IS ASSAD ANOTHER SADDAM?: PART TWO (Senate - February 20, 1991)

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Mr. DeCONCINI. Mr. President, there is an Arab saying to the effect that `the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' While this may be the standard for many countries in the Middle East, it is not the standard by which a democratic nation like the United States can afford to operate. I addressed this issue on the floor of the Senate last September when I traced the troubled history of the Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations' policies of support for whichever country in the Middle East was opposed to our current enemy in the region.

First, we propped up the Shah of Iran because he took a strong line against communism and Soviet encroachment in the Arab world. Then, when he was deposed and succeeded by the Ayatollah Khomeni, we decided that Saddam Hussein of Iraq could be a useful ally because he initiated a war against Iran, the country which took our diplomats hostage in 1979. Now that Iraq has turned against us, we have made common cause with Syria. Why? Because Syria has joined the international coalition against Iraq.

But, let us not forget that this is the same Syria which has sponsored terrorist acts against American citizens. This is the same president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, who had his Army literally destroy the Syrian town of Hamas in 1982, resulting in an untold number of deaths of his own people because they were opposed to his regime. We are rightfully appalled that Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people in 1987-88, yet appear to be nonplused by the fact that Assad has also killed his own people. President Bush met with him in Geneva of a few short months ago and Secretary of State Baker went to Damascus after his failed meeting with Iraq's foreign minister earlier this month.

I am pleased that in each of these meetings United States officials have raised the issue of Syrian-sponsored terrorism. That is the very least that we can do. This unresolved issue must not take a back seat to other issues currently on the public agenda. Today the United States and Syria face a common enemy in Saddam Hussein. But Syrian support for terrorism was with us well before the gulf war began; it must not slip from the public's mind and the government's agenda because it will still be with us once this terrible war has become history.

I am also troubled by this relationship for other reasons. Has Syria joined the international coalition so it can exploit the power vacuum that may be created in the Middle East after the defeat of Saddam? What have we really received for Syria's sending approximately 19,000 troops--a full armored division--to Saudi Arabia? To date, Syrian troops have been engaged in hostilities only once, and then briefly. Unlike the troops from other coalition members such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, to say nothing of the United States and Britain, Syrian troops have not been placed at significant risk.

What, actually, are the Syrian troops doing in the gulf? Syria has said that it will not attack Iraq itself, nor has it stated that it will engage in offensive military actions in the war. Does that mean that Assad's troops will not participate in any future ground operations in Kuwait in order to dislodge Saddam's forces? If all that the Syrian troops are going to do is to protect the Saudi border, is that worth the Bush administration's giving Assad a tacit green light, or at the very least turning a blind eye, to Syria's gaining a free hand in Lebanon?

Indeed, I am deeply troubled by one of Assad's recent public statements. In a speech in Damascus on January 12, Assad called upon Saddam to withdraw his troops from Kuwait so that they could together turn their attention to Israel. He claimed that Israel is the only beneficiary from the present situation because it continues to occupy Arab lands and expand its population. Additionally, he made an apparent reference to the Western members of the coalition, including the United States, when he stated that:

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We have to stand up to their ambition and to take a serious decision not dictated, not intimidated or compelled by anything else than our faith in saving the Arab nation from a catastrophe.

That statement signals to this Senator that this unnatural alliance between the United States and Syria cannot long endure once the war in the gulf has ended. For instance, German Foreign Minister Genscher suggested last week that Syria implicitly recognized Israel's right to exist when it hinted that it would be willing to recognize Israel if Israel accepted Palestinian self-determination. I am skeptical that this statement represents any official thinking on the part of the Assad government. Syrian public complaints about defensive assistance to Israel in light of the Scud attacks appears to be more consistent with its historic animosity toward Israel.

My concern is deepened when I see reports, such as one in the January 16 Christian Science Monitor, which says that the approximately $1.3 billion which Syria has received from its allies in the gulf effort has been designated for the purchase of military equipment from East European and Chinese arms dealers. If the Syrian economy is in dire straits because of the withdrawal of Soviet financial support and Syria's participation in the embargo against Iraq, why is Assad buying guns instead of butter?

Finally, I continue to be troubled by reports from Amnesty International that Syria is still engaged in human rights abuses. Recently, it has announced its concern about the extrajudicial execution of both soldiers and civilian supporters in Lebanon of General Aoun, the defeated opposition leader in Lebanon, by the Syrian army and pro-Syrian militias. Additionally, Amnesty expressed concern about the incommunicado detention of more than 150 supporters of General Aoun who were taken captive during the fighting in Lebanon or arrested after Aoun was ejected from East Beirut. The State Department's recent human rights report, however, gives a slightly softer treatment to Syria--perhaps because of our current alliance.

The New York Times reported on February 7 that a couple of foreign agents who may have been working for Israel after infiltrating a Syrian-based terrorist organization may have been uncovered as a result of intelligence shared with the Assad government by Bush administration officials last fall. There is no public proof of such a link, and this is being thoroughly investigated by the Senate Intelligence Committee. The possibility of such a development, however, demonstrates that we must maintain a healthy distance in any of our official contacts with Syria. I will ask that a copy of the above mentioned article be printed in the Record at the conclusion of my remarks.

Other sources claim that the Syrian military is facilitating and profiting from drug production and trafficking in the Syrian-occupied Bekaa Valley. I would remind my colleagues that a number of terrorist organizations which are reportedly planning attacks on American citizens worldwide are bankrolling their operations from this same drug trade in Lebanon. These persistent problems should give each of us cause for concern. Is President Bush willing to lose the war on drugs in order to win this other war? At the very least, we must question why Assad has chosen to side with the friend of his enemy.

