Is Syria a Threat to U.S. Interests?

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume ," Feb. 16, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: There's no doubt that Syria is a big problem. And one of the reasons that we have been strong in supporting or in sponsoring Resolution 1559 is that we need the international community united against what Syria is doing, and what Syria is using both its own territory for, and what it's using the territory of sou thern Lebanon to do.


BRIT HUME, HOST: Suddenly Syria is back on the front pages on the lips of U.S. policymakers. How likely is it that Syria was behind the murder of that Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri? And what does it mean that Iran has now said it will stand united with Syria in a common front against so-called threats?

For answers, we turn to FOX News analyst Dennis Ross, former Mid East advisor to two presidents, author of "The Missing Piece, the Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace."

Dennis, welcome.


HUME: First of all, how likely is it that suspicions about the murder of the Rafik Hariri, that that it was Syria's work are correct?

ROSS: I believe it's the case. I believe it's the case for two reasons. The Syrians looked at what Hariri was doing in terms of supporting Security Council Resolution 1559 to have all foreign forces leave. And there's only one foreign force in Lebanon and that's Syria. This is a message. The message was anybody who supports us who's a Lebanese, this is the way they'll end up. No. 1.

No. 2, they also want to create a different message, I believe. Which is if you think you're going to be better off without us out of there, these are the kinds of picture or the kind of reality you used to have to live with. You know, Bashir Gemayel was a Lebanese president, who was blown up in very much the same way. And there was little doubt again that it was the Syrians or their friends who were responsible for it.

HUME: U.N. Resolution 1559 calling on Syria to leave. That is, in fact, calling on Syria to do something it's long since been obligated to do under previous U.N. resolutions, correct?

ROSS: Yes, it's not new. But this is the first time however, where you have a Security Council resolution that is calling for foreign forces to leave when there's only one foreign force there. There was a previous resolution back in, I think, 1981.

HUME: And an agreement, correct?

ROSS: Yes, now that was with the Saudis and the Saudis had broken an agreement that they would withdraw.

HUME: They never did.

ROSS: They did not withdraw.

HUME: Now, you portray the Syrians — and I mean I've been to Syria, as I know you have. We've dealt with these people, the Asad regime. Syria is not a big very place. It's not a very powerful country. It doesn't have much of an economy. The atmosphere described and that I've witnessed there was a sort of mafia-like atmosphere. Is that an incorrect characterization?

ROSS: No, I think that is a characterization. You have a minority sect, the Alawis, who represent 10 percent of Syria. They dominate. They have dominated since Hafiz Asad's time, Bashir's father.

HUME: The current leader's father.

ROSS: That's right. And in this particular case, they've dominated the military. They dominate the whole security apparatus, and they really have a strangle hold.

HUME: This military apparatus that they have, such as it is, would be no match even for Israel, would it?

ROSS: No, but one shouldn't dismiss...

HUME: No, I'm not. But I'm just asking what we're dealing with a minor power on earth.

ROSS: They are not a major force. They certainly have capabilities and will look to, in fact, show how they can destabilize the area if you create problems for them.

HUME: By acts like assassination and so.

ROSS: That's right.

HUME: So how meaningful is it and how much does it add to their sort of clout in the region, and whatever formidability they have that they had this meeting in Tehran today? And the Iranians said they are going to stand with the Syrians. What does this mean?

ROSS: What it means fundamentally is that they know they're alone right now. They don't have anybody else in the Arab world who is supporting them either. So who is it that they align with right now? It isn't any of their Arab brothers. It's the Iranians.

And the value from their standpoint of aligning with the Iranians right is again the imagery that we can cause lots of problems for you. Put too much pressure on us, we can cause lots of problems for you. We can heat up Hezbollah. We can have Hezbollah...

HUME: Now, Hezbollah is a creature of Iran though, is it not?

ROSS: That's right.

HUME: And particularly active in Syria-controlled Lebanon.

ROSS: That's right.

HUME: So how new is this alliance really?

ROSS: It's not new at all. But Hezbollah obviously could destabilize the frontier with the Israelis. But I think one, before one assumes that they will, while Hezbollah is supported to the tune of about $100 million a year by Iran, Hezbollah still sees itself as first and foremost as Lebanese. And they have a Lebanese agenda. They may have a regional agenda, but first and foremost, they have a Lebanese agenda. If they look like they're playing an Iranian game that is destructive to Lebanon, that's a problem for them within Lebanon.

HUME: Is Hezbollah popular in Lebanon?

ROSS: Hezbollah was popular for a while, because they were seen as ones who were responsible for driving the Israelis out. And they had a popularity partly because of that. Partly because much like Hamas and other such groups, they provide a lot of the social welfare needs.

You know, if you go to south Lebanon, who provides a lot of the schools? Who provides a lot of the clinics? Who meets a lot of the social needs of the people there? It has been Hezbollah. In part, it's because Iran is providing them as much money as they are.

But there's a problem here for them. If in fact you begin to see a kind of mass movement against the Syrian presence in Lebanon, which this assassination may produce. This may be very counterproductive from the standpoint of the Syrian interest. They may have triggered something they didn't anticipate. They may have thought boy, this is a way...

HUME: To scare these people.

ROSS: That's right, intimidate them. But look at what you saw in the outpouring.

HUME: Yes, passionate.

ROSS: And I think it's easily mobilizable now. And it acquires — like Ukraine — a momentum of its own. And the more they feel emboldened, the more the public feels embolden, the more the Syrians will have a problem. And if they try to use Hezbollah as a counterweight in Lebanon...

HUME: It may fail.

ROSS: It may fail. That's right.

HUME: Got you. OK. Now, what about U.N. Resolution 1559 in the meantime? It hasn't yet been put into play, correct?

ROSS: Right.

HUME: And how likely is it that it will?

ROSS: The reality is it is not one of these resolutions that has a built-in enforcement mechanisms, where there are sanctions...

HUME: In other words, it's just a call. No teeth in it.

ROSS: That's right. It calls for the secretary general to report back on the status of implementing the resolution, which creates an opening. It's a very good thing to keep the focus on this right now, because it creates a sense of vulnerability for the Syrians. They have to find a way to answer it. They have always been big on emphasizing what they call "international legitimacy." Well, this is the definition of international legitimacy.

HUME: And what leverage does the United States have, apart from 130,000 troops or so, already quite busy in Iraq and the region against Syria?

ROSS: There aren't a whole lot of sanctions that we can add. Because they've been on the terrorism list, there's not a lot we can add to the...

HUME: We don't trade with them?

ROSS: We don't trade with them. There are marginal things we could do. The way to put real pressure on the Syrians is for, in fact, the Europeans to do it.

HUME: Oh, boy! What are the chances for that?

ROSS: Well, I mean the one interesting thing is bear in mind who has a traditional interest in Lebanon, France. Who joined with us on 1559? France. So given the special interest that the French have in Lebanon, you may well find the Europeans are more willing to do anything on this subject than they have been before.

HUME: Something to watch. Dennis, as always, thank you.

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