The View from Syria of the Iraq Study Group Report

Robert Malley, the Middle East and North Africa Program Director of the International Crisis Group, talks about Syria's reaction on the Iraq Study Group report. He speaks with Deborah Amos from Damascus, where Malley is meeting with Syrian officials.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

We now turn to Damascus, and Robert Malley. He's Middle East and North Africa program director for the International Crisis Group. Good morning, Rob.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (International Crisis Group): Good morning.

AMOS: You're in the Syrian capital. What's been the reaction there to the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, I think it's a mix of a sense of vindication and a sense of uncertainty. Vindication because they've been saying for some time that they are critical to what's happening in the region and that sooner or later the United States is going to have to recognize that they have to deal with Syria if they want to deal with the issues they face. But uncertainty because they're not sure whether the recommendations are going to be taken up by the administration, and if they are taken up, what exactly they would mean for Syria, how any kind of engagement is going to take place, and most of all, how the Syrians are going to deal with the question of the investigation into the murder of former Prime Minister Hariri, because as long as that's hanging over their heads, it's very hard to see what could come out of discussions with the United States.

AMOS: Now, that is the investigation that is being run by the United Nations into the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, and Syria has been implicated in that assassination. In the Iraq Study Group, that is off the table. That is not to be part of this discussion if the U.S. offers talks. What can Syria offer to the United States on Iraq?

Mr. MALLEY: What it could offer is, first of all, to do more to prevent any transfer of weapons or militants from Syria into Iraq. And there've been conflicting reports about how much is actually getting through. But the main point is, is if you do get any progress in Iraq, you're going to need Syria at least not to do any harm and to use the very vast contacts it has with Sunni tribes and with Sunni insurgents to make sure that they can be brought into whatever political agreement is reached.

Now, the broader point, which I think is a point the Baker-Hamilton report makes extremely clearly and forcefully, is that right now the Iraqi civil war is fueling tensions throughout the region and tensions throughout the region are fueling the Iraqi civil war. And you're going to have to deal with both, both the regional aspect and the Iraqi aspect, if you're going to try to stabilize Iraq and the region. And that's the instinct that is guiding the Baker-Hamilton report. And that's why dealing with Syria, with Iran, and with all the countries region is so central to any effort to get out of the crisis.

AMOS: How concerned is Syria about instability in Iraq right next door?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, they say they're concerned. They say that in fact they've re-established diplomatic relations with Iraq. They're trying to deal with the Iraqi government, they claim not because they want to prove to the United States that they can be helpful, but that in fact they are concerned that instability in Iraq means very, very large numbers of refugees are coming into Syria. The numbers vary, but it could be as high as 500,000 Iraqi refugees bringing with them sectarian tensions, criminality, gangsterism, political problems. So all of that is weighing heavily on Syria.

Now, it's weighing enough so that Syria doesn't want the situation in Iraq to become an all-out civil war. It's not weighing enough to get Syria to try to help at this point, because it doesn't want to help the U.S. get out of the catastrophe that is Iraq, so long as it feels that the U.S. harbors hostile intentions towards it.

AMOS: And quickly, what are Arab allies - Saudi Arabia, Egypt - saying about a new U.S. dialogue with the Syrians, and how will that play in Washington?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, the truth is that those countries so far have been among the most forceful advocates against American engagements with Syria. And I think that's one of the factors that's going to weigh in with the administration when they decide whether they accept the Baker-Hamilton recommendations or not. And I think of all the recommendations made by the Iraq Study Group, this is one that may be the most difficult for the Bush administration to accept. It goes against their ideological predilection and it goes against the advice they're getting from some of their allies in the region.

AMOS: Thanks very much. Robert Malley is Middle East and North African program director for the International Crisis Group. He spoke to us this morning from Damascus.

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