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  Talk of the Nation
Interview by Neal Conan with Robert Malley

NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Tomorrow is tax day, as if you didn't know. We'll have the taxpayer's advocate from the IRS right here on TALK OF THE NATION, so call in tomorrow with your questions.

But right now, Syria. The Bush administration is stepping up the political pressure on Damascus, which has long been on the State Department's list of countries that support terrorism. Over the weekend, President Bush accused Syria of harboring members of Saddam Hussein's regime. He also said Syria possesses chemical weapons. In an interview on "Meet the Press" yesterday on NBC TV, Syria's deputy ambassador to the United States denied the charges. (Soundbite of "Meet the Press")

Deputy Ambassador IMAD MOUSTAPHA (Syria): It's been a campaign of misinformation and disinformation about Syria since even before this war started, and this is just an ongoing series of false accusations, and let me tell you this today. Every day you will have new reports against Syria, accusing Syria of things it has not done. It's not about what Syria has done; it's about how they are trying to portray Syria here by certain groups and individuals in Washington. And of course, happily I can say that lots of senior people in this administration from the State Department and senior officials at the CIA are very unhappy about this campaign against Syria.

CONAN: Syria's deputy ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, speaking yesterday on "Meet the Press."

Earlier today, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Syria of carrying out chemical weapons tests over the past year. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the US is considering taking diplomatic or perhaps economic measures against Syria, and he added that Syria, quote, "should review their actions and their behavior not only with respect to who gets haven in Syria and weapons of mass destruction, but especially the support of terrorist activity." If you have questions about the pressure brought on Damascus by Washington rhetoric, give us a phone call: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Or you can send us e-mail at [email protected].

And joining us now to discuss these developments is Robert Malley, director of the Middle East program at the International Crisis Group here in Washington. He served as special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs to President Clinton and joins us this afternoon from London. And welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION. Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (International Crisis Group): Thank you.

CONAN: Why do you think the US is exerting this kind of pressure on Syria when the war on Iraq is still not quite over?

Mr. MALLEY: I think it's because the war in Iraq is still not over, and they see their--I mean, I think it's a combination of two things. You mentioned old allegations and new allegations. The old allegations--the allegation that Syria is developing chemical weapons and that it supports terrorist groups, in particular, Hezbollah. The new allegations are all of the ones that are related to the war with Iraq--that's it's harboring Iraqi chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction; that it is harboring Iraqi officials and that in fact it has helped Syrians go into Iraq--private individuals--to go fight the US. I think the new allegations now and the fact that the war is ongoing is giving the US reason to bring up those charges, but also some of the older charges that have been ongoing now for many, many years.

CONAN: Explain something to us. There are two wings of the Ba'ath Party, one in Syria, one in Iraq. They were for a while branches of the same party, then they were bitter rivals for a long time. In fact, Syria sent troops to help push Iraq out of Kuwait a few years ago, 12 years ago in Desert Storm. And now the last month or so we read of new cooperation between Iraq and Syria.

Mr. MALLEY: Well, there's been a very complex relationship between the two. As you say, the same party's in power in both countries or was in power in Iraq until recently. They split in the late '60s and there's been since then a very, very brutal rivalry at least at the leadership level certainly between Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein. There've been plots that both sides have hatched against the other. Each one has harbored opponents of the other, and as you say, in 1991 Syria joined the coalition against Saddam Hussein. At the same time, there have always been connections between members of the two parties, and over the last few years, there's been greater economic links between the two countries as Iraq has provided cheap oil to Syria, which has been very beneficial for Syria economically and it... CONAN: And which just stopped, right?

Mr. MALLEY: Which now has obviously stopped now that the US is in Iraq--that has stopped, and that's going to come at great cost to Syria. So there's been a slight warming of relationship over the last few years since the death of Hafez al-Assad and coming to power of his son, Bashar. It would be going too far to say that the relationships were particularly close, but they were based on a marriage of interests.

CONAN: Does that marriage of interest include possibly providing a haven for leaders even as prominent as Saddam Hussein?

Mr. MALLEY: I wouldn't think that Saddam Hussein would want to go to Damascus, both because of the historical rivalry and because I think he would know that wherever he went outside of Iraq he would be a target. So my suspicion is that he would not go out of the country. I think there are other Ba'ath Party leaders who may in fact be in Syria. As I said, there's been connections between the two parties. I think Syria would find it hard to reject people coming into Syria. I don't know what they would do with them once they were there. I think it would be hard for them to turn them over to the Americans. On the other hand, I think right now as the rhetoric increases and as the threats increase, the Syrians may in fact behave differently at their border and be more severe as to who they let in and who they don't.

CONAN: What about the issue of chemical weapons? Obviously, many, many allegations made against Iraq; no chemical weapons have been found there as yet. What's the situation with Syria?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, again, there are two dimensions. There's the indigenous chemical weapons program, which the US has alleged that Syria has developed for some time. Obviously, none of this is public evidence. It's all based on intelligence and, again, if one can believe or not believe what the US is saying, I think the best way to check it would be to have credible international teams to inspect there, to inspect any place. I don't think any policy on this should be based on allegations from one side or the other. And then there's the question of the purported Iraqi sending of weapons of mass destruction to Syria in order to evade the inspections. I think some US officials have doubted those claims, and therefore, again, we haven't seen any public evidence to that effect, either. CONAN: Is there anything that would make possession of chemical weapons by Syria illegal?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, certainly they'd be in violation of certain conventions. And this is a serious allegation that's been going on for a long time. When I was working in the Clinton administration, we certainly saw a lot of intelligence that would--you know, we were concerned about that. I--so I don't know, and this one I think is one that the Syrians have to take seriously and have to be checked. I think the Syrian response is to say, `Number one, we don't have it, and even if we had it, so does Israel.'

CONAN: Yeah, the response yesterday was, `We would welcome thoroughgoing weapons inspections in every country in the Middle East,' meaning, of course, Israel.

Mr. MALLEY: Right. Obviously what they would like would be to see, as they put it, a WMD--weapons-of-mass-destruction--free Middle East. Israel is not about to accept--to put its weapons at that level, and therefore, I think it's their way of saying, `We're not going to move on this.'

But again, I think--if this is an issue, it's an issue that shouldn't be taken up only by the US. It really should be looked at regionwide and it should be looked at by more than one country--by the international community as a whole.

CONAN: And the other issue, and that being on the--well, we just talked about chemical weapons, and the issue, obviously, is that they would prefer that that be taken up regionwide, as you say, and in international circumstances. But Syria's behavior in terms of supporting terrorist groups--well, it's certainly controversial, but their support of Hamas and Hezbollah--that's not denied by Damascus, is it?

Mr. MALLEY: No. No, certainly not. I mean, they would deny that these are terrorist groups or that they engage in terrorist acts, but I don't think that they could hide the fact, since they have some of these groups, and most of these groups have headquarters or bases in Damascus, so I don't think that's something they could deny. They may deny the kind of support they provided, and they may deny that these groups are in fact terrorist groups, but the support itself at least to some aspect of Hezbollah's and Hamas' work they could not deny. And that certainly--the main Israeli concern is obviously Hezbollah's presence at its northern border with what they claim to be very lethal weaponry. And that's what they want to see ended right now. CONAN: Thanks very much. Mr. MALLEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Robert Malley is the director of the Middle East program at the International Crisis Group in Washington, DC, and he spoke with us on the phone from London, as the Bush administration ratchets up its pressure on Damascus following military victory, or very close to it--they have not officially claimed it yet--in Iraq. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


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