Testimony of Dr. Elias Saadi

Council of Lebanese American Organizations and the Coalition of American Lebanese Organizations

September 18, 2002

House Committee on International Relations

Good Morning, Mr. Chairman:

I come before you today to offer testimony in support of the Syria Accountability Act of 2002.

My name is Eli Saadi. I am an American, a son of Lebanese immigrants; born and bred in Youngstown, Ohio. I am a cardiologist by profession. I have no political affiliation, nor do I hold any citizenship other than that of the U.S.A.

As an American, I feel that every immigrant group makes its greatest contribution to this great and blessed country when it brings what is the very best in that culture to the American table. This is what brings me to this table to speak on behalf of the majority of my fellow Americans of Lebanese descent.

My presence here today is the culmination of 30 years of constant work on behalf of the cause of freedom and democracy in Lebanon. For 30 years I have been engaged in the struggle to free my ancestral homeland from the evil grip of terrorism. As I watched the events that permanently changed this country last September 11, I realized that that struggle which has swallowed up my beloved Lebanon has now reached the shores of my even-more beloved America.

Mr. Chairman, prior to the final Syrian takeover of Lebanon in 1990, I was knighted by the President of Lebanon with the highest award that the Lebanese Government can grant to a civilian: the Order of the Cedar. But I must say that being chosen by a majority of my fellow Americans of Lebanese descent to offer testimony here today is certainly a far greater honor, because it represents an opportunity for me, as an American citizen, to do what is so rarely done--that is, to speak the truth about Syria's support for terrorism; to speak the truth about Syria's ugly occupation of Lebanon; to speak the truth about the impact of these things upon the United States and the cause of freedom and democracy everywhere.

Since the onset of hostilities in the Middle East, the American press has ignored a vital historical fact: That Lebanon gained its independence in 1943 and formalized its democratic roots with a secular constitution and a parliamentary form of representative government with no reference to race, ethnicity or religion. Since the inception of Lebanon, the rights of all religious groupings were protected within a multicultural framework which remained--until the final Syrian assault on Lebanese democracy--a prototype for democratic self-government in the Middle East. Herein lies the uniqueness of the Lebanese gift to America and the reasons why this respected committee should vote in favor of the Syria Accountability Act of 2002.

Mr. Chairman, something has gone wrong, and the U.S. has been looking the other way for far too long. For 25 years the Syrian army has occupied Lebanon and has imposed its will upon the Lebanese people through electoral intimidation, political persecution, stifling of free speech, assassination of opposition leaders including more than one democratically-elected Lebanese president, and last but not least, brute military force. Syria imposed upon Lebanon an un-natural relationship, and has done so under the guise of so-called "brotherly" love. So much love in fact that Lebanon enjoys the infamous distinction of being the only remaining satellite state in the world, and its plight appears open-ended. Syria is the only country currently occupying another country that is a full member of the United Nations in violation of all international laws.

Mr. Chairman, let me state for the record some undeniable truths:

First, the Lebanese are a western-thinking people, and Lebanon has historically been a bastion of freedom and democracy in a region hostile to such values. Freedom of speech has been the latest casualty. The forced shutdown of the opposition television station MTV two weeks ago was done under the pretext that it was endangering relationship with a brotherly government by debating the question of Syrian withdrawal. Yet every day, the controlled media in Lebanon and Syria is bashing the U.S. How could any segment of our government overlook these events?

Second, since being infected with state-sponsored terrorism over 30 years ago, the Lebanese people have been victims of the very same animalistic groups that struck the United States on Sept 11th one year ago. Syria condones al-Qaida use of Lebanon and provides support, finances, arms, training and headquarters to Hizballah, the PFLP-GC, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, Syria supports terrorism every bit as much, and possibly more, than Iraq, Iran, or Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Just two weeks ago, in fact, it has been reliably reported that nearly 200 al-Qaida operatives, including several senior commanders, have settled in Lebanon with Syria's permission, taking refuge in a large Palestinian refugee camp. This group arrived from Afghanistan through Iran and Damascus. As of today, eleven terrorist organizations, all listed as such by the U. S. government, are based in Damascus, but operate out of Lebanon.

