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On-the-Record Briefing En Route to Damascus, Syria

Secretary Colin L. Powell
Aboard the Secretary's Airplane
May 2, 2003

SECRETARY POWELL: Thank you for joining us, I think we had a good day in Albania, with the signing of the Adriatic Charter and another Article 98 agreement under our belt, and we will also be working with the other two countries that were there in the Article 98 agreements, and I think we are moving along with that. But the Adriatic Charter was important, just another indication of the partnership that our friends in Southeastern Europe wish to have with us and we are pleased to enter into.

The trip to Spain yesterday was just an opportunity to review the bidding with Foreign Minister Palacio and President Aznar. President Aznar and I had some good conversations last night before dinner and then after dinner, talking about the way ahead in Iraq, and also just celebrating the NATO expansion and also a brief discussion about the initiative that came out of Belgium earlier this week - the four country initiative which is being discussed this afternoon by all of the European foreign ministers at and that was that.

And now we are looking forward to the Syrian stop, which will be interesting and I am looking forward to seeing President Bashar Assad and Foreign Minister Shara.

QUESTION: Yes, why is it you went to Albania and not to Croatia or Macedonia?

SECRETARY POWELL: I have answered that question four times today! (laughter) Twice in a row at one point.

QUESTION: Two years ago you went to Damascus and Bashar Assad made a pledge to you. First of all, what is he going to have to do to win over the United States and what is it going to take to convince him, and secondly, can you confirm for us that Jerry Bremer is going to be appointed as coordinator in Iraq?

SECRETARY POWELL: What we will be expecting from this visit with President Bashar Assad is that I will make it very clear to him how the United States views the changed strategic situation in the region with the departure of the Saddam Hussein regime and with the roadmap presented and a new Palestinian Prime Minister. I will explain to him how these two elements are related, we will go over all of the things that have been in dispute with them over the years, from terrorism to weapons of mass destruction to some of their actions in the last six or seven weeks in the run up to the conflict in Iraq and then during the conflict in Iraq, their support for particular organizations, organizations that have a presence in Lebanon and that have a presence in Syria. We will also trans-shipment of arms to terrorist organizations - all of the things that you expect us to speak about - but I really want to talk about the future. How do they see the changed strategic context? I want to hear from them, I want to listen to President Bashar Assad, and have him inform me and through me President Bush and my colleagues, what his assessment is of the new situation.

And what I will be looking for, not necessarily tomorrow but into the future, is whether or not as a result of the exchange that we have tomorrow and our respective assessments, we start to see specific action and performance on the part of the Syrian government that would reflect an understanding of this new situation and how they are going to respond to it. I will be interested in performance and yes, I am sure there will be occasion to remind my Syrian colleagues that two years ago I got an assurance about oil going through the pipeline that turned out not to be the case. It was going through the pipeline and they said yes, it will come under UN control, and it did not come under UN control. And so I will always have that in my background software and on my hard drive and I will be looking for a good discussion.

The real test of the discussions we will have tomorrow will come not tomorrow afternoon but in the days ahead after they have had a chance to reflect and after we have had a chance to reflect. I think they have heard the message rather steadily now for the last several weeks, we have had several Congressional delegations pass through here, and a number of my foreign minister colleagues have been through here and I have heard from all of them. Foreign Minister Gul I just talked to a few moments ago, and he sent me an informative letter about his trip to Syria, and Foreign Minister Palacio was there not too long ago, and others of my colleagues have been there and will be going there in the future. So the Syrians are getting a pretty steady message right now. And the performance we are going to be looking at really relates to not just how we go about rebuilding Iraq, but are they prepared to play a helpful role as we move forward with the Middle East Peace Process. And I will convey to the President that even though the road map relates to the Palestinians and the Israelis, I always have it in my mind as leading to a more comprehensive solution that would include Syria and Lebanon. The President is interested in a comprehensive peace settlement out here and it begins with the roadmap. And whether things proceed in parallel or in parallel but slightly not in tandem, that remains to be seen. We've got to get started on the road map and I will assure him that our interest is a comprehensive settlement.

