Home inFocus Can Syria Change? (Spring 2009) Syria Then and Now

Syria Then and Now

An Interview with Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

Speaker Newt Gingrich Spring 2009

On December 3, 2008, inFOCUS editor Jonathan Schanzer interviewed former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Mr. Gingrich authored the Contract with America, which helped the Republican Party capture the majority in the United States Congress in 1994. Under Gingrich, Congress strengthened American defense and intelligence capabilities, an action later lauded by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission. Mr. Gingrich has published 18 books including 10 New York Times bestsellers. He is Chairman of American Solutions for Winning the Future, the Center for Health Transformation, and the Gingrich Group, based in Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

iF: What was your experience with Syria when you were House Speaker? Were you supportive of Clinton administration policy? Could it have gone further in isolating Damascus?

NG: The Syrian dictatorship has always maneuvered in a very narrowly defined self-interest and has increasingly allied itself to Iran, partly out of fear.

Newt Gingrich. (Photo: AP)
Newt Gingrich. (Photo: AP)

My impression in watching the Clinton administration trying to talk with the Syrians was that the harder the administration tried to talk, the more contempt the Syrians seemed to hold for us.

At one point, they actually kept Secretary of State Warren Christopher waiting on the runway in Damascus until they finally refused to see him. He landed, sat around for a couple of hours, and then left. In fact, there was an amazing number of visits to Damascus by the Secretary of State trying to get this dictatorship to be something other than what it is.

The Syrian dictatorship has no interest in developing a solid relationship with the United States. They say nice things but their actions show their true colors.

Yes, they have recently helped us stop people crossing into Iraq. They were genuinely frightened that the U.N. was going to investigate them for the assassination of the Lebanese political leader, Rafiq Hariri, in 2005. That attack was traced to the current dictatorship in Damascus.

I always thought it wise to be cautious dealing with them, focusing on deeds rather than words.

iF: What do you think of the current set of U.S. sanctions we impose on Syria? Are they strong enough?

NG: Well, I think that the sanctions are of some limited use. It depends on what kind of behavior you are trying to affect.

Right now, the declining price of oil may have limited the Iranians’ ability to help them. If you are serious about pressuring the Syrians, I think you would have to get the Saudis to agree to help isolate them. No sanctions in the West matter if they can get both Iranian and Saudi money. Part of the key is to figure out if the Saudis are willing to bring pressure to bear directly on the Syrian government. Then you have to decide whether you can reduce the Iranian influence adequately. Otherwise, the Saudis and Iranians simply replace what’s lost from the sanctions.

The goal is to further isolate the regime and make it less effective. So I think part of what needs to be done is to get a regional commitment to put pressure on Syria.

iF: In 2000, Hafez al-Assad was reportedly about to make peace with Israel, but changed his mind at the last minute. Did the peace talks collapse because the Syrian regime would not change its stripes, so to speak?

NG: The regime is not going to ever change its stripes. The regime remains a minority Alawite dictatorship, imposed upon the predominately Sunni people of Syria. It survives by sheer force, and with a pretty effective internal secret police.

The regime has zero reason to change. Any significant change could lead to the end of the regime.

The question then becomes, at what point do they decide that either, A) it is in their interest to cut a deal with Israel, or B) that they have no choice but to cut a deal with Israel.

I think there was pressure being orchestrated in 2000 that began to make them feel that they would be left behind. That is the best way to think of it.

When the various peace talks collapsed, including the Palestinian track with Arafat, I think the Syrians felt—and have probably felt ever since—that there is no great pressure to do anything positive with Israel. As long as they avoid doing anything too overtly aggressive, they think they can survive comfortably in the status quo.

iF: How likely is it that the incoming administration will be able to jumpstart peace talks with Syria?

NG: It is not particularly harmful for the new administration to attempt to talk with everybody. The real question is, what will they get out of the talks?

I talked with a very senior government official recently who has experience with the Iranians going back to 1979. He said that the challenge is that whether you sit down with the Iranians or whether you sit down with the Syrians, after you spend a couple of hours talking, you discover that you did not get anywhere.

So I think we have to look carefully at what the word “talking” means. I think if our new president wanted to appoint a special envoy, or if he wanted to send the new Secretary of State to visit these countries and talk with them face to face, I don’t see it as a great threat as long as they do not give anything away.

I would be strongly opposed to a presidential visit without having gotten something in return for it. By definition, an American presidential visit confirms authority on the recipient. And given President Obama’s current popularity worldwide, a visit would be particularly powerful.

