Bolton on U.N. Demands for Syrian Cooperation

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John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, discusses the resolution adopted Monday by the U.N. Security Council demanding Syria's full cooperation with an inquiry into the killing of Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri. He says sanctions haven't been ruled out as an option.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

More harsh words and some protests in Syria today over yesterday's UN Security Council resolution. It demands that Syria fully cooperate with the investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. If not, Syria is threatened with--and this is how the resolution puts it--`further action.' That language was changed at the last minute to help win the unanimous support of the Security Council. The explicit threat of economic sanctions was removed. I spoke with US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton earlier today, and he insisted those sanctions are still a possibility.

Ambassador JOHN BOLTON (US Ambassador to the UN): Sanctions were not taken off the table. What we said to the Syrians, in clear and unmistakable terms, was that they had to cooperate fully and immediately with the Mehlis commission, which is the commission the Security Council set up to investigate the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri. And we said very clearly in the resolution that if the Syrians did not cooperate fully, that serious consequences could follow.

NORRIS: Serious consequences. What might that include?

Amb. BOLTON: We left it open. I mean, in the language of the UN system, we made it clear that all options were available under the charter, and that's why I think the signal was as strong as it was. We worked very closely with the French, and we achieved a unanimous resolution. All 15 council members, all five permanent members said to the Syrians, `Your obstruction has got to stop.'

NORRIS: So it's a strong message, strongly worded resolution, but the penalty is somewhat ambiguous. Does that weaken the UN's hand?

Amb. BOLTON: Well, I think the Syrians clearly understood, if you listened to what their foreign minister said in response, that one of the reasons the Syrians reacted the way they did to the resolution because I think they see, since the resolution is pursuant to Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which opens up the possibility of sanctions or other steps if the Syrians don't comply.

NORRIS: The UN inquiry, prepared by Detlev Mehlis, suggests that members of President Bashar Al-Assad's inner circle may have been involved in this killing. Do you think responsibility for this attack reaches all the way to his office?

Amb. BOLTON: I think the clear implication of the Mehlis report is that senior levels of the Syrian government, certainly senior levels of the Syrian security forces, were involved. But one of the reasons that Mehlis could not reach final conclusions in his work aiding the government of Lebanon was because of Syrian obstructionism. So that's why it was so important why foreign ministers of 11 of the 15 Security Council capitals came to this meeting--to tell the Syrian government that if they didn't stop their policy of obstruction, to allow the investigator to follow the evidence wherever it might lead, that the council is going to come back and be prepared to take some stiff measures against the Syrian government.

NORRIS: And in looking at where that evidence points right now, do you think it reaches the president's office?

Amb. BOLTON: Well, I'm not going to speculate on that. I think the Mehlis commission has done a very professional job in its work. They've followed the evidence, but they have not overstated the evidence. And I think that's why the Security Council created the commission. We'll let them do the investigation. But Syria has a lot of other problems, too, I should say, and we'll be receiving a briefing in the council on Wednesday from Terje Roed-Larsen, who is investigating other aspects of Syria's involvement in Lebanon over the years. So the pressure on the Syrian government is going to be growing, no question about that.

NORRIS: And as for the investigation into the killing of Rafik Hariri, what is the UN specifically asking Syria to do? What constitutes `cooperation'?

Amb. BOLTON: The full and immediate making available of all witnesses that the Mehlis commission wants, including the possibility of interviewing the witnesses either out of the country or certainly out of the presence of other Syrian watchers; access to documents and other potential evidence in the case. You know, Mehlis told the Security Council that he had asked the government of Syria to produce their files on Hariri, and the government of Syria said, `We have no files on Hariri.' Well, I mean, that's ridiculous, and everybody knows it. So Mehlis is a very experienced investigator, and if he comes back to the council and says he's still not getting cooperation from the Syrian government, that will be really serious.

NORRIS: Some Arab leaders have warned that putting too much pressure on Syria could backfire; could destabilize the government, leading to utter chaos or a coup. And that could then set the stage for the rise of a fundamentalist Islamic regime. Do you share those concerns?

Amb. BOLTON: Well, I think we're all interested in stability in the region, but you're not going to have stability if people can assassinate major political figures in other countries and get away with it. That is not a condition that anybody should be satisfied with. So I think it's up to the people of Syria here to look at what's been happening, to look at the pressure their government has been put under and to draw the appropriate conclusions. Right now what we want is cooperation from the Syrian government, and if we don't get it, I think that's a matter for the Syrian people as well as for the Security Council.

NORRIS: Just prior to the passage of this resolution, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, `With our decision today, we show that Syria has isolated itself from the international community through its false statements, its support for terrorism, its interference in the affairs of its neighbors and its destabilizing behavior in the Middle East.' Now some say that they see parallels between this resolution and the resolutions against Iraq leading up to the war there. If diplomatic channels lead nowhere, is there a possibility of military action against Syria?

Amb. BOLTON: Well, I'm not going to speculate on that. What we're saying right now is we want full and immediate cooperation from the Syrian government. So they hold the keys to their own problem here. If they cooperate fully, then the Mehlis investigation will draw its conclusions, and we'll go from there. And if the Syrian government doesn't cooperate, I can guarantee you we'll be back in the Security Council.

NORRIS: How long do you let the UN process proceed, and at what point does the US step up and work outside of that process, get ahead of it if necessary?

Amb. BOLTON: Well, again, I don't think it's helpful to speculate. I think we've had excellent cooperation over the course of several resolutions here within the Security Council. We'll watch the Syrian performance very closely, and then we'll decide from there.

NORRIS: But, Ambassador, the US--the international community, in fact, has been putting pressure on Syria for some time. So I'm guess I'm asking you how willing--how patient are you willing to be?

Amb. BOLTON: Well, I think we've expressed in the resolution that the council unanimously adopted that our patience with their obstruction of the Mehlis investigation is over, and we want immediate cooperation. We don't have to wait until December the 15th; I think the resolution makes that clear. If Mehlis says he's still being obstructed, then we're going to raise the issue as promptly as we can in the council.

NORRIS: John Bolton is the US ambassador to the UN.

Ambassador Bolton, thanks so much for joining us.

Amb. BOLTON: Thank you.

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