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Last Updated: Sunday, 20 February, 2005, 14:37 GMT
Lebanon's crisis
On Sunday, 20 February, 2005, Sir David Frost interviewed Syrian Ambassador to London, Dr. Sami Khiyami and former Ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer.

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Syrian Ambassador to London, Dr. Sami Khiyami
Syrian Ambassador to London, Dr. Sami Khiyami

DAVID FROST: Later this evening President Bush will arrive in Brussels, the heart of Europe, or that's what the Belgians say, for his first overseas tour since he began his second term. The main purpose of the visit is to build bridges, we're told, with European leaders. And one subject they're certain to discuss is their approach to countries such as Iran and Syria, countries which the President's made clear he deeply distrusts.

So can we expect a more united front after the divisions over Iraq? In a moment I'll be talking about that to our former Ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer. He joins us from our Paris studio and there he is now. But first alongside me right here is the Syrian Ambassador to London, Dr. Sami Khiyami. Welcome Your Excellency.

SAMI KHIYAMI: Thank you Sir David.

DAVID FROST: There seems to be one thing that all these people are going to be meeting in Brussels, seem to agree on, and that is that Syrian troops should leave Lebanon. They all, everybody thinks that, the president thinks that, and everyone seems to agree on that. Do you agree on that?

SAMI KHIYAMI: Absolutely, it seems that Syria was one of the first to admit an opinion about that. Syria wants to leave Lebanon, however the difference lies in the schedule to leave Lebanon whether the Lebanese can afford the Syrian troops leaving swiftly or whether they would like them to leave gradually and according to a phased process.

DAVID FROST: How long would a phased process last?

SAMI KHIYAMI: Well this is up to the Lebanese government and Lebanese legitimacy, president, parliaments, government to decide.

DAVID FROST: Well that's a fascinating point. One other thing of course that's very much in the news. Your government has denied any hand at all in the murder of the former prime minister of Lebanon and they've said they didn't do it.

Can you also add they didn't know it was going to happen and they had no involvement at all, Syria had no involvement whatever in that?

SAMI KHIYAMI: Absolutely, in fact it is after Lebanon, I would guess that Syria is the main loser and you can see it by what is happening today in Lebanon. Let us recover a little bit from bits of history, Mr. Hariri was brought into Lebanon essentially after the [...] which legalised a little bit the whole of the Syrian troops in Lebanon.

He has made Lebanese unity around not only the Lebanese legitimacy but also the presence of Syrian troops. And he was the most pro-Syrian and one of the greatest leaders in Lebanon who was an assurance by himself of national unity and of co-operation with Syria.

Now some minor differences of course existed between the views of Hariri and the views of the Lebanese government, the so called pro-Syrian Lebanese government. However this should not at all give a hint that Syrians may have something to do. Those who have to do with this criminal act must have every advantage in having Lebanon lose its security and stability.

DAVID FROST: And what about, there was a lot of fuss this week about the announcement of a new defensive concordat between Iran and Syria. And your prime minister said we face several challenges and it's necessary to build a common front. Do you really want a common front with Iran?

SAMI KHIYAMI: I think this was a very inaccurate translation from Arabic. The word front was never used, what was used is solidarity. And everything Syria nowadays because it is under spotlights, especially from the American administration.

Everything Syria does is considered to be something that is to be criticised. And this prime minister went to Iran, our prime minister, he goes to Iran usually once a year. Iranian officials come to Damascus once every six months. This visit has been scheduled long time ago.

When these two officials meet they always emit solidarity statements because Syria was with Iran, even when Saddam was attacking Iran. And it was one of the rare countries in the world which was backing Iran completely against Saddam at that time.

DAVID FROST: At that point Your Excellency we'll go to Christopher Meyer and we'll come back to you later. On the subject of Iran that we were touching on there, Christopher, the, what do you think will be the exact position that the United States takes.

