By Chadwick R. Gore, Staff Advisor
On March 9, the Helsinki Commission convened a hearing, “The Russian-Syrian connection and threats to democracy in the Middle East and the greater OSCE Region” to examine burgeoning relations between Russia and Syria, a state sponsor of terrorism. Additionally, the hearing explored the scope of Syria’s dominant role in Lebanon, implications for a transition to an independent, sovereign and democratic Lebanon, and the prospects for the broader Middle East region.
Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia are OSCE Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation. Lebanon and Syria were originally included in the Mediterranean dimension of the Helsinki process dating back to the early 1970s.
Russia’s involvement with Syria is of particular concern to the Commission as the OSCE participating States have agreed to the Charter on Preventing and Combating Terrorism which commits all states “to refrain from harboring terrorists, organizing, instigating, providing active or passive support or assistance to, or otherwise sponsoring terrorist acts in another State.” The U.S. State Department has included Syria on the list of states sponsoring terrorism since December 29, 1979.
Syria for years has served as a base of operations and training for the terrorist organizations HAMAS, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command, al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and has supported the activities of Lebanese Hizbollah. Since the liberation of Iraq, Syria has served as a safe zone for the remnants of the regime of Saddam Hussein and allowed, if not encouraged, them and other terrorists to attack the military of the United States and her allies.
Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), and Ranking House Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) heard from a panel of five witnesses: Dr. Walid Phares, Professor, Florida Atlantic University and senior fellow, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies; Farid N. Ghadry, President, Reform Party of Syria; Entifadh K. Qanbar, Special Envoy and Spokesperson, United Iraqi Alliance; Ilan Berman, Vice President for Policy, American Foreign Policy Council; and Steven Emerson, Executive Director, The Investigative Project.
Chairman Brownback opened the hearing by voicing concerns that warming relations between Moscow and Damascus are expected to lead to a series of arms deals for Syria and further transfers to Hizbollah and to others. He cited the fact that Russian-supplied SA-18s missiles, according to experts, can easily be dismantled into single man portable air defense systems (MANPADS), posing a potential threat to airliners. “The sale appears on track despite objections from the U.S., and Russia’s commitments as a participating State of the OSCE not to support terrorist regimes,” Brownback noted.
Commenting on the positive pro-democracy developments taking place in Lebanon, Chairman Brownback acknowledged the pressure on the people of Lebanon as they seek to restore control over their country. “The pro-democracy ‘Cedar Revolution’ is a call for freedom, sovereignty and independence. By contrast, what does Syria have to offer: authoritarianism, subjugation and dependence,” remarked Brownback.
Commissioner Cardin stressed, “Syria represents a major challenge for all of us. They support terrorism. They are certainly counterproductive in the peace process in the Middle East. They certainly present a problem for the freedom of Iraq. And they clearly are interfering with Lebanon’s opportunity to control its own country.”
The Rule and Oppression of the Ba’ath Party in Syria
Dr. Phares examined the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and the support the Syrian-backed regime received from the Russian Federation in the form of weapons and intelligence. The Syrian occupation of Lebanon started officially in 1976. At that time, Syrian forces were supported by the Soviet Union. “With the collapse of the Soviet Union, one would have imagined that the Russian Federation, the inheritor of the Soviet Union, would basically cease its strategic relationship with Syria. In fact, it did not cease,” said Phares. Russia continued to provide weapons and strategic intelligence support to the Syrian Ba’athist regime in a variety of ways.
Dr. Phares concluded that if the Russian Federation continues to arm and supply the Assad regime, and Damascus in turn continues to provide support for terrorists operating in Iraq, Israel, occupied-Lebanon and Hizbollah, then Congress and the Administration must act. Phares stressed that the Russian Federation needs to support stability in Lebanon and Syria by ceasing to supply weapons to Assad. He reiterated that Syria must comply with UN Resolution 1559.
UN Resolution 1559 (2004): reaffirms strict respect for Lebanon’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity, and political independence under the sole and exclusive authority of the Government of Lebanon throughout the country; calls for the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias and for the immediate removal of all foreign military and non-military personnel; calls upon all parties concerned to cooperate fully and urgently with the UN Security Council for the full implementation of all its resolutions concerning the restoration in Lebanon of territorial integrity, full sovereignty and political independence.
Farid N. Ghadry provided insight into both the Assad regime and Ba’athist Party and how they control Syria. He appealed to the Commission to work to give democracy a chance in Syria. After explaining the evolution of the Assad regime going back to 1963, Ghadry discussed Syria today. He mentioned the killing of 30,000 innocent Syrians under the order of the regime in 1982, and Damascus’ involvement with a massive drug and counterfeiting operation located in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
Most recently, the Assad regime reportedly struck a deal with the Russian Federation to purchase shoulder-held SA-18 missiles. “The SA-18 is capable of downing an aircraft flying at up to 900 miles per hour, so one can only imagine the possibilities if these weapons fell into the wrong hands,” Ghardry said. Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted his Syrian counterpart in a state visit to Moscow in late January.
