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Senator Urges Talks with Syria to Ease Iraq Violence

December 22, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: When Democratic Senator Bill Nelson met Syrian President Bashar Assad last week, it was the first time in nearly two years that a high-level U.S. government figure had come calling to Damascus.

The Bush administration recalled the U.S. ambassador to Syria in February 2005, the day after a massive car bombing in Beirut killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Suspicion quickly fell on Syria, and an ongoing U.N. investigation into the assassination has implicated high-ranking Syrian officials.

Yet Damascus has recently emerged as a destination for some U.S. senators visiting the region. Democrats John Kerry and Chris Dodd followed Nelson’s lead this week, and Republican Arlen Specter is expected next week.

The idea of renewed engagement with Syria got a major boost this month from the Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker and Congressman Lee Hamilton. They urged the administration to talk directly to Syria and Iran to help stabilize neighboring Iraq.

But the Bush administration has publicly rejected that recommendation. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained why in an interview on last night’s NewsHour.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: The idea that we somehow have to tell them what to do in order to stabilize Iraq, when they, in fact, are the ones who are destabilizing Iraq, they know what they’re doing. They can stop it on any day.

Perhaps the reason that they would perhaps rather do it by talking to us is that then they can exact a price for cooperation in Iraq, and those are prices we’re not willing to pay.

MARGARET WARNER: The White House also has criticized senators for going to Damascus, calling the visits “not helpful” and “not appropriate.”

White House spokesman Tony Snow further said that the senators who’ve met with Assad have only handed him a P.R. victory.

We go now to one of those senators, Bill Nelson. A Florida Democrat, is a member of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, and, beginning in January, of the Intelligence Committee, as well. This was his third meeting with Bashar Assad.

At the administration's request

Sen. Bill Nelson
(D) Florida
I was going to the entire Middle East and Central Asia area to see what we need to do with regard to stabilizing Iraq. And it was very clear after the Baker-Hamilton commission reported that this was one component.

MARGARET WARNER: And welcome, Senator. Why did you go to Damascus? What did you hope to achieve?

SEN. BILL NELSON (D), Florida: Well, I was going to the entire Middle East and Central Asia area to see what we need to do with regard to stabilizing Iraq. And it was very clear after the Baker-Hamilton commission reported that this was one component.

As a matter of fact, the Bush administration made their request. I said I would still like to go and would like to have the support of the State Department. In fact, the State Department facilitated the trip and sent one of the embassy in Damascus to the meeting.

And I can give you a report on the meeting, if you'd like. By the way, I've got an echo in my ear, if you'd ask your engineer to correct that, please.

MARGARET WARNER: We'll definitely see if we can correct that. And I do want to ask you about the meeting. I just want to clarify what you just said, when you said they made their request. You mean they requested -- the State Department asked you not to go?

SEN. BILL NELSON: That's correct. But then when I told them that, on the basis of the Baker-Hamilton commission report that I felt like it was important that a member of the Foreign Relations Committee go, then the State Department did support the trip and, in fact, sent one of the members of the embassy staff to the meeting.

Talking with President Bashar Assad

Sen. Bill Nelson
(D) Florida
Now what Assad said to me was -- of course, we sharply differed on Lebanon. We sharply differed on Hamas and Hezbollah. He was not telling me the truth, the truth about those matters.

MARGARET WARNER: So tell us about the conversation with Assad, particularly as it involved Iraq. What did you say to him? What did he say to you?

SEN. BILL NELSON: I just want to say also that the administration -- you know, they want a monopoly on the foreign policy, and they've had a compliant, partisan Congress to give them that monopoly in the last six years. And it just simply hasn't worked with regard to the issue of Iraq and our stabilizing Iraq.

And so, as the Baker-Hamilton commission reported, they want fresh ideas and they want a bipartisan approach. And it was in that sense that I went, not only to Syria, but I went to nine countries in the last two weeks.

