The Honorable Richard W. Murphy
Former Assistant Secretary of State

Discussion The Road to 1559
United Nations Plaza New York
The Beekman Tower Hotel
Tuesday, February 14, 2012

UNSC resolution 1559 was passed in September 2004, 15 years after I had retired from government service.

My contribution to this evening's book event about The Road to 1559 will be a few personal reflections from the period of my own service in Syria and Lebanon.

I arrived in Beirut in February 1959 to study Arabic until assigned to Aleppo in September 1960. This was six months after the departure of the U.S. Marine contingent sent by President Eisenhower who was alarmed by the prospects of the Iraqi revolution spreading throughout the area. His action did help to stabilize the situation in Beirut.

Aleppo was a great place to work after my basic language training. Arabic, French, Turkish and Armenian were commonly spoken. Only a handful were comfortable in English. I recall the surprise of a Syrian lady whose education had been totally in French who, when unable to complete the Syrian border crossing document in Arabic returning from Beirut to Aleppo, saw her passport stamped "Illiterate."

Aleppans were appalled at the accounts reaching them from the Iraqi revolution, a country they commented was, unlike Syria, known for its brutality.

The United Arab Republic (UAR) was then in its last year of existence. The city gave a roaring welcome to President Jamal Abdul Nasser on his visit to Aleppo. There was an undercurrent of resentment among some in business community but Syrians were careful to refrain from criticism of Egypt. They took refuge in repeating the many Egyptian jokes about their President. Beirut was then as it is today a haven and some Aleppans were starting to move investments there.

Shortly after my arrival, I attended a folklore evening organized by the Ministry of Culture. There was the customary round of songs and dances but the climax came when an actor dressed as a monkey on a leash was dragged onto the stage. The announcer shouted out to wild applause "It is King Hussein, the pathetic puppet of Western imperialism."

In 1961 Syrian military rose in resentment over their dominance by Egyptian counterparts. Stories abounded that senior Syrians were being ordered about by junior Egyptian officers. That morning the state radio, after a fanfare of drums and bugles, opened with the stern announcement that opponents of the new government would be "struck with a hand of iron". The business community was elated. Sworn never to repeat their past mistakes, politicians from the former parties quickly moved from their retirement to Damascus to rally supporters.

Just one year later came the attempted coup to restore Syria to the UAR. Same music and message on state radio re "the Hand of Iron". This time there was somewhat more bloodshed. And this time I entered for the first time into Syrian political legend. The story was that I had been seen leading a parade down the tramway passing out colored photos of Nasser and urging support for his return. As one friend later admitted, "the account was not necessarily believable but it was too much fun not to repeat." The fact was that two weeks before the attempted coup I had been seen passing out colored photos at our Consulate, but they commemorated the first flight in outer space by Colonel John Glenn.

Six months later came the Baathi coup and a week after that I left for Saudi Arabia.

I returned in 1974 as Ambassador to Syria. The first Syrian-Israeli disengagement agreement had just been negotiated by Kissinger. The Syrians expected that our mediation would continue but Israeli and American attention focused instead on reaching an overall disengagement of Egyptian and Israeli forces in the Sinai and then negotiating what became the first peace treaty.

Land: Syrians felt deep resentment of the land grabs which had stripped them of Greater Syria. They were nostalgic about their former control of Alexandretta, Lebanon even Trans Jordan. Hafez Assad later jokingly offered to help out on Egyptian-Israeli talks over Taba in the Sinai noting that "after all, it was once part of the land of Sham."

In 1982-83 our misunderstanding of Lebanese politics ended savagely in the blowing up first of U.S. Embassy then of the Marine Barracks. I have always thought that if we only had set a time limit on the Marines' presence when they returned to Beirut after the Sabra-Shatila massacres they might have left alive as respected heroes.

In Lebanon, parliamentary elections had not been held for the past 14 years. Its members were dying off. By 1988 we wanted to protect the vitality of the only remaining political institution by supporting a successful presidential election. The Syrians were indifferent to our argument that the Presidency was an essential element of Lebanese political life. It must have seemed to them that if U.S. cared that much about a presidential election that we would persuade the Lebanese to accept Syrian terms: one candidate, i.e. a "Syrian election." We said that was up to the Lebanese. The Syrians asked me "Who is your candidate?" Replied we had no candidate but knew that there were a number of Maronite candidates for the position who could do the job. I was lectured on the need to reduce the power of the Presidency and to end sectarian thinking in Lebanon.

Lebanese sovereignty: True that the Syrians "never respected it". They were contemptuous of the successive visits of presidential candidates to Damascus, echoing the sarcastic description in the Lebanese press of the "Beauty Parade."

It is unfair to Reagan to say that Lebanese independence was a less important issue than that of U.S. hostages. Syria at that point in time was the only force that could keep peace. But it is true that he was obsessed with the U.S. hostages. And this brought him near lethal political consequences culminating in the Iran-Contra affair.