When Condoleezza Rice was with us a couple of weeks ago and I asked her for her views on the initiative by England, Britain and France, negotiating with Iran, she said this rather surprisingly positive response, like this:


Any effort to get Iran to live up to its international obligations that can succeed we will support because of course Iran needs to live up to its international obligations. It cannot try and get nuclear weapons under cover of civilian nuclear programmes. We believe that the Iranians are being offered an opportunity - they ought to take it.

DAVID FROST: Now, Christopher, do you think that America is going to be patient about Iran?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well, you shouldn't expect President to come to Europe just a little bit after his Secretary of State and then go and say something completely different, so I think that he will be entirely consistent with what Dr. Rice said. I think the Americans are prepared to give diplomacy a chance, to see whether the British and the French and the Germans can extract guarantees from the Iranians on their nuclear industry. How long that will be I'm not clear.

Dr. Rice also made claim that if this initiative looked like failing then they would wish to go to the United Nations and talk about economic sanctions. And the third thing in all of this is of course the President saying, and Dr. Rice saying, that force is never removed as an option from the table.

So we're sort of looking of a kind of sequencing of possible steps but what the exact timetable would be I think depends on what actually happens in these negotiations.

DAVID FROST: There'll be disagreement presumably over China, over supplies to China from the EU. But there'll be at least verbal agreement on the Middle East and the next move with Israel and the Palestinians would you predict?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Yes, I would, but don't let's expect too much substance to be discussed in detail by the president on this trip. The trip is heavily symbolic, it's none the worse for that because we need some symbolism about the crucial importance of the trans-Atlantic relationship to our security and our prosperity.

But I think the day in Brussels, for example, at the EU and at NATO, would be certainly more symbolism than substance. I think there's going to be a world record for the number of speeches that are likely to be made.

But the private conversations of President Chirac which I think will be in Brussels and then again with Chancellor Schroder, that may be interesting, and of course the results of these private encounters and there's going to be one with Putin as well, will take some time to emerge.

DAVID FROST: And what about, in terms of the relationships with Europe as a whole? It would seem as though the administration is looking more favourably on European integration than it was a year or two ago when it thought that nation states would serve them better.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well I think the Americans are treading a very fine line here, this is not easy, and it'll be interesting to see how President Bush balances different considerations.

He said, for example, in a very interesting and long interview yesterday in the French newspaper Le Figaro, that yes of course he was in support of European aspirations, but he was very emphatic about Europe not trying to see itself as a counterforce to the United States because, he said, we all share the same values, the same broad aspirations and we should be working together.

Now I suspect that that theme about not trying to be a counterforce will be repeated by the President at a number of public occasions over the next, whatever it is, two or three days.

DAVID FROST: And when they discuss Syria, which we've been discussing with His Excellency, what will they be saying about that?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well, I mean, I think you said it all in your introduction. I don't think there's anybody in NATO, the EU or in Washington, who doesn't want the Syrians to withdraw from Lebanon. And no doubt that that will be reaffirmed in some way in public.

There are other anxieties about Syria, no doubt to which His Excellency will wish to reply. But there are anxieties about Iraqi dissidents being able to take refuge in Syria and mount military operations across the frontier, I actually think that the, this, whether you call it solidarity or common front between Syria and Iran, doesn't really add up a very great deal and doesn't change anything on the ground.

One thing though to emphasise is, I think there will be a warm welcome from the Europeans over the next two or three days for what clearly looks like a greater effort by the United States to try and bring a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

And there will be a lot of encouragement for the Americans to get cracking on that and I hope that the Americans will look to the Europeans to play their part in that so we are actually involved in a common endeavour.

DAVID FROST: Thank you very much indeed. Thank you Sir Christopher Meyer. And thank you Your Excellency for being with us. We appreciate it. Thank you for being with us today and for being so clear in what you had to say and the point you made about the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon was indeed an important one.

Interview Ends

NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.

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