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C. David Welch Interview With ABU DHABAI TV

Interview With ABU DHABAI TV

C. David Welch, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs

Washington, DC
November 22, 2006


QUESTION: Thank you very much, Mr. Welch, for having us here, and let's get to the point. How do you see the impact of the assassination of Gemayel on the situation -- the political situation in Lebanon, and the Middle East?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, the situation in Lebanon was already difficult and tense and, of course, this very unfortunate crime -- yet another crime committed by those who seek to disturb Lebanon's security and stability -- only adds, I think, to the challenges facing the Lebanese people.

We have confidence in the people of Lebanon, the leadership of Lebanon, but, I must say, it is depressing that those who don't share the same positive vision for Lebanon's future still commit such acts.

QUESTION: Well, the recent statement, spearheaded by President Bush and John Bolton, the UN ambassador, was so quick in raising accusation fingers towards Syria. What basis have you placed for your accusations?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Read our statements very carefully. We're really quite concerned about the continued interference of Syria and Iran in the affairs of Lebanon. Lebanon's gone through far too much in its recent history to have to endure this again.

Mr. Pierre Gemayel, God rest his soul, was a member of the cabinet, an elected member of parliament, and the son of one of Lebanon's most important families. This is a triple strike at the foundations of Lebanese democracy and it can only be done by those who don't see the same kind of positive democratic future for Lebanon that its people do.

QUESTION: By what would Syria do such a thing, and this timing?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Look, we're not directly accusing anyone. There's an investigation underway by the Lebanese authorities. It is conceivable that in the future this might be expanded to include some international participation because the record of these crimes is now becoming very apparent for everyone. Many of the most recent attempts have been against people whose backgrounds and views are very clear in terms of who they consider to be the problems for Lebanon.

QUESTION: But Mr. Bush was pinpointed to, in his statement, to Syria and Iran.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, we don't see anyone else who is interfering in the internal affairs of Lebanon other than Syria and Iran.

QUESTION: Syria completely denied any involvement and said it could be the enemies of Syria who choose this time to do this assassination.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I would expect such denials.

QUESTION: Okay, how do you see the relationship and the timing? We were about to see a sort of Syrian cooperation in the fight of Iraq, restoring diplomatic relationships for the first time in 20-odd years, talking about a Syrian, Iranian, Iraqi summit in Tehran. What's -- how do you see the link between the timing of the assassination and this kind of Syrian movements?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, I think this shows that, in some sense, there is a responsibility or involvement of Syria in all these files. We have long asked the Syrian government to play a responsive role in each of these areas: in Lebanon, in Iraq and in the Palestinian issue.

I don't know yet how to measure their recent diplomatic moves vis-Ã -vis Iraq, but I see -- my first instinct is to note that this is a way for the Syrian government to address their real responsibility, which has been, unfortunately, to allow a flow of terrorists into western Iraq through Syria; unfortunately, not to be supportive of the new government in Baghdad. I understand they had historic differences with the government of Saddam Hussein. So did many, but the lack of any effort to recognize the government until very recently shows where their hearts may really lie. We'll have to see whether this is any substantial change in their behavior.

QUESTION: But, would you say that this move at this time -- Syrian move towards Iraq -- is a positive move?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I'll let the Iraq government and the Iraqi people be the judge of whether it's positive for their interests or not. In terms of what we see, we ask -- we ask of them and we expect of them -- that is, Syria -- that they should behave more responsibly inside Iraq. We'll measure whether that's the case or not.

QUESTION: Back to Lebanon. The Security Council yesterday has approved the draft for an international tribunal. Now, the reaction from the Lebanese president and some factions in Lebanon -- Hezbollah -- was very negative and they said they are not welcoming this move. Not only that, it's that the Lebanese President Lahoud said the government, Syria's government, is not authorized, is not legal enough after the withdrawal of six ministers to approve such a tribunal. What's your reaction?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: The Lebanese government is founded according to the Lebanese constitution and law. It enjoys legitimacy. The same cannot be said of the person who occupies the presidential office at Baabda right now. The views of the so-called president of Lebanon with respect to this are, in my judgment, not relevant.

The Council has approved the agreement negotiated between the UN and Lebanon and, please, notice that it was negotiated by Lebanon. This is a supportive act, to protect the security and laws of Lebanon. It is not designed to interfere in Lebanese sovereignty. Quite the contrary; it's to help protect it.

Because the crimes involved here are of such a magnitude, such international support is not surprising and has been welcomed by many Lebanese. We expect to see it proceed through the cabinet and the parliament according to Lebanese law and rules, and then it will be sent back to the Council for further action.

If the investigation requires it - that is, if it requires a prosecution and a tribunal - this is available for them to use.

QUESTION: But do you see the Lebanese government, at this time, has the authority to approve such -

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Certainly, it does.

QUESTION: Even after the Hezbollah's --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: That's correct, absolutely. The government is still legally constituted, as is the parliament for that matter, and this will proceed according to Lebanese law and procedure.

QUESTION: Even without the approval of the president, the Lebanese President Lahoud?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: If the Lebanese chooses not to approve it, and I hope that he doesn't take that step, then there are other measures according to Lebanese law that can be followed to see this brought into force.

QUESTION: Syria has -- Fayssal Mekdad, Deputy Foreign Minister, yesterday said Syria will not allow any Syrian citizen to be tried in such an international tribunal. How do you react?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I don't know what he's so worried about if Syria's not involved in the matter. If Syria had no role in these crimes, then it should not be worried.

QUESTION: And if it comes to the stage where some Syrian officials are called for this tribunal and the Syrian government will refuse, what's the next step you have?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, then I can assure you they will have a big problem.

QUESTION: What sort of problem? Can you elaborate on that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, you'd have to ask them. They say they're not involved. I would say to that, then why are they worried?

QUESTION: And my last question is about the Iranian government and the latest developments in Lebanon and in the area.

Iran has described this assassination as a terrorist attack and something held by enemies. How do you respond to the Iranian denial of this assassination?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, the Iranian government is free to make its own statements about these issues and I don't have any observations on the content of their statement. We consider it an act of terrorism. It's a shame that this thing happened, and Lebanese people do not deserve this. It's a very delicate and tense situation and we call upon all those who have any kind of positive feeling toward Lebanon to stay out of their business and let things move forward in that country.

QUESTION: One final question: There were a lot of talks about a new strategy with Iran and Syria in the coming phase, starting opening a dialogue. How do you see the chances of opening a dialogue in these circumstances?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, this is a complicated question. There's been a lot of press speculation about it, of course. In the case of Syria, you know we have an embassy in Damascus, and the issue is not the conversation; it's cooperation. We can talk to them easily, but it seems to be very difficult to build a basis for cooperation.

With respect to Iran, it's quite different. We don't have diplomatic relations with Iran, though there are some channels that we have to the Iranian government that traditionally we've used on matters of concern in the past.

Again, what we're asking here is very straightforward. We think that the neighbors of Iraq should contribute to security stability inside that country. That includes Iran. With respect to its nuclear program, the United States is willing to talk to Iran about its nuclear program, but we ask it to first suspend its dangerous nuclear activities.

These matters have been on the table for some time. It's not an unwillingness to speak; it's an unwillingness on their part to tackle the main issues that are on the table.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Thank you.

Released on November 29, 2006

ENDS


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