ORONO, Maine — Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell — who once served as Special Envoy to the Middle East — said he has met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad three or four times and doesn’t trust him.
“We disagreed on many things,” Mitchell, 80, said while in the lobby of Hauck Auditorium Wednesday after a lecture on sustainability at the University of Maine. “Our discussions were forthright, candid. Back at that time, we were working on getting the government of Syria and the government of Israel together for talks to try and resolve their differences and reach a peace agreement.
“We had limited progress and there were opportunities but that of course all came to an end when the current conflict began,” said the former Democratic Maine senator, who served from 1980 to 1995 and was Senate majority leader from 1989 to 1995.
Mitchell said he told the Syrian leader that if he truly wanted peace, he would have to stop smuggling weapons. Assad responded that he was not smuggling, which Mitchell said he knew was not true.
“He said to me, ‘Oh, there is smuggling everywhere. In North America, it’s drugs, and in the Middle East, it’s weapons’ … I finally said to him, ‘We disagree,’” Mitchell said. “His denials were untrue, and as a result of [the] direct personal experience and a lot of other knowledge that I saw, I do not trust his word.”
Russia, a longtime ally of Assad, has blocked three United Nations resolutions aimed at pressuring the Syrian leader to end violence. Russia did negotiate a plan that enables Assad to give up his chemical weapons to avoid a possible U.S. military strike.
It will not be just the Russian government and its President Vladimir Putin who will be responsible for brokering the chemical weapons confiscation from Assad’s government, Mitchell said.
“I don’t think it will be Putin who will broker it on his own,” he remarked. “It will require Syria’s consent, and the U.S. and other Western governments will have to ensure that it is faithful to the agreement and accurate.”
Secretary of State John Kerry and White House officials have reached out to him for advice on Syria and how to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, Mitchell said.
“I’ve talked with the secretary of state a few times and also with some White House officials a few times,” he said.
Mitchell, who also said he has never met Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani, said his advice to Kerry and others in Washington is “private.”
President Barack Obama appointed Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, a position he held until 2011. He was also Special Envoy for Northern Ireland from 1995 to 2001 and was a chief architect of the Good Friday accords.
This week at the United Nations, Obama told the world’s leaders that his main goals for the rest of his time in office are to negotiate an end to the Iran nuclear confrontation and reach a lasting peace deal with Israel and Palestine, Reuters reported.
Mitchell is scheduled to give a lecture 4-5:50 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26, at the University of Southern Maine’s Abromson Center in Portland. The lecture is part of an eight-week fall speaker series titled, “Politics Then and Now, in Maine and the Nation.”
He will be speaking in the Hannaford Lecture Hall of the Abromson Center. The free event is open to the public and sponsored by the university’s Muskie School of Public Service and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.