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2005 blog


Withdrawal of U.S. ambassador from Syria
linked to ongoing instability in Lebanon
,  Feb. 16, 2005

The decision by the United States to withdraw Ambassador Margaret Scobey from Syria in the wake of the Feb. 14 assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was intended to signal that the relationship between Syria and the United States has grown worse on a broad range of issues, but not to accuse Syria of being directly responsible for the murder, according to the White House and State Department

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, questioned on Tuesday, Feb. 15, following a meeting with Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said the withdrawal of the ambassador relates to "the fact that the relationship has been, for some time, not moving in a positive direction, but this event in Lebanon, of course is the proximate...cause of the withdrawal. We are not laying blame. It needs to be investigated; that's the important point. However, as (United Nations Security Council) Resolution 1549 notes, Syria is in interference in the affairs of Lebanon. There are Syrian forces in Lebanon, Syria operates out of Lebanon. And so when something happens in Lebanon, Syria needs to help to find accountability for what has happened there."

The Secretary of State described the assassination as "part of the destabilization that takes place when you have the kind of conditions that you do now in Lebanon, thank to Syrian interference. So we are united with the rest of the world in wanting a full investigation into what happened here, but there is no doubt that the conditions created by Syria's presence there have created a destabilized situation in Lebanon. That's very clear to everyone, and we would like to see Syria understand its obligations to adhere to the requirements set by Resolution 1549."

White House Spokesman Scott McClellan said "the terrorist attack that took place yesterday on former Prime Minister Hariri underscored the importance of Syria taking steps to change its behavior, by withdrawing its forces and helping to use its influence to prevent attacks from happening in the first place. We've expressed our concerns about Syria's continued support for terrorism, we've expressed our concerns about Syria's behavior with regards to Iraq, and we've expressed our concerns on other issues, as well."

He added during his regular briefing for the press:
"This was a brutal terrorist attack that took place yesterday in Lebanon on someone who had long fought for Lebanon's freedom and sovereignty and independence from outside influence and outside interference. And the Security Council resolution that was passed last September was very clear in terms of what the expectations are with regards to Lebanon. It stated very clearly that foreign troops need to be withdrawn from Lebanon. It stated very clearly that militias need to be disbanded and disarmed. And it stated very clearly that control over Lebanon ought to be by the government of Lebanon.

"And as I stated again, Syria's continued presence in Lebanon is a destabilizing force in the region, and a destabilizing force in Lebanon. Syria's continued support for terrorism is a problem. It's a concern that we've expressed directly to the government of Syria. Syria needs to change its behavior and use its influence in a constructive way to do what it can to prevent attacks like this from happening in the first place."

State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher, at his daily press briefing said the bombing that killed Hariri "calls into question  the stated reason behind this presence of Syrian forces; that is, Lebanon's internal security. We  believe the Lebanese people must be free to express their political preferences and choose their own representatives without intimidation or the threat of violence. 

"In recent months, we have raised repeatedly with senior officials of the Syrian Government a number of issues, including the Syrian presence in Lebanon, the continued presence and operational activities of international terrorist groups and of the Iranian regime on and through Syrian territory, and the use of Syrian territory by the Iraqi insurgency," Boucher said. "To date, these concerns have not been adequately addressed and we again call upon the Syrian Government to take positive action on all these matters." 

The State Department spokesman also said, "We're not looking just to put pressure on Damascus. We're looking to resolve problems. We're looking to stop people operating from Syria, supporting insurgents in Iraq. We're looking to stop the flow of arms through Syria to groups that are violently opposed to the peace process, that are trying to kill the Palestinian leadership as well as the Israelis. We're looking to stop the interference in Lebanese politics that keeps the Lebanese from standing on their own two feet and running their own country. There's no reason to put pressure on Syria, other than to try to get Syria to do some of these things. And some of these things are things that Syria says it wants to do, but we really haven't seen enough action."

One reporter noted that the Syrian government had also condemned the killing, adding that there was speculation that perhaps Israel—not Syria—was behind the assassination. 

Boucher responded: "I think the first thing to say is I know that Israel gets accused of everything that happens in this region. I don't see any basis to do that at this point. 

"Second of all," Boucher continued, :are we willing to look at this in the context of peace in the overall region? The answer is: Absolutely. We have been looking at this region now for several years and Syria's place in this region for several years in the context of our search for overall peace, comprehensive peace in the region, and it is an anomaly that Syria continues to allow arms to be shipped through its territory to militias, to Hezbollah and other groups that are violently opposed to the peace process and are blowing up, trying to literally bomb the peace, including thwarting the Palestinians' plan and aspirations. It is an anomaly that Syria supports -- allows operations on its territory or fails to stop operations on its territory by people who are supporting the insurgency in Iraq. It is an anomaly that Syria says it wants peace but allows rejectionist groups to operate on its territory. 

"So we definitely do look at this in that context. Look at what Secretary Rice said about comprehensive peace when she was on her most recent trip. She said it would be a lot easier to pursue comprehensive peace if Syria was not supporting Hezbollah and Hamas and other groups that are trying to attack the peace process with bombs. So we do look at it in the overall context and we find that this situation with Syria has made it more difficult to progress, despite the best efforts that we and others have, despite the efforts of Israelis and Palestinians to reach peace."

Another reporter noted that Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had told a news conference that he was concerned that Russia is planning on giving missiles to the Syrian government. Boucher, however, responded I don't have anything new on that. I'll have to look at the situation. We've expressed some concerns before at various reports, but at other instances the Russians have said they weren't selling any. So we'll have to look again at the facts, see where those things stand now." 

In the House of Representatives, meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Lahood (R-Ill.), who is of Lebanese descent, paid tribute to Hariri, saying that he "did so much for the country and, in particular, for the city of Beirut.  Ten years ago, there were many, many burnt-out buildings. Today, there are many beautiful hotels  and condominiums, and the center of the city has a project known as Solidare that the Prime Minister took a great deal of interest in in really rebuilding the business center and creating a business center in downtown Beirut. 

"He was also responsible for helping over 2,000 students a year by giving them scholarships so 
that they could attend universities and colleges all over the Middle East and also here in this 
country," Lahood said. "His foundation in this country has been very, very generous. His presence in the country will be sorely missed. He was one who did try and bring about peace, did try and bring people together, did rebuild the country and rebuild the city of Beirut and, in that essence, tried to forge a peace among Nations in that region of the world."

The White House issued a statement on Hariri on Feb 14, the day of his assassination.  It said: "The President was shocked and angered to learn of the terrorist attack in Beirut today that murdered former Prime Minister Hariri and killed and injured several others. Mr. Hariri was a fervent supporter of Lebanese independence, and worked tirelessly to rebuild a free, independent, and prosperous Lebanon following its brutal civil war and despite its continued foreign occupation. His murder is an attempt to stifle these efforts to build an independent, sovereign Lebanon free of foreign domination. The people of Lebanon deserve the freedom to choose their leaders free of intimidation, terror, and foreign occupation, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1559. The United States will consult with other governments in the region and on the Security Council today about measures that can be taken to punish those responsible for this terrorist attack, to end the use of violence and intimidation against the Lebanese people, and to restore Lebanon's independence, sovereignty, and democracy by freeing it from foreign occupation."

Donald H. Harrison