If we could use the possibility of a visit by President Obama to extract from the Syrians a series of tangible commitments, that would be good. My sense is the opposite is happening. The Syrians have been quiet for a while as the U.N. was investigating their murderous activities in Lebanon. Now that the investigation has lost some momentum, you see Syria trying to regain de facto control over Lebanon.

iF: How should the U.S. approach the Syrian regime about its support to Hamas and Hezbollah?

NG: Well, I think the original position of President George W. Bush was actually the right one. We have to communicate that you are either with the terrorists or you are with the civilized world. There is no middle ground. If you are with the civilized world, you’ve got to keep the terrorists out.

I was furious in 2001 when the State Department talked the Bush administration out of adopting that kind of a hard line on Syria. I think it has always been a mistake to tolerate their support of terrorists or their support of front groups that have offices in Damascus.

I think we should make a much bigger push to communicate to them that they are either with civilization or with the terrorists; you can’t be with both.

iF: Should Syria be required to shut down terrorist offices as a precondition for U.S. talks?

NG: My inclination is, be prepared to talk to them but make it clear that one of the highest priorities of the talks is to close those offices. You can never have an American president visit Damascus as long as those offices remain open.

iF: Clearly Syria has had a role in the Iraqi insurgency. How much influence has Syria had in Iraq?

NG: Well, there is no question that for a very long period the Iraqi insurgents actually had an effective strategic reserve in Syria. Syria was where they could hide, where they could keep money, where they could rest, plan, and prepare.

There is also no question that, in the last year, that has been dramatically reduced. A variety of steps have cut down the flow of new foreign fighters. Basically, it is a very small fraction of what it was two years ago.

It was a success in getting the Syrians to collaborate. On the other hand, we are trying to isolate them in Lebanon and we are trying to get them to shut down the terrorist headquarters on their soil. While they have been cooperative on that front, we were supportive of the Israelis bombing what was apparently a North Korean nuclear facility in Syria. This tells you how extraordinarily complex the Middle East can be.

iF: How much progress toward peace can one expect to make with a state that recently purchased material for a nuclear site from North Korea?

NG: First of all, I don’t think you can ever use the word “trust” when dealing with murderous dictatorships.

Tom Friedman in his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, made the point that “Hama Rules” are the rules in Syria. He was referring to the complete destruction of the Syrian city of Hama in 1982 by the older Assad, the previous president.

“Hama Rules” basically means that anything goes. I believe you have to start with the understanding that you cannot possibly trust this dictatorship. Even when Syria is taking specific verifiable actions, it is a potential opponent whose interests are radically different from ours. The most you are going to get is a modus vivendi. You will never get friendship and you will never get any kind of genuine long-term cooperation.

iF: What should we expect from Syria with regard to its occupation of Lebanon and the assassination of Rafiq Hariri? What can legitimately be expected?

NG: Well, there is certainly a source of frustration with our European allies and frustration with the United Nations. I actually thought that for a little while, there was good momentum for going after the Syrians and being very aggressive about what actually happened in this killing.

Unfortunately, this seems to have lost a great deal of its momentum. I think it will be very useful for the new American ambassador to the U.N. to take this up as a high priority issue because it keeps the Damascus dictatorship on defense. It reminds the world of their behavior. I think it is something the Europeans grudgingly have to go along with, and I think it is a useful team- building exercise.

iF: How do you feel about the omission of Syria from the “axis of evil” speech President Bush gave after the 9/11 attacks?

NG: It was an example of the State Department’s bureaucracy at its most destructive level. There was zero reason not to include Syria and every reason to include it. That’s part of why I got involved in a fight with Senator Rick Santorum [R-PA] to get the White House to overrule the State Department. The State Department, at one point, was actually going to remove Syria from the terrorism list when there was no reason to believe that it would get us anything.

iF: Some say Syria is distinctly in Iran’s orbit. Do you agree?

NG: Syria is in Iran’s orbit for resources and weapons because it’s a friend of Iran. However, the Syrian dictatorship understands it is a relatively weak dictatorship, and they understand that they have large numbers of Shiites that live in Syria. The last thing they want is Iranians overtly creating disorder and leading a movement to depose the dictatorship. I think fear of Iran is a bigger factor than any reward Iran can give them. There is no question that they are very cautious about undertaking an agreement that would lead to Iranian anger.

iF: Final thoughts about the new administration’s efforts to reach out to Syria?

NG: We’ll have to wait and see until about six months from now.