Host: Israel's assault on the radical Islamic Hezbollah has been viewed by many as a legitimate act of self-defense. Based in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah has the declared goal of destroying Israel. The terrorist group has launched missile attacks on Israeli towns and cities. Hezbollah created the latest crisis when it sent fighters across the border to attack and kidnap Israeli soldiers. Officials of Lebanon's democratically elected government have blamed Syria for orchestrating Hezbollah's attacks. Lebanese communications minister Marwan Hamada said, "Syrian Vice President Faruq al-Shara gives the commands, Hezbollah carries them out, and Lebanon is the hostage." President George W. Bush had this comment:
President Bush: "The root cause of that current instability is terrorism and terrorist attacks on a democratic country. And part of those terrorist attacks are inspired by nation states, like Syria and Iran. And in order to be able to deal with this crisis, the world must deal with Hezbollah, with Syria and to continue to work to isolate Iran."
Host: Mr. Bush said that "Sometimes it requires tragic situations to help bring clarity in the international community":
President Bush: "It is now clear for all to see that there are terrorist elements who want to destroy our democratic friends and allies, and the world must work to prevent them from doing so."
Host: The Group of Eight industrial nations issued a statement saying, "The immediate crisis results from efforts by extremist forces to destabilize the region and to frustrate the aspirations of the Palestinian, Israeli and Lebanese people for democracy and peace." The G-8 statement continued: "These extremist elements and those that support them cannot be allowed to plunge the Middle East into chaos and provoke a wider conflict." Officials of Arab governments have also criticized Hezbollah. Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal denounced Hezbollah's "irresponsible acts."
What are Iran and Syria up to in Lebanon? And is U.S. policy in the region working? I'll ask my guests: Farid Ghadry, President of the Reform Party of Syria; Dr. Joseph Gebeily, President of the American Lebanese Coalition and Mark Dubowitz, Chief Operating Officer of The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Welcome and thanks for joining us today.
Farid Ghadry, what role does Syria and Iran have in this current crisis?
Ghadry: It's a very important role. We know for a fact that about three weeks ago there was a secret meeting inside Damascus, where an envoy from Hezbollah -- we believe [Iran's Ali] Larijani was there as well as Assef Shawkat, the head of the [Syrian] military intelligence. In that meeting the plot was hatched to actually do what Hezbollah has done in Southern Lebanon, which is encroach into Israeli territories and the killing of Israeli soldiers. Syria has a lot to do with what is happening. In fact it is leading the effort in bringing about Hezbollah to do what it is doing. It is funding Hezbollah -- it is helping the funding of Hezbelloh, and also helping arm Hezbelloh. And Iran as well has a very important role in all of this. When the [U-S] president says Syria and Iran are involved in all of this they know exactly what they are talking about. And I think Syria and Iran are not trying to hide it out. They are trying to show they are doing what they are doing, in fact, because they've lobbed threats in the past on Israel and on the Lebanese as well. Especially when Bashar al-Assad said, I'm going to break Lebanon apart if I'm forced to leave, which is exactly what he's doing today.
Host: Joseph Gebeily, is Syria trying to break Lebanon apart?
Gebeily: Absolutely. This is not new. It has been going on this way, for many, many years. Syria never considered Lebanon as being a sovereign and independent country. There's no diplomatic relations, there's no recognition of Lebanon, and there are these slogans sometimes from Syrian officials that, "We're one people, and it's the imperialistic nations which divided us, so we should go back to being one." And over the years, Syrian officials or Syrian governments, have sent troops into Lebanon, weapons, fighters, stirred trouble, and done assassinations. Over the years, definitely Syria is after trouble in Lebanon.
Host: Mark Dubowitz, what is Syria trying to accomplish here?
Dubowitz: It's clear that both Lebanon and Gaza for that matter are both Syrian and Iranian occupied territory today. Both Syria and Iran have a very complex agenda. It's essential to undermine American power in the area. It is for the destruction of the State of Israel and it is to destroy the embers of democratic reform, that were taking place in Lebanon after the Cedar Revolution. And we are starting to see a rise [of democracy] throughout the Middle East that is a direct threat to the Syrian and Iranian regimes. And they will do everything they can to destroy that.
