The Bush administration is reaching out to the Syrian opposition because of growing concerns that unrest in Lebanon could spill over and suddenly destabilize Syria, which borders four countries pivotal to U.S. Middle East policy -- Israel, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, U.S. and Syrian sources said.
In an interview, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that the United States is talking to "as many people as we possibly can" about the situation in Syria, as well as in Lebanon, to ensure that Washington is prepared in the event of yet another abrupt political upheaval.
Lebanon FAQ: Frequently asked questions about the political situation in Lebanon and the country's relationship with Syria.
"What we're trying to do is to assess the situation so that nobody is blindsided, because events are moving so fast and in such unpredictable directions that it is only prudent at this point to know what's going on," Rice told Washington Post editors and reporters, citing "the possibility for what I often call discontinuous events, meaning that you were expecting them to go along like this and all of a sudden they go off in this direction, in periods of change like this. So we're going to look at all the possibilities and talk to as many people as we possibly can."
A meeting Thursday, hosted by new State Department "democracy czar" Elizabeth Cheney, brought together senior administration officials from Vice President Cheney's office, the National Security Council and the Pentagon and about a dozen prominent Syrian Americans, including political activists, community leaders, academics and an opposition group, a senior State Department official said.
The opposition group comes from the Syria Reform Party, a small U.S.-based Syrian organization often compared to the Iraqi National Congress led by former exile Ahmed Chalabi. The INC, which led the campaign to oust former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, had widespread U.S. financial and political support from both the Clinton and Bush administrations, as well as Congress.
U.S. officials, however, yesterday denied that the meeting was intended to coordinate efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.
"That would be a monumental distortion," a senior State Department official said. "But it was a discussion about supporting reform and change in the region and specifically Syria -- and how we can help that and work with people in the region and Syria to support that process."
The U.S. outreach is a direct result of President Bush's discussion last month with French President Jacques Chirac, said U.S and European officials. Advising against any discussion of "regime change," Chirac told Bush that the Damascus government was unlikely to survive the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. The French president predicted that free elections in Lebanon would in turn force change inside Syria, possibly unraveling Assad's government, U.S. sources said.
Since that Feb. 21 meeting, the Bush administration has begun looking at possible political options in Syria, said analysts familiar with the U.S. thinking. "They're taking seriously that a consequence of getting out of Lebanon will be the collapse of the Assad regime, and they're looking around for alternatives," said Flynt Leverett, former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council under Bush.
The Syrian Americans who attended the meeting urged the administration to take tentative steps to pressure Damascus, such as having Bush call for greater freedoms and release of political prisoners, said Farid Ghadry, president of the Syrian Reform Party.
The delegation also sought support for lawsuits in U.S. courts against Syrian officials engaged in human rights abuses, an option available under the Alien Tort Claims Act, Ghadry said. The 1789 law grants jurisdiction to U.S. federal courts over "any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States."
Ghadry said the Syrian opposition was encouraged by the "open and constructive" meeting, which was attended by key players in the administration's democracy policy such as John Hannah from Cheney's office, Robert Danin from the National Security Council and the Pentagon's David Schenker.
"They wanted to hear from us how they can help in extending the message of freedom and democracy in Syria," said Ghadry, who left his homeland 30 years ago, when he was 10, and formed his party after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "They listened and took a lot of notes. We felt from the responses that they understand these are important issues."
Some U.S. analysts and other Syrian Americans warned that the Syrian Reform Party and its allies are unrepresentative and too small to have any impact.
"Its membership is extremely thin and is not taken seriously. It's almost unheard-of in Syria," said Murhaf Jouejati, director of George Washington University's Middle East Studies Program.
On Lebanon, Rice said the United States is waiting to hear recommendations from U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen on how to support spring elections there. "The main thing is just to help the Lebanese opposition and others, the entire Lebanese political space [and] people to get organized so that they can have a competitive, free and fair election," she said.
"I would suspect that if the U.N. comes back and says [do election] monitoring, people will be very supportive of that," Rice added. "Perhaps if there's need for nongovernmental organizations to do training or the kind of things that have been done in other places, I'm quite sure that people would be prepared to do that."