Syria and the Iraqi Insurgency

The Bush administration has accused Syrian leaders of doing little to stop the flow of money and fighters across the Syrian border into Iraq. Flynt Leverett, a former Middle East specialist on the National Security Council, talks about Syria's role in the Iraqi insurgency.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Syria's ambassador to the United States told The New York Times this week that his country had severed all links with the US military and Central Intelligence Agency. This action is a protest against American allegations that Syria is doing less than it could to cut off the flow of money and manpower to insurgents in Iraq. Flynt Leverett was a Middle East specialist at the National Security Council and the State Department from 2001 to 2003. He is a former CIA analyst and joins us from London.

Thank you very much being with us.

Mr. FLYNT LEVERETT (Former CIA Analyst): Thank you very much.

SIMON: And what your assessment of Syria's role, if there is one?

Mr. LEVERETT: Well, I think it seems pretty clear that there is money, equipment, people flowing across the border going to support insurgent activity, young men, jihadis traveling on Syrian passports, but there are similar flows coming from other of Iraq's neighbors.

SIMON: Mr. Leverett, as you read it, what is the Syrian interest in aiding, or at least overlooking the insurgency in Iraq when they could have the most powerful country in the world as its friend and buddy?

Mr. LEVERETT: The president of Syria has indicated to numerous American and other foreign visitors, including me, that he would like to have a better relationship with the United States. But as he put it to me, Syria is a state, not a charity. If I'm going to give something up, I need to know what I'm going to get in return. They, for example, would like to have an understanding that Iraq is not going to be used as a platform by the United States or anyone else to press Syria. Eventually, they would like to have an understanding that the US would work as it could to facilitate an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty under which Syria would regain control of the Golan Heights. And it's an unfortunate mismatch of diplomatic styles because he's dealing with an American administration that, on what it would describe as a point of principle, won't have that kind of conversation with him.

SIMON: And is Syria concerned, not about an instable Iraq, but about a stable Iraq?

Mr. LEVERETT: In certain ways, it's a concern about both. It is concerned about an unstable Iraq, particularly if that instability, for example, in Kurdish areas spilled over into Kurdish areas of Syria. Or if Sunni disaffection began to influence or inflame the sentiments of Syrian Sunnis. At the same time, stability in Iraq can also be potentially threatening to Syria. If, for example, a relatively stable Iraq could become a platform for the United States to pressure Syria, could become a military platform for the United States in the region, that would be very disturbing from a Syrian perspective.

SIMON: As you estimate it, how helpful has Syria been to US anti-terrorism efforts?

Mr. LEVERETT: In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the Syrians approached us and said that they had been collecting information on Sunni extremists groups, including groups that were affiliated with al-Qaeda for some time, offered to share that information with us. And through 2000, up until the eve of the Iraq War in early 2003, they regularly provided us with information that they had on various Sunni extremists. And on at least two occasions, it allowed the United States to stop operations that if they had been carried out would have resulted in the deaths of Americans.

SIMON: And what has the pullout of Syrian forces from Lebanon meant for Syria?

Mr. LEVERETT: The real question for Syria--well, there are two questions. One is: Will Syria, through Hezbollah, through other levers of influence that it will still have in Lebanon keep Lebanon in some fundamental way in Syria's strategic orbit? And the second question is: Will Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, be able to recreate some image or impression of himself as someone who wants to lead political change in Syria?

SIMON: Flynt Leverett is author of the book "Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial by Fire."

Mr. Leverett, thanks very much.

Mr. LEVERETT: Thank you.

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