Ghadry said that, given the chance to choose democracy freely, Syrians would appreciate the aid of the United States. He appealed for the Commission to understand the desires of the Syrian people — “Only freedom and democracy can restore their rights and celebrate their contribution to the Syrian society.”
Entifadh K. Qanbar, Special Envoy for the United Iraqi Alliance, noted that recent televised reports have proven that terrorist operations in Iraq were coordinated by Syrian intelligence, which is indirectly supported by the Russian Federation. He named Syria as the logistical, financial and training base for the terrorists in Iraq, stating:
The leaders of the Iraqi terror campaign are high-ranking Ba’athist officials from Saddam Hussein’s regime, and all of them take refuge in Syria. The only way to win the war on terror in Iraq is to cut off Ba’athist support from Syria and expel them from the Iraqi government and specifically from the security police and army.
Qanbar said the Ba’ath Party is the leading terrorist organization in Iraq, not Al Qaida, having modeled its ideology after the “genocidal” inspirations of 1930s Europe
Russia’s Connection to Syria
Chairman Brownback asked about the origins and development of the Ba’ath Party. The party goes back to the late ‘20s, with its founders being Michel Aflak and Salah a-Din. Aflak frequently visited Germany while studying in France during the early ‘30s. As he saw how the Germans were able to get people behind one cause and one dictator, the roots of most of the Ba’ath Party came from the “enlightenment” that Aflak obtained during these visits. Chairman Brownback sought an explanation for why Russia — a country that has been the target of terrorism — would maintain a relationship with a regime born out of fascism, especially with a history of links to terrorist organizations. Russia’s desire to develop a foothold in the Middle East, coupled with Cold War competition with the United States, were sufficient motives, said Qanbar. Plus, there are many common denominators between Russian ideology and the Ba’ath Party, he maintained.
Dr. Phares recapped Syria’s instigation of Lebanon’s civil war in the 1970s, describing how pro-Ba’athist Siikas and other organizations moved inside Lebanon before 1975 in order to create civil war conditions. He reminded participants that Syria has never accepted the existence of a truly independent Lebanon. Listing a number of assassinations that have been carried out by Syrian Ba’athists, Phares showed how each assassination was of those who sought an independent Lebanon.
Just days prior to the hearing, massive back-to-back anti-Syrian and pro-Syrian rallies had taken place in Beirut. The hearing helped reveal the connection between key actors in the region and how the United States can best support the courageous individuals in Lebanon.
With regard to the pro-Syrian demonstration, Phares said, “One has to understand who is demonstrating and in which condition.” He explained that anti-Syrian demonstrators rally under threat from Hizbollah and other terrorist organizations and that if the Lebanese had the freedom to demonstrate against Syria without such threats, you would see a much larger anti-Syrian turn-out.
In response to a question from Chairman Brownback on whether the Ba’athist regime should be identified has a terrorist regime, Ghadry stated it warranted such designation and his belief that Syria has sponsored terrorist attacks in Iraq. “Public statements made by the entire apparatus of the Syrian Ba’athist regime have encouraged martyrdom operations,” Phares said. “Public knowledge would define by itself the Ba’athist regime in Syria as terrorists.” Qanbar volunteered that Syrian intelligence is the best he has ever seen, they are the most skilled in making car bombs, and the Ba’ath Party is not only the oldest organization that sponsors terrorism but the richest.
Implications for Lebanon and the Middle East
Steven Emerson explained the “dangerous” role Russia is playing in empowering and strengthening the Syrian regime, especially Russia’s agreement to upgrade Syria’s weapons systems with the sale of SA-18 Igla anti-aircraft missiles. “Syria has received extensive financial, political, military and technological support from Russia recently…while continuing to harbor, support and actively collaborate in the active commission of terrorism,” Emerson said.
Emerson called for the United States to “disrupt” its trade, economic and technological relationships with Russia because of this sale of SA-18s. “As for Syria, the United States has to put on the table a whole range of new punitive actions,” he said. Emerson warned that the Russian Federation is arming Arab regimes as a resumption of Cold War strategies, saying “Russia has sought increasingly to play a countervailing weight to the United States in almost a replication of the Cold War strategy.”
Ilan Berman detailed the relationship between Russia and Syria, explaining the “tangible outcomes” of the January Moscow meeting between Russian President Putin and Syrian President Assad. Bilateral ties were strengthened and long-term support was committed. Berman characterized the Russian-Syrian connection as “…a lifeline that will provide the Syrian Government with greater resources and greater capabilities to resist pro-independence stirrings in Lebanon or in its own country.”
Asked about the nascent democratic movement developing in Syria, Berman replied, “I think what we are seeing are the last gasps of a desperate regime trying to provide the veneer of a new order while trying to preserve an old order.”
United States Helsinki Commission Intern Jason D. Mann contributed to this article.