Now what Assad said to me was -- of course, we sharply differed on Lebanon. We sharply differed on Hamas and Hezbollah. He was not telling me the truth, the truth about those matters.

But he did open the door to want to have some cooperation with America or the Iraqi army on the question of the control of the border, the Syrian-Iraqi border or, for that matter, the Damascus airport, where a bunch of the people are coming in there.

And so I immediately then called Nicholas Burns, the number-three fellow in the State Department, and reported to him so that they can then, in the executive branch, pick up from there.

As you pointed out, since then, John Kerry and Chris Dodd have been there. Arlen Specter is coming. And I called Arlen Specter after my meeting with Assad and gave him a complete rundown on the meeting.

MARGARET WARNER: But, you know, you heard Secretary Rice say the Syrians know, she said, what to do if they want to help, at least not inflame the violence in Iraq, and that is to stop letting insurgents and weapons and money cross the border from Syria into Iraq.

Did you discuss that with President Assad? Did he tell you why he hasn't stopped it up until now?

SEN. BILL NELSON: Well, I certainly did. And that's where he and I sharply disagreed. And I told him that, the next day, that I was going to Lebanon to meet with the Prime Minister, Siniora, and that I strongly supported that government. The...

Probing a possibility for diplomacy

Sen. Bill Nelson
(D) Florida
I felt like that it was important to see if there was any daylight there. And, indeed, there was a little crack in the door. And we'll see if it was an outright lie or if, indeed, it was like last time and some cooperation starts.

MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry, Senator. I'm actually asking about Iraq. Did he explain why that border between Syria and Iraq continues to be so porous, why the insurgents continue to get re-supplied through that channel?

SEN. BILL NELSON: Well, he did that three years ago and, at the time that I was there, indicated a willingness to start cooperating. And, indeed, there was cooperation, albeit sporadic, and it continued up to and past the time of the Rafik Hariri assassination in Lebanon, and then all of a sudden that cooperation and communication cut off.

And so I felt like that it was important to see if there was any daylight there. And, indeed, there was a little crack in the door. And we'll see if it was an outright lie or if, indeed, it was like last time and some cooperation starts.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Secretary Rice also said that, you know, since they already know what they should do, they don't need to talk to us, the only reason they want to talk to us -- meaning she's speaking of herself and the administration -- is they want to exact a price.

They want the U.S. to help them get a pass, let's say, on the investigation going on through the U.N. of the Hariri assassination or other issues. Did Assad suggest that, in fact, there would be a quid pro quo, that he was looking for certain things from the United States?

SEN. BILL NELSON: No, but all of this elliptical conversation and all of these jockeying for position, this is not only reflective of the Middle East, but, indeed, with a lot of our diplomatic relations around the world.

And so what I think it would do well for America is to listen what Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton, two extraordinarily experienced diplomats, have said, and that is: Start talking. And remember what Jim Baker said? He believes in talking to our enemies.

Syria's incentive for talks

Sen. Bill Nelson
(D) Florida
[Syrian Prime Minister Bashar Assad] does have some incentive now. He's got a refugee problem coming out of Iraq. It is clearly in his interest to have some control of that border.

MARGARET WARNER: But just finally, could you get any sense from Assad what incentive he has now to help that he didn't have before? As you said, you yourself and he had the same conversation two years ago and, in fact, it still goes on, what Syria is doing.

SEN. BILL NELSON: Yes, the conversation was three years ago. Yes, as a matter of fact, he does have some incentive now. He's got a refugee problem coming out of Iraq. It is clearly in his interest to have some control of that border.

He also wants to run a pipeline from Kirkuk in northern Iraq through Syria to an outlet at the Mediterranean, so he clearly has that incentive. Now, whether or not anything is going to come of this, I don't know, but I was certainly going to report this little slight crack in the door. And let's see if it's true.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, thanks so much.

SEN. BILL NELSON: Thank you.