|Ambassador Dennis Ross|
We caught up with FNC contributor Ambassador Dennis Ross to run through the implications of current developments in the Mideast conflict:
Can you explain for our readers what we know about terrorist activity in Syria at this point?
Well they have had offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad for a long time. They are really just public relations offices for these groups; the Syrians say they don’t do operational planning or provide operational guidance, but the U.S. has always thought otherwise, as have the Israelis. Earlier this year there was pressure put on, especially by Secretary Powell, to close down the offices, and they appear to have at least closed some of them, although it is not clear that Hamas and Islamic Jihad have changed behaviors within Syria. It also appears that many of the camps that they allow, and not just these two groups, also retain some kind of presence in Syria — although how active they are has been debatable. I think the bigger concern has been less the idea of terrorist training camps in Syria and more the support of groups who continue to use terror as the instrument of their policy.
Is there a working relationship between the Syrian administration and the terrorist infrastructure, or are they simply turning a blind eye?
I think it is much more a case of tolerating it, turning a blind eye, not acting against it, and allowing them to operate from there without intruding much into what they do.
Why would Palestinian militants need offices in Damascus?
They have basically been untouchable there. It gives them a kind of sanctuary from which to work, to plan, to operate, and to communicate with a kind of impunity. It’s pretty clear that they can’t operate in the open in the Palestinian territories now. Originally, it had less to do with the Israelis and more to do with the Palestinian Authority. There were different theories in the past on how to continue the resistance when there were crackdowns on these groups. The offices in Damascus were an alternative in terms of creating the ability to support terrorist groups who rejected what the Palestinian Authority was doing.
On the one hand, Syria has helped the U.S. combat al Qaeda. On the other, the Syrians seem to support Palestinian terrorist groups. How should the Bush administration deal with this tricky diplomatic situation?
We don’t look to be engaging the Syrians very much at all right now. The Syrians should understand very clearly what the consequences of their behavior are — what the consequences of bad behavior are as well as what the consequences of good behavior are. How you choose to do that is a legitimate question of policy. Does it require a constant engagement? Probably not. But it does require a communication that leaves no doubt. The Syrians have to understand that if they want to have a good relationship with the United States, the rules of the game have to be different than what they’ve been in the past. You can’t have a good relationship with us and still be supporting groups that carry out terror. And if you don’t support those groups then you can have a good relationship. And the Syrians should understand what that good relationship would mean. It shouldn’t just be a slogan, it shouldn’t just be left up in the air without definition.
Will Israel's air strike accomplish its objectives?
I’m not sure. I think the Israelis were trying to send a message to Syria that they couldn’t support these groups without impunity; that they were prepared to go after groups no matter where they were. Will it change Syrian behavior? I think in the near term, probably not, although the Syrians may choose to be somewhat more cautious. I think the Syrian response is clearly somewhat rhetorical at this point, although they may encourage Hezbollah to make life uncertain for Israelis along the border.
Is there anything in the "road map to peace" that mentions the terror offices in Syria?
No there isn’t. The road map calls for Arab states not to support terror groups, and calls on them to cease their support and funding of them, which in my mind is a bit of a problem because it is worded to imply that they are already doing it now. It also refers to resolving the conflict with the Syrians and the Lebanese as well with the Israelis. But it doesn’t really deal with this issue.
What is your recommendation for the U.S.?
I would like to see the administration make very clear to the Syrians about what they gain and what they lose. It is not enough to threaten them. They need to understand very specifically what they may also gain. To date what the posture has been is that they should close down these offices. Then Secretary Powell said afterwards that we weren’t satisfied with the steps they had taken. However, it wasn’t clear that there were any additional consequences beyond our dissatisfaction. I would like to see the administration not leave it vague, but to spell out, at least in private with them, what could be done to improve the situation with us in terms of what they might gain and what they might lose.
Whose responsibility is it to enforce the road map?
Well it is very hard for us to enforce something that was never agreed upon. The road map was negotiated by the U.S. with the other members of the quartet: The European Union, the Russians, and the U.N. Both parties claimed that they accepted it, but the Israelis had reservations, and then the Palestinians redefined it. There was never an understanding that we sought to develop between the three — ourselves, the Israelis and the Palestinians — over what really constituted fulfillment of obligations. If you don’t establish what are the standards of performance, it is pretty hard for anyone to know precisely what it is they are supposed to do. Now some of this was done in private, but it was never done in a way that reflected any understanding. Unless we were prepared to be clear about it in public and to be very clear about what we expected — with precision, not generalities — it is very hard to say, alright now one side or the other isn’t living up to what they are supposed to be doing. It is fair to say that there was never fully that kind of understanding worked out, and it certainly was not made public. This is a world where if you are going to create accountability, it has to be accountability in public. Accountability in private means nothing. I’ll tell you that from long experience.
How will the current situation affect U.S. standing in the region?
Well the current situation will continue to get worse. It may be appear to be a "muddling through" reality, but it will actually be a "muddling down" reality. Our standing in the region will suffer. If it looks like there is a souring climate that continues to get worse between the Israelis and Palestinians, it will provide many in the Arab world with an excuse to blame all the ills in the region on us for not doing enough. By the same token, were we to be seen as succeeding in Iraq, it would also have an effect on the region. So these two issues are out there and they are very prominent, and we have a stake in making each of them look like they are improving. It is hard to exaggerate this stake.