Selling Syria to a Skeptical American Audience

Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador in Washington, says a recent U.S. raid stifled a diplomatic opening.

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No doubt, Imad Moustapha has one of the toughest diplomatic assignments in Washington. He has been Syria's ambassador for more than four years, a time during which the Bush administration has cited Damascus for a range of misdeeds, including allowing Islamist militants to enter Iraq, fomenting violence in Lebanon, supporting the anti-Israeli movements Hezbollah and Hamas, and cracking down on dissidents at home. Moustapha was dean of the information technology faculty at the University of Damascus when he was sent to Washington by Syrian President Bashar Assad. He blogs, often on art and travel.

In late October, U.S. commandos launched a raid into eastern Syria against alleged Al Qaeda in Iraq operatives that killed up to eight people. Moustapha says the attack has closed current chances for developing what had been a "tentative opening" between the two countries. He recently spoke with U.S. News. Excerpts:

What is your take on the U.S. raid?


It was a coldblooded, terrorist, criminal attack. Every person killed was a Syrian civilian who had nothing to do with allegations about affiliations with al Qaeda. We are still evaluating the motive behind this. Is this administration trying to jeopardize any possibilities for improvement in relations between Syria and a new U.S. administration? Because I think all the signs were pointing in that direction. What happened in earlier meetings with U.S. diplomats?


The United States approached us. They told us they wanted to improve relations with Syria. They told us they acknowledge major improvements in the security level between Syria and Iraq, at the political level with Lebanon, and in [our] talks with Israel. Are militants moving from Syria into Iraq?


Are there al Qaeda operatives in Syria? Probably, but they are our sworn enemies. When we know about them, we will immediately attack them or arrest them. We have done everything possible to try to secure the Syrian-Iraqi border. We told the United States we cannot do this alone. We offered it security arrangements, cooperation, intelligence sharing. The U.S. categorically refused to engage with us, always saying, "It's your responsibility." How is Syrian policy toward Lebanon changing?


The moment a new Lebanese president was elected and the new national unity government was installed, we moved. We have signed an agreement with Lebanon to exchange embassies. What support does Syria give Hezbollah?


We need to have the best possible relations with all of these [Lebanese] factions. We believe that Hezbollah is a national resistance movement that has successfully fought against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. We only provide Hezbollah with political support. What happened with the Turkish-mediated indirect peace talks with Israel?


Most probably, they will resume. However, this will depend on Israeli politics. Syria is willing and is a partner in peace, if the Israelis want peace. What was achieved is very important. It was very clear that both sides want an end to the conflict. We made it very clear to the Israelis that if they want peace with Syria, they need to go back to the line of June 4, 1967—prior to their occupation of the Syrian Golan. The ball is in the Israelis' court now. What was the impact of U.S. pressure?


Syria was genuinely involved in a political reform process when the United States suddenly led a historically unprecedented campaign of pressure against Syria after the assassination of [Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq] Hariri. The United States jumped to accuse Syria immediately, without any proof. The U.S. tried to change the Syrian government, tried to impose sanctions on us, tried to isolate us. It was probably the most difficult juncture in Syria's political history. Are Syrian dissenters jailed?


If people use their political messages to serve the Bush administration, we will be concerned. That's not political dissent, full stop. That is intolerable and unacceptable. However, we hope that once there is a new political context, once the U.S. occupation comes to an end, once our region moves forward to a more peaceful agenda, then the whole paradigm in our region will change, including the political status of those who oppose the Syrian government.