Syria Diplomat Seeking Friends Among Public

By Ori Nir

Published February 06, 2004, issue of February 06, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — It has gone almost unnoticed in this media-saturated city that the man sent by Syrian President Bashar Assad to represent his country here at one of the lowest moments in bilateral relations is one of Syria’s most prominent reformists. Yet, in a little less than a year, Ambassador Imad Moustapha, 43, has reformed — some say revolutionized — Syrian diplomacy in America.

True, relations between the two governments are as tense as they ever have been. But Moustapha has opened up a new front, reaching out to American public opinion. While the struggle is uphill — sometimes almost “Kafkaesque,” he said in an exclusive interview — he insists he is “optimistic.”

A computer engineer and classical music buff whose Web site is studded with quotes from Western and Arab poets, Moustapha has launched a full-blown public campaign to improve his country’s image. Between media interviews and public appearances trumpeting Syria’s “peace offensive,” he meets with Jewish communal leaders in California and Syrian Jewish expatriates in Brooklyn, arranges performances by Syrian musicians and dancers, writes letters to American newspapers defending Syria and articles in the Arab press explaining American politics. He lobbies Congress and courts think-tank experts. And he invites almost everyone he meets to visit Damascus, issuing visas to journalists wholesale, he says.

“Imad certainly dares to be different — and he is different, in a very positive way,” said Theodore Kattouf, who returned last fall after two years as U.S. ambassador to Syria.

In the past, Syrian envoys here hardly bothered with public opinion, concentrating solely on state-to-state relations. Interaction with the media was limited, public appearances rare, cultural exchange almost nonexistent.

Moustapha is careful not to overstate his role. “There is no real change in policy or attitude,” he said in an interview in his office last week. “The only difference in what I am trying to do is our awareness that truth should be told as it is.”

Without optimism that U.S.-Syrian relations can be improved, reform advanced back home and peace with Israel achieved, he wouldn’t have left his comfortable professorship at the University of Damascus, Moustapha said.

The appointment was made personally by President Assad, he said. The young president heard Moustapha speak about reform on campus two years ago, and “I think he liked what he heard.” Assad asked Moustapha to represent Syria before international organizations and at two symposia in America. A year ago, he was sent to Washington. Moustapha said he was surprised, and is still not used to seeing himself as a diplomat. He said he has never been involved in politics and has never been a member of the ruling Ba’ath party.

Moustapha said he arrived in Washington knowing little about its inner workings. Sharing his tribulations with readers back home in the Syrian daily Tishrin, he wrote that “daily exposure to American newspapers can cause you an early stomach ulcer” because of their pro-Israel agenda. In another article he described in tones of astonishment how the American media promoted war with Iraq by spreading “misinformation,” tarnishing the image of Arabs and Muslims and trumpeting America’s alliance with Israel.

Since the war things have only become more difficult. Syria has been accused repeatedly of aiding anti-American insurgents in Iraq, developing weapons of mass destruction and even, by some, of receiving such weapons from Saddam Hussein’s collapsing regime. Moustapha describes his efforts to debunk the allegations as “Kafkaesque.” U.S. officials repeat the allegations but no one shows proof, he said. The measure of his failure was Congress’s lopsided passage in December of the Syria Accountability Act, authorizing the president to impose sanctions on Damascus.

Despite his conviction that his country is unfairly maligned, Moustapha said he believes the American system “is a fair system,” because it allows all voices to be heard. “I blame ourselves for not being heard in the past,” said Moustapha. He has expressed the same self-criticism in his newspaper columns.

Most people “are misinformed about Syria,” he said. But he is optimistic that minds can be changed.

“Sometimes I’m rebuffed in a cruel way,” he said. “Sometimes people harshly criticize Syria. But even with those, I can still have a dialogue.” He cited his recent meeting with leaders of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles. The conversation was tense, and accusations of antisemitism surfaced. Antisemitic expressions — especially Holocaust denial and comparisons of Zionism to Nazism — are not uncommon in Syria’s public discourse, but Moustapha says such statements are the exception, since modern Syria’s traditions of secularism and religious tolerance do not breed strong popular anti-Jewish sentiments. Asked about Syrian Defense Minister Mustapha Tlass’s antisemitic books and articles, the envoy dismisses Tlass as unrepresentative. “Lots of senior Israeli officials also said terrible things about Arabs,” he added.

Syria, Moustapha said, is keen on extending a hand to America’s Jewish community. Because of their influence, he said, American Jews could advance a détente in U.S.-Syrian relations and help restart peace talks between Israel and Syria.

Moustapha said he wants “to introduce the other face of Syria” to Americans. “I am starting with a musical concert, then an exhibition of paintings, then a dance company,” he said. Syrian artists will perform across America in the coming months. A Syrian quintet that combines classical music with Arabic themes, jazz “and even Jewish musical themes” will perform for the first time at the Kennedy Center in Washington later this month.

Moustapha was part of a group of Arab intellectuals that co-authored the United Nations-sponsored 2002 Arab Human Development Report, which harshly criticized Arab regimes for failing to foster free exchange of ideas. Asked if representing an autocratic regime like Syria’s in the West doesn’t create a dissonance, Moustapha, visibly embarrassed, replied, “That’s not a very friendly question.” But he answered it.

Syria, he said, is “today witnessing a very serious, deeply penetrating reform agenda, and I was part of this movement before I came here. When I meet my president I understand his thinking, and I know he is a committed reformist.” The commitment to reform among Syria’s emerging technological and intellectual elite is independent of the conflict with Israel or relations with the West, he said. However, Moustapha warned, poor relations with America may stifle change. “The layers and layers of political animosity are worrying me, for the first time. I am fearful that a new generation of Syrians is being brought up now with fierce anti-American sentiments.” Such sentiments strengthen the conservative camp that resists change, he said.

Diplomats here — both American and foreign — watch Moustapha with amazement as he “goes out on a limb,” in the words of an American diplomat who knows him. One former U.S. diplomat said that Moustapha seems to represent the country that America would like to see Syria evolve into, “not what Syria really is now.” Another American diplomat said: “He’s been doing and saying things that Syrian diplomats never have before, and I am certain that some of that is causing grumbling and criticism back home. This is a man who has the ability to take a few risks. One should hope that he would be effective in pushing for changes at home as well.”

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