Third, Lebanon has undergone a transformation--what was once a democracy with constitutionally protected freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly has been transformed into a police state. There is one reason and one reason alone for this transformation of Lebanon from freedom to terrorism, and that reason is Syria. For a quarter of a century, Syria has controlled Lebanon through a direct military presence and indirect political hegemony. Syria occupies Lebanon militarily and controls the Beirut government politically. Syria's hegemony over Lebanon was achieved through a series of so-called "bilateral treaties." As of this date, the Lebanese Parliament has never debated, let alone questioned, the legality or desirability of any of these treaties and agreements. Damascus has consistently refused to establish official diplomatic relations with Beirut.

Fourth, having completely decimated Lebanon, the cancer of terrorism has spilled over into other freedom loving nations, and hence the United States is now fighting the same war that Lebanon fought for decades before succumbing completely to Syrian domination.

Fifth, Syria has, in refusing to withdraw from Lebanon, and in providing crucial weapons, weapons parts, and oil to Iraq, has shown as much contempt for U.N. resolutions as any other nation on Earth.

Sixth, Syria, a regime with clearly hostile intentions towards all things western, is developing weapons of mass destruction.

Seventh, Syria, through its malicious occupation of Lebanon, its manipulation of Lebanese elections, its ruination of the Lebanese economy, its assassination of voices of opposition in Lebanon, its refusal to disarm Hizbollah and deploy the Lebanese Army to Lebanon's southern border, and its development of weapons of mass destruction, is a terribly destabilizing force in the Middle East.

Eighth, Syrian-sponsored groups have perpetrated acts of terrorism against the United States, not the least of which is the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Syrian-occupied Lebanon in 1983 which killed 241 American Marines. Further, Syria has killed or made possible the killing of more Americans than any other state including Iraq, starting from the Beirut Embassy and Marine Barracks through the Khobar and Riadh barracks. Just last week a high-ranking State Dept. official stated in reference to Syria, "They owe us plenty of American blood and the U.S. is not in the habit of forgetting debts." Mr. Chairman, while we wage an international war on terrorism which chases terrorist phantoms such as Bin Laden and his henchmen, we must also hold accountable that state which has caused hundreds of American casualties and has the largest terrorist concentration on Earth, with its capital in Damascus. The key to ending Syrian-sponsored terrorism and to saving American lives is to end Syria's occupation of Lebanon and thus end its ability to operate terrorist camps anywhere outside of Syria's borders.

Mr. Chairman, those are the indisputable facts. There are several arguments presented in opposition to the bill. All of these arguments are weak.

The Dept. of State has said that Syria is somehow helping us in our fight against terrorism and that therefore this is the wrong time to enact this bill. It is interesting that neither the State Dept. nor the Administration find any problem with the content of the bill, but only the timing. As one State Department official has said, quote, "We are in full agreement with the goals underlying this bill," but "We do not believe this is the right time…"

I respectfully propose to you that this "bad timing" argument is a specious argument, and I caution you that it is deceptively attractive. This argument suggests that America can afford to sacrifice basic truths for the sake of short-term tactical gain. I am here today to tell you that the sacrifice of basic truth for short-term tactical gain, especially where Syrian-sponsored terrorism is concerned, is the very same mistake, made by successive Lebanese governments, which directly led to the loss of Lebanon as a democratic state. This sort of thinking has cost Lebanon its very existence. If there is one thing that Lebanese-Americans have to offer this country here and now, it is direct first-hand experience with Syrian treachery, deception, and double-talk. I came to Washington today because I will not sit idly by while America falls into the same trap that swallowed up Lebanon, one which will surely cost many more American lives than it saves.

So Syria may be giving us some information which may have saved some American lives; what if Osama Bin Laden gave us some credible information about Shiite factions in Afghanistan that saved American lives? Should we have refrained from confronting Bin Laden and the Taliban, and wait for them to plan another attack on us? Has Syria given us enough information to save as many American lives as they have been responsible for taking, or will certainly take in the future? Absolutely not.