Host: Farid Ghadry --
Ghadry: More than that Eric, I think Mark is very right about this. Iran and Syria have seen success in the theater in Iraq, whereby they disturbed the process of democratization in Iraq. And now they are so bold they are saying, not only did they disturb that process, but we're going to try and destroy any democracy in the Middle East. And the first one is Israel. Their goal is not only to stop democracy, but now their goal is so bold they are going to try and destroy any democracy in the Middle East. They look like the policy of the U-S is not for the good of the Middle East, and they look like the winners after all in their battles against U-S interests in the Middle East.
Host: Joseph Gebeily, how powerful are Iran and Syria together at this point in the region?
Gebeily: We have to realize that the main power today is Iran. The Syrian regime has been weakened from its exit out of Lebanon and its isolation from the international community. U-N Security Council resolutions, one after the other, are asking Syria to leave Lebanon and condemning Syrian support for the militias. Arab isolation even [affects Syria] because the Syrian government does not have a lot of friends even among the Arab community and it's relying a lot on Iran. That's why [there was] the defense agreement recently; that's why there's financial support from Iran. A lot of people feel these days, and Farid can correct me if I'm wrong, that it's Iran making the decisions. Syria now is a minor player in the hands of Iran.
Host: Mark Dubowitz, is Syria a minor player, and to what extent does the territory that Syria occupies relate to what Iran is able to do in the region?
Dubowitz: That's exactly right: Iran is the major player. It's the major threat. Iran clearly has, both regional and I would say, worldwide ambitions to spread radical Khomeini Shiism. There's an opportunity to do that first in Lebanon, certainly in Iraq, and to use Syria as a proxy. Syria is, in fact, a strange country, because it's brittle [and] it's weak. It has a very weak military; it has a very complex political structure where the younger al-Assad today is not like the old man al-Assad. He doesn't have the power and he certainly doesn't have the savvy. But he is isolated. He's been isolated by his Arab brethren; he's been isolated by the international community. And certainly, the international community has made it very, very clear under Fifteen-Fifty-Nine, the [U-N] Security Council resolution, Syria must get out of Lebanon. Syria today is not out of Lebanon. Syrian intelligence agents are all over Lebanon. The Syrian President is backed by -- the Lebanese is backed by Syria. It's critical that first and foremost, Syria must be removed from the region. And secondly, we must understand this is Iranian regional ambitions. And we have to target those.
Host: Farid Ghadry, a lot of commentators have noted that given the weakness that Mark Dubowitz describes of Syria, that Israel is making a mistake by targeting Lebanon here, which is being held hostage by Syria, rather than attacking the Syrian regime which is controlling Hezbollah. Do you think that Israel should be looking at Syria rather than at Lebanon?
Ghadry: As a Syrian native, as a Syrian-American, I'm opposed to any military activity against Syria, because eventually that will bear onto the people of Syria. And that's not something we all want. Plus we know that the government is pretty savvy about these issues. They will use that to bring support on the street against Israel. Not only against Israel, but against the opposition who's working very hard to bring the regime down. However, we're not opposing, we do not oppose the issue of regime change. Because we believe the regime has been weakened so much that if the United States decides they want to -– that this is time for a regime change in Syria -- in and by itself that act will bring about the coalition, the coalescing of the opposition, the weakening of the regime from within. The people will be empowered inside Syria and realize that this is the last few days of that regime. And that, in and by itself should bring about, the coalescing of forces to break down that regime peacefully from within. I'm more supportive of the regime being broken down from within than actual military theater, or military operations against Syria today. With one exception, that if Israel decides it wants to take out the military headquarters of the Syrian military intelligence, or pinpoint targets, one, two, or three: I don't think it would be such a bad idea to do that. But overall a blanket operation against Syria today is not in the best interest of the Syrians nor is it in the best interests of the opposition. I just want to bring up the other issue. Syria is very important. It is weak militarily, but it's not weak, when it comes to as a chess player in the Middle East. And the reason being, Syria has been able to gain the confidence of Hamas, which is a Muslim Sunni entity and gain confidence of Hezbollah, which is a Shia entity. And both of them, Syria controls both of them in a very, very clever way. Something has not been done in the Middle East, so while Iran plays the big ogre in the Middle East, Syria has a very important role as an Arab entity. Bringing other Arab entities together under the same wing and under the specter of Iran.
