US warns Syria ahead of Lebanese elections

David Welch tells Congress administration worried Lebanese pro-Syrians might resort to violence.

David Welch good 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
David Welch good 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
A senior State Department official told Congress on Thursday that Syria or its supporters might use violence to interfere in neighboring Lebanon's coming presidential elections. "Interference or intimidation in the electoral process is unacceptable to the United States and to the international community," the diplomat, C. David Welch, said at a hearing of the Senate Middle East subcommittee. Syria cannot hope to improve relations with the United States or play an influential role in the region unless it heeds that warning, Welch said in a statement and in testimony at the hearing. Careful about what he was willing to disclose openly, Welch said, "My sense is that there is a high risk of something to signal the parliament" of Syria's interest in the outcome of parliament's election a president, a post held by pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud. His term expires Nov. 24. As parliament prepares to choose a successor to pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud by Monday, several legislators who say they fear for their lives are housed in a Beirut hotel protected by security guards. The Bush administration has been expanding its diplomatic contact cautiously with Syria, including meetings between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem last Spring and again at a conference on Iraq Nov. 3 in Turkey. At the meeting in Istanbul, Rice said she had made "quite clear" that she expected Syria not to interfere in Lebanon's constitutional process. Syria has pulled its troops from Lebanon under UN pressure but maintains a strong interest in the country through pro-Syrian politicians and, according to US officials, intermittent shipment of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah, which the State Department designates as a terrorist organization. "This is a government that strives to undermine Lebanon's sovereignty and security through pro-Syrian proxies and partners, a government that continues to harbor and support terrorists and terrorist organizations," Welch said. "It is time," he said, "for the Syrian government to show it is willing to be a responsible member in the community of nations." Speaking about Lebanon's projected elections, Welch said: "We are very concerned that in the next few weeks Syria or its supporters will attempt to manipulate the outcome through violence, intimidation or an obstinate refusal to participate in the electoral process. These concerns are not unfounded." On several occasions, Welch said, Syrian officials promised to act against the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, to end their interference in Lebanon, to expel from Damascus Palestinian terrorist leaders and to end Syrian state sponsorship of terrorism." Unfortunately, he said, "the Syrian regime has yet to demonstrate the necessary willingness to reorient its behavior back toward international norms." In a statement, meanwhile, Republican Sen. Dick Lugar recommended "meaningful and regular discussions" between the United States and Syria. Continued refusal to do so, he said, "freezes in place a dangerous status quo."