With respect to Ambassador Bremer, I have nothing to say.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, I am sure that President Assad will give you a long lecture on the history of the Golan Heights, and why from their point of view that is central to any progress. What assurances could you give them that the United States will actually work to ensure an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights?

SECRETARY POWELL: I understand the importance that the Syrians and President Assad attribute to the Golan Heights as part of a comprehensive settlement. He and I have discussed it twice before in person, and as I said to him when I first met him, the United States would be anxious to work with the parties and find a solution as part of the overall comprehensive settlement. When you have a discussion like this, you not only have to present your point of view and present it with all tone and tint that you can and with clear meaning behind your words, but you have to be prepared to listen to the points of view of others, and that is what I intend to do - to speak clearly and make sure he understands our position, and to listen and take his position back so that I can share it not only with the President and my colleagues, but with some of my foreign minister colleagues as well.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, some of your colleagues back in Washington have been less diplomatic in the way that they have spoken about Bashar al-Assad, pointing out his relative youth, his inexperience, and the fact of the matter is that he is surrounded by many of those who surrounded his father. Are you confident that Bashar al-Assad, if he makes up his mind to change the policies that Syria has had, that he will be able to implement them?

SECRETARY POWELL: I really can't speculate as to what their decision making process is and how they collectively or individually arrive at decisions and how they implement those decisions. He has been the president of his country for several years now, I think that has given him time to gain experience. He also understudied his father for six years before his father's passing, and so I think he understands the situation he is in and he knows what he can do and not do as a political matter far better than I do, so I would not want to speculate as to what my level of confidence might or might not be in regards to a particular decision that he might or might not take.

QUESTION: In that case then, what is the point of meeting with him and Shara if you are not confident that they are the people who can deliver on your discussion?

SECRETARY POWELL: I don't think I said I was either confident or not confident. I just said I wasn't going to speculate on what decisions they might make and how they would implement those decisions.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, there have been comparisons between what happened in Iraq and what might happen in Syria if they don't do as they should. Are you prepared to give any security guarantees to Syria if you are asked to do so?

SECRETARY POWELL: I don't expect the subject of security guarantees to come up, I don't see any context for it. I think they have heard a steady message from the United States in recent weeks. We were deeply concerned about the actions they were taking during the war. There were people going back across the border who should have not have been going back across, there was equipment and other things flowing across the border that should not have been going across, and we spoke out clearly about it. It was putting our people at risk. Now there was some speculation in the press that somehow we had a list and this was the next target. But I think we have all spoken to this, as Secretary Rumsfeld said at a press conference the other day - I think it was in Qatar or somewhere - it was a mischaracterization, that was the term that Don used, and the President has said similar things and so have I. We feel strongly about these issues, we will present our case strongly, and Syria really needs to reassess its situation.

For those of you who followed my testimony this week, there is once again enthusiasm in some parts of Congress for a Syria Accountability Act. The Patriot Act has certain consequences that start to kick in over time that Syria should start to give consideration to, and frankly, Syria would be a lot better off if they would move away from some of these policies of the past and move in the direction that I will be suggesting to them. Why hang on to policies that no longer have the same relevance, if you are denying yourself an opportunity for improvements in your economy and a better life for your people? That is the case I will be making.

QUESTION: You said that the U.S. is going to judge everything on the basis of performance. So do you have specific tasks that you will present to the Syrians, things that you can point to, so that you can reach that performance conclusion?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well I have touched on them in this little setee we are having here. The President has written to President Assad previously. They know what we are interested in, they know the things that we frankly disapprove of, and so I will repeat them all as every interlocutor who has gone to Syria has laid them out. They are not unknown, and we will go over each and every one of them.

QUESTION: What happens if they don't meet any of them?