Host: Joseph Gebeily, Shimon Peres who's currently the Vice Premier of Israel, has said that, "We [Israel] will leave Iran to the world community and Syria as well [and] it's very important to understand that we are not instilling world order." What is there for the world community to do here, if this is being directed by Syria and Iran?
Gebeily: As everybody agrees here, the main player is Iran, and then there are proxies. The Syrian regime being one, and then the local players: the non-state actors in Lebanon, Hezbollah, the Palestinian militia supported by Syria, and some very minor Lebanese groups. All these have been working with the Syrian regime for years. They're well armed. They've committed acts of assassinations, terrorism, etc., within Lebanon. And short of hitting the Iranian regime, of getting rid of the Iranian evil in the Middle East, there's of course the Syrian regime, and if not there are definitely proxies within Lebanon. The international community has the plan for that. They have the road map. There are now several United Nations Security Council resolutions, starting with Fifteen-Fifty-Nine that is the main one. Which said basically Syria should be out, militias should be disarmed. But what's happening now is that though the Syrians are theoretically out, there's still the intelligence [agents]. But again, weapons, ammunitions, and fighters, are still getting into Lebanon. If you look back at the history, that's how the Lebanese civil war started in the seventies. Syria -- the Syrian army was not within Lebanon at the time, but they were arming all these militias -- Palestinians and others -- within Lebanon. Then, the war started and then they found an excuse to come in. We should control the border. It is extremely important that the borders of Lebanon will be controlled. South and eastern borders. [In the] South, the government should take with the help of the United Nations, should take control of the Southern border, so Hezbollah cannot play a role in there and the Eastern border should be extremely well controlled, so the Syrians cannot keep sending fighters and weapons and ammunition, and bombs into Lebanon.
Host: Mark Dubowitz, what would it take for a secure border in Lebanon?
Dubowitz: Both Joseph and Farid have put it very well. Which is, I think, the destruction of Hezbollah. Let's remember, we talk a lot about Iran and Syria as these grandmasters and Hezbollah as a proxy. But Hezbollah is a global terrorist organization, which is very sophisticated and very deadly. It has killed more Americans than any terrorist organization with the exception of al-Qaida. It has worldwide reach. It has terrorist cells in America, South America, in Australia, and in East Asia. It is a deadly terrorist organization and in the global war on terror it is incumbent on the United States and its allies to deal a deadly blow to these terrorist organizations with global reach. We should acknowledge that Hezbollah is a dangerous player on its own. In terms of securing the border, it's clear that Hezbollah as been there for now twenty-three years. Since 2000, since the Israelis actually left southern Lebanon there have been one hundred and fifty-one missile attacks against Israeli towns. There have seventeen Israelis who've have been killed. There have been fifty-two that have been injured. We forget the crisis didn't begin three days ago or three weeks ago. It began fifty-eight years ago, certainly. But it began in 2000 when the Israelis pulled out of Southern Lebanon and were met with missile attacks, deadly attacks, against their citizens and their civilians. It began a year ago when the Israelis pulled out of Gaza, and over a thousand rockets have been lobbed in by Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups, into Israeli towns, killing and maiming Israeli citizens. So, the response has to be clear and it has to be direct. Ultimately Israel needs to have the time in the next couple weeks to do as much damage to Hezbollah's military capability [as possible] and to go after the ten to thirteen thousand rockets that are currently sitting on the Lebanese border. By the way, rockets which have been primarily provided, financed, and are currently being run out of southern Lebanon by Iranian and Syrian intelligence agents and troops.
