Washington — Bemoaning what he described as an Israeli lack of vision and the Bush administration’s ideological rigidity, the Syrian ambassador to the United States strongly criticized Washington and Jerusalem last week for rejecting repeated Syrian proposals to help stabilize the Middle East.
“I must confess, we are extremely disappointed with the lack of response from the Israelis,” said the Syrian envoy, Imad Moustapha, in an interview with the Forward at the Syrian embassy in Washington. “They say they cannot talk to Syria because the U.S. fiercely opposes it…. But we believe they are using the U.S. position as a pretext and that they are quite comfortable with it.”
Several days after the interview, during a Senate appearance Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the United States would sit next month with Syria and Iran in an Iraq-led conference. But it was not clear how far the Bush administration was prepared to go in negotiating with the two regimes, which the United States has repeatedly accused of aiding terrorist attacks in Iraq.
Several key Israeli politicians and military officials have urged greater engagement with Damascus. But Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has rebuffed their calls, prompting some commentators and insiders to assert that he was bowing to American opposition to such contacts. According to a report in Ha’aretz, Rice recently told Israeli officials to avoid even exploratory talks with Damascus.
“Israel favors peace with Syria, but we do not see the current Syrian regime as being at all willing to change its positions,” said David Saranga, a spokesman for the Israeli consulate in New York. “We are willing to negotiate with any Arab country that wants to have peace, but in the case of Syria we are afraid that the call to start peace negotiations is only to improve its image abroad.
The current Syrian regime is not truly interested in making peace.”
In his interview with the Forward, Moustapha said that if Israeli leaders could muster enough courage and vision, a peace agreement with Syria — nearly reached twice in the past decade — would be achievable.
While the Syrian diplomat bristled at Israel’s “petty politics,” he reserved his harshest words for the Bush administration and Rice.
“We are very unhappy with this relationship,” said Moustapha, who arrived in Washington three years ago and has worked to improve Syria’s image through frequent media appearances and even a personal Web log. Noting that Rice has been telling audiences that engagement with Syria was not producing results, he stressed that she was “the only secretary of state in recent history who has had no interaction at all with Syria.” He added that all of Rice’s predecessors, including the Bush administration’s previous secretary of state, Colin Powell, had recently declared that “whenever there was engagement with Syria, it served U.S. national interest.”
David Foley, a State Department spokesman on Middle East issues, said that the issue is “not a matter of engagement.”
“It’s a matter of whether or not we can get changed behavior,” Foley said. “We continue to have diplomatic relations with Syria, but we are looking for signs that Syria is, in fact, ready to cooperate — in fact, ready to do things that are stabilizing in the region. Our view is that Syria knows what it has to do to be a responsible member of the international community. The Syrian regime must stop supporting terrorists and cooperating with other state sponsors of terrorism, such as Iran. Syria must also stop interfering in Lebanon.”
The Bush administration has accused Syria of stoking the violence in Iraq by sheltering former Saddam Hussein henchmen and by failing to shut down Iraq’s border to prevent militants from crossing into it. In addition, the United States and France have all but accused Syria of ordering the February 2005 slaying of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri and of working to undermine the fragile Lebanese government elected in the wake of the Syrian withdrawal.
Washington and Jerusalem claim that Syria continues to arm the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. They also see the presence in Damascus of Palestinian militants — first and foremost, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal — as an indication of Syria’s negative influence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Moustapha lamented what he describes as Israel’s recurrent search for excuses — “Syria is weak, Syria supports terror” — to refuse the repeated peace-talks offers made in recent years by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. This refusal is especially galling, he said, since the outlines of a peace accord are well known and within reach: the full return of the Golan Heights to Syria, demilitarization of the area and guarantees of Israeli access to the water resources.
Moustapha confirmed that Syria had recently abandoned its demands that such talks restart from the point that the two countries left off in 2000, when then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad nearly reached an agreement through the mediation of then-president Bill Clinton. The effort collapsed over the tracing of the border along Lake Tiberias.
Moustapha described his country’s willingness to negotiate without preconditions as a “clarification” as opposed to a shift. “When we saw that the Israelis were telling the world that we were putting conditions, we said, ‘Okay, no conditions,’” he said. “So it’s not change of position, it’s a clarification.”
Asked about a recent report in Ha’aretz that outlined an unofficial framework agreement reached among a Swiss diplomat, a former Israeli diplomat and an American-based Syrian intermediary, Moustapha was dismissive. “We were skeptical, and I told them we don’t need track-two diplomacy, we need track one,” he said, using diplomatic language to describe, respectively, unofficial and official diplomatic talks.
“In the end, we told them this is not serious,” Moustapha said. “If the Israelis are serious, let us talk on a government level. And then everything collapsed…. You can have 25 peace agreements between Syria and Israel, but if the governments are not the ones negotiating it will not work.”
Moustapha stressed that a “good relationship” with the United States was in Syria’s national interest but that the administration’s “us vs. them groupthink” had prompted a rapid degradation between both capitals.
As a result, Syria suspended intelligence cooperation with the United States several years ago. “American intelligence officials were unhappy about it and asked to resume it, but we refused,” Moustapha said. “Syria is not a charity. We can’t continue to provide them with intelligence on Al Qaeda and others while the administration is trying to isolate us and to weaken us.”
Still, he expressed some optimism that a drumbeat of calls to open a dialogue with Syria from the bipartisan Iraq study group, European allies — most recently British Prime Minister Tony Blair — and, especially, Congress could prompt the administration to change tack.
Moustapha recently sent a letter to all senators to protest Rice’s testimony February 8 to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which she claimed that the U.S. charge d’affaires in Damascus was in discussions with Syrian authorities over the thorny issue of Iraqi refugees.
“I told them this was not true,” Moustapha said. He added that when he was recently called in to the State Department for discussions about Iraq, it was for a lecture rather than an exchange. “They keep on repeating, ‘Syria needs to do this, Syria needs to do that.’ This is not diplomacy,” he said. “Maybe they don’t know the meaning of diplomatic talk.”
Moustapha said that the administration’s refusal until now to open discussions with Syria to help stabilize Iraq was baffling, given Damascus’s good relationship with a wide array of Iraqi political factions. Bush administration officials cite such ties as proof that Syria should already be doing more to stop the violence in Iraq.
Moustapha insisted that Syria would not sacrifice its “excellent relations” with Iran in order to improve ties with Washington and Jerusalem.
“We believe in Syria that it is in our national interest to have a good relationship with the U.S., but why should we have bad relations with Iran?” he said. “This is a not a zero-sum game.”
Washington has found an unlikely ally in its diplomatic effort against Syria: French President Jacques Chirac. Chirac has been an outspoken critic of Damascus since the assassination of Hariri. The French leader is said to have warned Assad, just days before the killing, not to harm Hariri for his reported willingness to challenge Damascus’s rule.
A special U.N.-appointed legal team, whose interim reports have pointed fingers at Damascus, is investigating the crime. Moustapha forcefully rejected the charge, stressing that Hariri, who served for 10 years as prime minister, was a strategic ally of Syria. “Syria is very, very disappointed by the deterioration of the relationship with France,” he said. “What amazes is the personalization of their disagreement with us. President Chirac has developed a personal grudge against us. If he believes there is something about Hariri, let’s wait for the outcome of the U.N. investigation.”