London, Asharq Al-Awsat – US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Welch talks to Asharq Al-Awsat on the current status of US-Syrian relations and Washington’s increasing concerns over Damascus’s Behavior.
The following is the full test of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there a revision within the US Administration of the policy of isolating Syria, especially after the visit paid last month by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to Damascus?
[Welch] Our policies toward Syria are clear and coordinated. These policies are the same whether in public or in secret. We have relations with Syria, and an embassy. We consider that Syria has important responsibilities, the same as the rest of the neighbors of Iraq, toward protecting the security of the Iraqis, and helping them to control their territories. However, unfortunately our assessment is that there are serious violations of these responsibilities by Syria. Second, Syria’s relations with Lebanon were a source of problems in the past. We believe that Lebanon deserves a free and prosperous future, and its security and sovereignty ought to be respected by all its neighbors, especially Syria. Third, today Syria unfortunately shelters a number of groups that have terrorist activities. This is a very grave problem that has affected others in the region, particularly the ability of the Palestinian legitimate government to continue the peace negotiations with Israel. From a strategic viewpoint, we are concerned, because the Syrian regime has involved itself in alliance relations with Iran for a long time despite the extremely negative impact of Tehran on the region, and its behavior that has led to sounding the alarm bells to our allies, not to mention to the United States itself. Within this context, Syria has deviated from the regional and international unanimity. These are the issues that we stress publicly and in private, and they are clear and coordinated. Therefore, I say that there is no revision of our policies toward Syria.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem on the sidelines of the meetings of the UN General Assembly in September 2008. Why was that? What was the message sent by Washington to Damascus at this meeting?
[Welch] I believe that it is important from time to time for people to hear directly and face-to-face the reasons of our concerns. The United States has diplomatic relations with Syria, but unfortunately these channels have become very narrow in the recent past. The reason for this is that the causes of our concern over the Syrian behavior have increased. There are changes that occurred during the past month. The Doha agreement has brought some hope to Lebanon, and also a Lebanese president has been elected after a long period of dispute. Syria has announced its intention to change its relationship with Lebanon through the establishment of official diplomatic relations, a decision that was called for by the Arab League. We are prepared to consider these changes, and to assess whether there are other steps with regard to Lebanon. With regard to Iraq, we are very concerned for the security of Iraq, and for the foreign forces present there, and whether the terrorists are allowed to cross the borders. We hope that the Syrian Government will take further steps to deal with this situation, because we believe that this situation in the long-term will constitute a danger to the Syrian security. As for Damascus’s relations with the terrorist groups it shelters in Syria, this also is a major source for concern, and I have not seen great change in the Syrian behavior in this respect. I am talking about Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and others. I do not see any purpose for the relations with these groups if the Arabs have opted for a comprehensive peace initiative with Israel based on the acceptance of two states through negotiations within the framework of the previous agreement, including the commitments of the PLO and the resolutions of the Arab League. Again in this issue Syria deviates from the regional and international unanimity. These decisions are not ones to be taken by the United States, but they are to be taken by Syria. It is important that they hear these demands publicly and also privately.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But some people say: Why does the United States ask Syria not to shelter the Palestinian factions, while US allies in the region, such as Qatar and Turkey, have relations with some Palestinian factions?
[Welch] These relations are very limited, and are completely different from the nature of the relations established by Syria with the Palestinian factions. Hamas has a number of headquarters in Damascus, but there are no such headquarters in Turkey or Qatar in the same way. The second issue is: What is the international resolution, and not the US resolution, on Hamas? The international resolution is based on the principles of the International Quartet, which include the recognition of the understandings between Israel and the PLO. This is not the stance of the United States, it is an international stance, and hence the volume of the political contacts with Hamas is very limited, even by the other countries that have different positions. We consider that Hamas is a terrorist organization.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Under what conditions can the United States sponsor the negotiations between Syria and Israel in order to transform them into direct negotiations? Has Damascus tried to ask Washington to sponsor the peace negotiations?
[Welch] The United States does not lay down conditions to accept peace negotiations; this is a decision to be taken by Israel and its neighbors, but we will judge if it is serious. If the peace negotiations are serious, then we have no reason to oppose them. In fact, we believe that peace in the region ought to be comprehensive. At the Annapolis conference we invited various sides, including Syria, to investigate the Palestinian-Israeli peace track. Syria accepted, and attended the Annapolis meeting. The reason for inviting Syria is that we want to explain that there are no closed doors in the face of any serious negotiations. However, if the Syrian Government is serious, it has the means to show this seriousness directly to the United States, and not to the media. I believe that it is important for the security and future of everyone in the region that Syria does this. We are not the side that opposes peace, but we believe that if this is the way, then it has to be on a real basis. This means acting to place peace, and not the weapons, on the table. This means that Syria ought to do something about the Palestinian factions in Damascus, about its strategic relations with Iran, toward peace, and toward not shuffling the cards in Lebanon through the use of armed groups there. These are the issues according to which we will assess the level of Syrian seriousness. At the end of the day, if Syria is serious, we will take it seriously.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The United States recently removed North Korea from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism. This is in exchange for North Korea halting its sensitive nuclear activities. Has the agreement also included articles related to North Korea halting its supply of nuclear materials and sensitive information to the Iranian and Syrian nuclear programs, as the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] said that North Korea had a role in developing the nuclear programs of those two countries? [Welch] The UN Security Council resolution applies to both Korea and Iran. It includes halting the trade in sensitive nuclear materials and information between these two countries. These rules already exist in the UN resolution on North Korea. If it is found out that there are violations by any side, then measures will be taken. We are greatly concerned over the nuclear enrichment activities in North Korea. The aim of the US diplomacy and the group of six countries has been to reach an understanding with North Korea to deal with the concerns over the Korean nuclear activities. Some progress has been achieved. However, so far they have not changed their way, which is pursuing the possession of materials to produce a nuclear weapon, which is not acceptable internationally.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The relations with Lebanon and with Iran are intertwined. Is your arming of the Lebanese Army affected by Hezbollah and Hezbollah’s relations with Iran?
[Welch] We support the Lebanese Government and its institutions. We do this because we believe that this is the best way for the security and stability of the Lebanese people, and so that Lebanon restores its sovereignty, security, and prosperity in the future. We do not arm any militias. The Lebanese Army is a historic institution within the state. Lebanon has a small army that needs to be more capable. Had there been better security guarantees from Lebanon’s neighbors, whether the near or the far ones, perhaps the challenges faced by the Lebanese Army today might have been less significant. However, unfortunately this is not the case. Therefore, Lebanon needs the capabilities to protect its citizens, especially from some of the activities that take place in the camps there, and from the street violence instigated by armed militias. These are the responsibilities of the state in order to protect its citizens. There is no reason for any armed group in Lebanon to raise arms against the Lebanese civilians. This is not resistance, this is murder.