Host: Farid Ghadry, let's talk about those missiles. People seem to have been surprised by the sophistication of the missiles that are now at Hezbollah's disposal, not only ones that can reach as far as Haifa, but then the use of a variation on the Chinese silk worm missile that had gone to Iran, used to hit an Israeli warship off of Lebanon. What does this tell us about the current state of missile technology proliferation in the region?
Ghadry: Politically, it tells us that Hezbollah has been planning for this day for a long time. Because when Israel got out of Lebanon in May of 2000, that should have closed the issue of Israel being on Lebanese territories and that should have given reason to Hezbollah to exit to the scene as a struggling or as a resistance movement. But the fact that they have those missiles tells us that Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria have been planning for this day and they have been instigating, and they have been prodding Israel for a fight, and they've been eager to get a fight. Now, in terms of the technology, this is very worrisome. In fact these are exactly the kind of things we do not want in the Middle East. Simple reason: the Middle East, the whole area, is very backward. We need to pay attention to our people, we need democracies, we need to give them freedom. We need to lift ourselves from the darkness, from the dark ages that we've been living in for the last one-hundred years. And in order for us to do that, we need to become peaceful people. We need to bring about peaceful change to our societies and allow the people to grow and allow the people to prosper from within. Spending money on missiles rather than spending money on schools is counterproductive to any Arab thought and to our development as a people. And that, in and by itself, is a crime. And I believe that the Iranians and the Syrians, and everybody that supports this kind of activity or missile technology or offensive technology in the Middle East is simply calling for more destruction and more havoc. In the Middle East, countries have been or are living in the dark ages. We should fight this as Arabs. We should fight it with all our hearts, and try and conquer that issue with every ounce of our energy. It's not in the best interest of the Arab countries.
Host: Joseph Gebeily, these rockets and missiles are not held in depots or military installations but are rather held in Southern Lebanon and in homes and in civilian areas. How does rooting out Hezbollah -- whether it's Israel or the international community coming up with some kind of U-N force -– how does this happen without causing so much death and destruction in Lebanon that seems to part of what Hezbollah wants to have happened?
Gebeily: I want to challenge the idea of the "resistance movement" that Hezbollah has gotten over the years. Hezbollah is a militia that formed in the late seventies-early eighties, and it was formed after the Iranian revolutionary guard moved into Lebanon through Syria. It had nothing to do originally with the invasion of Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The Hezbollah agenda is transforming Lebanon into a radical Shiite regime modeled after Iranian theocracy. And over the years, although the Israeli invasion of Lebanon had extended to Beirut, Hezbollah never attacked the Israelis. They were always finding an excuse, if you want to call it, to present it to the Lebanese. And in the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1999, there was an agreement for all militias to disarm including Hezbollah. And the only reason they kept their weapons is because the Syrians wanted them to. And then they come up with this excuse that they are fighting the Israelis and they remembered that the Israelis were still in a small security zone in Southern Lebanon, and after that, after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. Remember the Sheba farm that was never mentioned before and now they are talking about the prisoners. And at some point Hassan Nasrallah, in his last statement said: "we are fighting the war of the ummah, and we're fighting the war of the whole Muslim world." We're hearing now another Bin Laden. The idea of localized Lebanese resistance movement is totally wrong. Now, back to the rockets; it is very hard to be able to get rid of the Hezbollah armament without a ground troop operation. Let's face it, bombings and air strikes etc, could hit here and there. But they don't care, Hezbollah doesn't care, about loss of civilian life. They are going to hide, all their rockets, ammunitions, etc. among the Lebanese population. It's the Lebanese who are suffering, the Lebanese who are being killed, the Lebanese civilians. Hezbollah has lost only eight members so far and that's nothing. And the Lebanese losses are in the hundreds but they don't care. They are still so outrageous in saying; we are going to continue the war and we are not going to stop -- the Hezbollah leaders.
Host: I'm afraid that's all the time we have for today, but I'd like to thank my guests: Farid Ghadry of the Reform Party of Syria; Dr. Joseph Gebeily of the American Lebanese Coalition and Mark Dubowitz of The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Before we go, I'd like to invite you to send us your questions or comments. You can reach us through our web site at www.voanews.com/ontheline. For On the Line, I'm Eric Felten.