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What the senator learned in Syria

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published January 14, 2007


U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, recently met with Bashar Assad, the 41-year-old president of Syria, whose country is accused by the Bush administration of letting foreign fighters cross its border into Iraq. Syria, along with Iran, also supports the anti-Israel groups Hamas and Hezbollah, and was implicated in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a critic of Syria's longtime control of Lebanon.

Nelson, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, discussed his trip with Senior Correspondent Susan Taylor Martin.

Q. Why did you want to go to Syria?

A. The Iraq Study Group had just reported to our committee, and one of the major recommendations was that there needed to be a huge diplomatic offensive throughout the Middle East to try to solve the Iraq situation, and one of their recommendations was to start a dialogue with Syria.

Q. Did the State Department try to dissuade you from going?

A. They did not want me to go, but I told them that since I had been to see Assad twice before and that there would be many other senators, both Democrats and Republicans, that are going to go, that I therefore I would appreciate it if they would support my trip. So they said they would support the trip by having the transportation I needed to get there.

So what I did was fly by military aircraft into Amman, Jordan - this was after I had meetings with Israelis and Palestinians - and then our embassy in Jordan drove me to the Syrian border and the (U.S.) embassy in Damascus met me and drove me to Damascus. The embassy sent its economic officer with me, who was the note taker.

Q. Where did you meet with Assad and how long did you talk?

A. The same place I met the two previous times, in his presidential receiving room. It's in his huge palace up on the hill overlooking Damascus.

We talked an hour, entirely in English, in contrast to the other two meetings. The first one, in 2001, he spoke in Arabic and some English. In January 2004, he conversed with me in English and listened in English, but he responded to my questions in Arabic, frequently correcting the interpreter.

Q. Did you find it significant that he spoke exclusively in English this time?

A. He was clearly more confident because when I first visited him he had just taken over. The last time it was obvious he was fluent in English, but this time he dispensed with the Arabic formality.

Q. How would you summarize your discussion?

A. We had very sharp differences of opinion on what you would expect - Hezbollah, Hamas, his involvement in Lebanon. The one crack in the door was he said, "I want to cooperate, I will cooperate with the Americans and/or the Iraqi army in helping to control the border."

Now this is what he told me two years ago, and this was the only thing he said that he actually followed through on two years ago.

There was indeed cooperation, albeit sporadic, on control of the border until a couple of months after the assassination of Rafik Hariri and the cooperation cut off.

Q. Why do you think Assad wants to cooperate again?

A. We openly talked about the fact we had an interest, that he had an interest, in controlling the border now because of the refugee problem as well as the fact he'd like to have an oil pipeline from Tikrit (Iraq) all the way through Syria to the Mediterranean. I said that obviously it was in United States' interest that we control the border, that the jihadists and other insurrectionists not be allowed in.

Q. Assad has said he wants to resume peace talks with Israel, with no preconditions. Do you think he's sincere about this?

A. I had raised this issue with him two years ago, and he said then that there were no preconditions. It's my understanding that nothing really got going and I did not bring it up this time.

But a few days later, I got (U.S. Sen.) Arlen Specter on the phone knowing Arlen was going to see Assad on Christmas Day, and Arlen specifically asked me that same question: What had Assad said about talks with Israel? When Arlen got through with his meeting, he made the statement that Assad had said he was willing to have negotiations or discussions.

Q. Did you discuss anything about Syria and Israel?

A. I said we need your help using your obvious influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah to release the Israeli soldiers that had been captured (in July, sparking a war between Israel and Hezbollah). He did not respond directly to that, he responded by saying Israel had 11 Syrians they had been holding for some period of time and one of them had died of cancer within the last six months.

Q. Many Mideast experts think it is possible to break the ties between Syria, a secular Sunni Arab country, and Iran, a non-Arab conservative Shiite theocracy. Do you agree?

A. Yes. I really bored in on that. I said, "Don't you realize down the road that the real threat to the Arab Muslim world is Iran, particularly if they become a nuclear nation?" And he gave me the standard line, no, he had a friendship with Iran.

The tack I used with him on Iran was that just yesterday you opened diplomatic relations with the government of Iraq, you have an interest in stabilizing Iraq because you would like to transport their oil through an oil pipeline.

Don't you realize that Iran has in its interest to destabilize Iraq? Can't you confront that your interests are inimical to the interest of Iran? And he dismissed that.

Q. Some experts also think Assad wants better relations with the United States. Do you agree?

A. I don't know. I approached this meeting with realism, not optimism.

My approach is that we've got American men and women that are dying in Iraq, that we ought to be doing every thing we can to bring about stabilization of Iraq and that means bringing Syria into the equation. But I made it very clear to him that it was not at the expense of Lebanon, that the United States will not do anything other than support the (government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora) with regard to any dealings with Syria.

Q. What did Assad say to that?

A. He went through his normal dog-and-pony show, that the Siniora government is not representative of the majority of Lebanese people.

Q. Did you discuss accusations that Syria supports not only Hezbollah but also Hamas and Islamic Jihad, whose leaders live in Damascus?

A. On all three he gives the standard party line, that they are independent organizations and he's not giving them any support. Two years ago I talked to him about arms coming from Iran through Syria to Hezbollah and he denied that there were. He knew that I knew it was different than that, but he says it with a straight face.

Q. Many experts question whether Assad, a British-trained eye doctor who took over when his father died in 2000, is fully in control in Syria. What's your impression of him?

A. This time he obviously had more self-confidence. He does listen intently, he was courteous, and in the exchanges that were very sharp, as about the Siniora government, he was polite until I finished my statement and didn't cut me off. But then he expressed his difference of opinion.

Q. Does he strike you as a person able to compromise?

A. He gave an opening two years ago (on securing the border with Iraq), albeit it was sporadic. That's why I headed back there as soon as the Iraq Study Group made its report.

Q. Did Assad ask for any guarantees the United States will not seek regime change in Syria?

A. That did not come up. And of course had it, I would have noted that it is not my position to negotiate for the United States.

Q. Your former Senate colleague from Florida, Bob Graham, once called Syria a more dangerous country than Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Do you agree?

A. It's dangerous, but it's also an important country because if (the Syrians) were ever to flip, a lot of things could happen. Right now they are an entree for Iran to extend its influence into the Sunni Arab region. (Assad) is an Alawaite and they are actually a spin- off from the Shiites, but the country is majority Sunni.

That's why it would be important if we had some daylight between him and Iran, because otherwise the combination of the two makes it much more difficult. I think we ought to keep discussing (with Syria) - I believe in talking to your enemies because you never know when you're going to get an opening.