Another argument advanced in opposition to this Bill is that it would restrict the lines of communication with Syria. Mr. Chairman, America has been talking to Syria for years and has failed to convince or persuade them in any way. Talk does not work with Syria. The only sort of communication Syria understands, and the only means by which we have ever gotten any sort of reaction from Syria, is when we have sent a clear message which says "Stop, or you're going to get it."

An example is Secretary of State Colin Powell's last April trip to Damascus at the peak of the skirmishes over the Shebaa Farms. The Secretary put an end to this brewing crisis, not by diplomacy, but by pointedly telling the Syrians to stop it or else Israel will. Passage of this bill will certainly not affect our ability to get that sort of message through to the Syrians.

Some argue that sanctions such as those contained in this Bill are counterproductive and will have the adverse effect of keeping Syrians in Lebanon. Mr. Chairman, with all respect, this is a ridiculous proposition. Since its inception, Syria has never recognized Lebanon's existence. Despite Lebanon's 6000 years of history, Syria has always viewed modern Lebanon as a mere province of Syria. Lebanon asked for an ambassador from Syria, and never got one; no, Lebanon received instead an army of 25,000 ambassadors, each one armed to the teeth. Syria's actions over the last 25 years prove beyond a doubt that Syria will never, and I repeat, never, volunteer to leave Lebanon. Syria will have to be forced out, or they will never go, and Lebanon will remain, under Syrian control, a hotbed of anti-American terrorist activity. Thus, the sanctions imposed on Syria in this bill are a good thing, as the bill not only imposes sanctions, but also gives Syria a roadmap by which those sanctions can be lifted.

It has been stated by one official that "The Syria Accountability Act harms the maneuverability of the U.S. President and could embarrass him in his constitutional functions." Mr. Chairman, I doubt that President George Bush, who has stated in no uncertain terms that the nations of the world must declare whether they are "with us, or with the terrorists", would ever be embarrassed by this act. To the contrary, especially in light of his recent address to the UN, I think President Bush should be and will be proud.

Finally, there are those who oppose the Syria Accountability Act on the grounds that it will harm American trade with an "important regional player." But the amount of trade with Syria is, in dollars, inconsequential. Furthermore, the majority of existing trade consists of trade in food and medicine, and this trade is already exempt under the bill. Thus, passage of the bill will not cost American jobs. But even if there was a chance that passage of the bill would cost American jobs, it is certain that not passing the bill will cost American lives. This committee should also ask the following question: How much, in dollars, did the attack on 9/11 cost America? How much would another such attack cost? And how much trade is enough to make up for the impact of terrorism? In my view, no amount of trade is worth the price of even one American life.

Mr. Chairman, the Syria Accountability Act of 2002 is a long overdue bill, which states with absolute clarity and brutal honesty the facts as they are today. The Act also provides a clear and concise set of consequences for Syria, and states precisely what Syria must do to avoid those consequences, and thereby outlines a roadmap for change. The Act aims to achieve ends, which are undeniably in the interests of the United States. Time is of the essence, and American lives are at stake.

If the Middle East is ever going to change for the better, we must make our objectives threefold, to disarm terrorist organizations and regimes, to democratize the regimes, and to aid in their development. This bill is a good beginning. Mr. Chairman, with all of the urgency and fervor that I can muster as an American citizen of Lebanese descent, I urge you to lend your support to this bill.

In closing I ask your indulgence to allow me a personal observation--a small tragic personal note. During one visit to Lebanon during the heat of the war, I was informed by the intelligence services of the anti-Syrian Lebanese resistance that I should not travel to Syrian-controlled areas of Lebanon--I was told that my activities in support of a free and democratic Lebanon had earned me a spot on the Syrian "enemies" list. Yes, Syria is the sort of country that keeps lists of enemies as an intimidation tactic. That is sort of regime we are speaking of today. In testifying today and speaking the truth I am certain that I will again find myself on that list. And now, Syria has crushed the Lebanese resistance and controls 100% of the country. Thus for me, at age 70, this means that I will never see my father's home in Lebanon again. This is indescribably painful for me. But it is a price that I willingly pay to bring freedom back to my ancestral homeland, Lebanon, and security to my beloved country, the United States.

God Bless America. Thank you.