In conclusion, President Bush has engaged this country in an unhealthy alliance with Syria to strengthen the international coalition against Iraq. I hope that this unholy alliance does not come back to haunt us, but I fear it will. It is wrong to ignore Syria's atrocious support for terrorism, drug trafficking, and its own regional military supremacy. I urge the Bush administration to restore some balance to its Middle Eastern policy. Either we stand up for the principles under which this Nation was founded, or we continue to make shortsighted, tactical alliances based on the diplomatic necessity of the moment. Initially, perhaps, it may have seemed appropriate to include Assad as a member of the coalition. Upon closer examination, however, I have grave doubts about the wisdom of continuing this association.

I ask that the New York Times article to which I referred be printed in the Record.

The article follows:

From the New York Times, Feb. 7, 1991


2 or 3 Agents Are Believed Killed After Rare U.S.-Syrian Contacts


Washington, February 6: Two or three undercover agents believed to be working for Israel in a Syrian-based terrorist group were unmasked and killed last fall, not long after the United States gave the Damascus Government information about terrorist activities in the country, several Bush Administration officials say.

The link between the two events has not been proved. But officials said American experts believe that terrorists obtained the intelligence information given to Syrian leaders and used it to track down the agents within the terrorists' ranks.

`It is a casual relationship,' one person said. `There is no doubt in my mind.'


By one account, the agents killed were two or three Palestinians who had penetrated the terrorist group on behalf of Israel's intelligence service, Mossad. Other officials refused to disclose the number of agents or their sponsor, but they said they worked either for Mossad or a Western Intelligence service.

The United States first learned of the agents' deaths in November or December. It has remained a tightly held secret, in part because at a politically difficult time it raises the question of whether Syria deliberately misused American diplomatic communications to assist a terrorist group.

The United States took unusually bold steps this fall to improve its relations with Syria after the Syrians agreed to join the military coalition opposing Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. President Bush met in Geneva this past November with President Hafez al-Assad of Syria, despite the fact that Syria is on an Administration roster of nations that sponsor international terrorism.

Syria and the Bekaa region, the eastern Lebanese valley that is controlled by Syria, are longtime breeding grounds for Palestinian terrorism. But Damascus has lately sought to distance itself from groups that attack targets other than Israel. The major remaining Syrian-based group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, engineered the bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland of a Pan American jet in 1988 in which 270 people died.

The United States has demanded that Syria expel the Popular Front-General Command and its leader, Ahmed Jabril. Syria has refused to do so without more explicit evidence of the group's role in the bombing.

The identity of the terrorist group involved in the killings of the agents last fall could not be conclusively determined.

Israel was said by one person to have protested to Washington about the disclosure of intelligence information to Syria, but the American response could not be learned. A spokeswoman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, who was asked Tuesday and today, said she could not immediately respond to questions.

The American officials, which include civilian and military experts on intelligence and the Middle East, refused to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

`It's safe to say it did hurt us,' one said.


Apart from Syria's role in the killings, the incident also calls into question how the identities of friendly intelligence agents in the Middle East--a secret as well cloaked as any in espionage--could have been revealed, even inadvertently, to the Syrian Government.

Several officials interviewed for this article said that the disclosure appear to have sprung from a strong protest about Syrian terrorist activites that Secretary of State James A. Baker had personally delivered to President Assad in a meeting in Damascus on Sept. 14.

The meeting was said to have been preceded by a sharp debate between intelligence experts and Bush Administration officials, led by the State Department, over how strongly the United States should confront Mr. Assad with evidence of Syrian involvement in terrorism.

Officials said the Administration argued that Mr. Assad should be given an unusually detailed briefing about the actions of Syrian-based terrorists to impress upon him the weight of the evidence against his Government. Intelligence officials are said to have warned that such a briefing would put undercover agents and methods of gathering information at risk.


`It was quite an argument,' said one official who has been informed of the debate. `The intelligence guys finally told them, `O.K., but the blood will be on your hands if something happens.'

Asked about the deaths on Tuesday, Mr. Baker's spokeswoman, Margaret D. Tutwiler, issued the following statement: `Any suggestion that Secretary Baker handed over a demarche that led to the death of any individual to is categorically untrue.'

She refused to confirm that any deaths had taken place. But in what could be construed as an alternate explanation for the events in Syria, she added that the United States had also received a `credible and serious threat' against an American ambassador in the region last year, and had acted on it.

She said: `Any demarche that may have been passed on such a subject would have been done solely to protect the life of an American ambassador and would be fully coordinated within this Government, including our intelligence community.

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Miss Tutwiler refused to elaborate citing national security concerns. Other officials said that the United States has intercepted a flood of serious threats and death plots against United States diplomats since the invasion of Kuwait, and has quietly informed Syria in some cases in an attempt to thwart them.

Those officials said that they knew of no cases in which such communications had compromised intelligence agents or led to deaths.

Some officials did not exclude the possibility that the agents' deaths were coincidental to Administration contacts with Syria. One said that the terrorist group could have concluded on its own that it had been penetrated after several of its planned operations went awry.

`This is a dangerous outfit, with very skilled people and trade craft sufficiently good' to have conducted an internal spy hunt, that official said.

Most others, however, said they believe that the terrorists were given or stole data from the Syrians that enabled them to uncover the agents.

Undercover penetrations of terrorist groups are among the most difficult tasks in all espionage, and so the losses of agents are viewed as especially grave.