SECRETARY POWELL: If they don't meet any of them, that will be taken into account as we plan our future strategy. But I am not going to speculate with you on which ones will they meet, which ones won't they meet, and what are we going to do about it. These are decisions we will make after we see what performance comes forward, whether they change or do not change. And it may not be everything at once, maybe they do some things and do other things later, or they choose not to do anything. And so we will analyze their performance and then the President will make his decision, but I don't want to speculate now as to which measures of performance are more important than others, and which ones lead to certain things and which ones do not.

QUESTION: When you refer to those Patriot Act consequences, is that tied directly to that botched promise about the oil pipeline, or what are those Patriot Act consequences?

SECRETARY POWELL: If you want more details I will have Bill come back, but it deals with terrorist activities and support for terrorist activities, not the oil issue.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, just so it is clear, what is the current complaint that you have with regard to Syria - regarding Iraq. Do you believe that they are housing fugitives from the Hussein regime? Do you believe that they have some kind of WMD that was exported from Iraq for safekeeping in Syria? Are those issues still live issues?

SECRETARY POWELL: There were some individuals that we knew were in Syria, they are now no longer in Syria. There may be others who are now in Syria, and those we believe might be in Syria we are passing through appropriate channels. And we have seen some performance on their part in terms of responding to our concerns. With respect to materials and other things that might have passed across the border, we do have some concerns and we have conveyed them through appropriate channels as well.

QUESTION: Mr Secretary, can I ask you about this MEK surrender deal? Do you think there ought to be changes to it, I mean do you think it exacerbates Iran's concerns about US objectives in Iraq and therefore could lead to more Iranian meddling?

SECRETARY POWELL: What deal are you talking about specifically?

QUESTION: The cease-fire deal with the MEK?

SECRETARY POWELL: Yeah, I do not have the details of that. We are still inquiring into exactly what has transpired with the commanders on the ground, and so I think I will just take that one for the record, see what we find out. I was following it yesterday but have not been able to get caught up on it today with respect to the exact situation on the ground.

QUESTION: If I could just follow up, is it a concern of yours that it makes Iran more nervous and therefore could lead to the sort of meddling that we have heard US officials raise concerns about in Iraq? In other words, it allows this US-designated terrorist group to keep their weapons, and Iran would clearly like to see that group eliminated…

SECRETARY POWELL: Obviously Iran does not want to see these units have a capability that would affect them. Our commanders on the ground have made certain arrangements with the MEK, but I really don't want to go into details because I don't have any details and I would be misleading you one way or the other, something I would never do, right Glenn?

QUESTION: The Syrians received about a billion dollars in non-oil related revenue from Iraq, and I think they earned about 500 million dollars a year from that oil pipeline. That would seem to give the United States some sort of economic leverage over Syria. I was wondering how you would plan to use that leverage and what would the Syrians need to do to have that pipeline reopened?

SECRETARY POWELL: Pay for the oil at market prices, it would seem to me. It would be something that the new Iraqi government would be interested in doing as opposed to letting it go on some concessional basis, but this is a judgment that would be made by the new Iraqi government or by other authorities that may be in place before the Iraqi government gets set up. But what we did was to make sure that the pipeline was shut down, so that the oil of the people of Iraq is not going as a free good or a subsidized good to Syria. That was appropriate. With respect to the other commerce that took place between Iraq and Syria, they are neighbors, and in due course, I assume that there will be economic activity again between Iraq and Syria, and to the extent that Syria is playing a helpful role in the region as opposed to a less than helpful role, I am sure that the Iraqi government would take that into account. And, of course, we would be watching and monitoring that situation very carefully, but I cannot go beyond that at this point.

Okay? Thank you.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, just quickly, how many Iraqi officials have actually been expelled into American hands from Syria and is their cooperation in that regard continuing to improve?

SECRETARY POWELL: I do not have any numbers available to me, I just know there have been some who were in Syria and are no longer in Syria, and that's all I can say about it.

Released on May 3, 2003

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