry and others who say it straight out. And there are a number of other persons who use this formula.
I think more realistic people understand that there is not going to be a clear cut. The evidence hasn’t come down yet from [UN investigator Serge] Brammertz’s report to fully charge Syria and perhaps prove Syria’s guilt. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence but there does not seem to be any smoking gun.
Now what does this serve? I don’t think many people in Washington now believe that there’s going to be a regime change in Syria any time soon, but what it does do is it gives Washington the only mechanism it has left to keep Syria isolated and try to stop what seems to be a growing wave of Europeans from going to Damascus and insisting on engagement with Syria.
In other words, if Syria were tied up in this court case for the next four or five years that was inconclusive. Nevertheless it would give people in Washington a big stick with which to discipline and keep pressure on Syria, to keep Syria isolated.
Fouad Siniora’s government has reaffirmed its approval of the UN plan for the international tribunal to try suspects in the Hariri assassination plot. How threatened does Syria feel by the Tribunal?
Syria wants this tribunal to go away. It wants to make sure that Lebanon is not going to be used as a battering ram against it in its continuing struggles with the US.
If Syria wants it to go away, doesn’t that prove their guilt?
Is Syria guilty? Obviously the entire world thinks Syria is guilty, outside of Syria, and some others in the Middle East. Reading between the lines in this new UN report that we’re getting which I have not read but I’ve read a lot of articles about it – clearly Syria remains in the crosshairs of this investigation.
And at the same time there seems to be Brammertz, in contrast to [his predecessor Detlev] Mehlis, seems to be following new leads which could implicate the Lebanese side of things much more than the Syrians, at least on the ground level, but we don’t know that.
Reading between the lines, it’s clear they are linking together all the different murders that have gone on, the assassinations, and say they seem to follow a political line.
And that would implicate Syria and its allies in Lebanon.