Syrian ambassador denies Syrian military aid to Hezbollah, says U.S. not talking to Damascus
In an interview Wednesday with U.S. News, Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, rejected U.S. and Israeli assertions that Syria has been supplying part of the Hezbollah rocket force raining down on northern Israel. "We do not provide Hezbollah with arms," Moustapha insisted in a conversation at Syria's embassy in Washington. He also denied charges that Syria had provided Hezbollah with financial support or that Syria enjoyed decisive influence with Hezbollah, calling it "an independent, autonomous organization." Rather, he says, Syria is a political supporter of such "national liberation" movements as Hezbollah. Israeli officials say that some of the rockets, including one that smashed into a train facility in Haifa and killed several Israelis, were made in Syria.
Moustapha, who was appointed to the post by Syrian President Bashar Assad, laid blame for the crisis on Israel. "We're surprised by the brutality of the Israeli attack," he said. But he asserted that Israel has not importantly degraded Hezbollah's counterstrike capability. "Hezbollah's capacity to retaliate is still intact," Moustapha said. He said Syria supports an immediate cease-fire and the beginning of negotiations and that Damascus would be willing to participate in the talks actively, especially since the United States does not have any known contacts with Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas, which are both designated by Washington as terrorist groups.
Moustapha, however, faulted Washington for what he characterized as an unwillingness to talk directly with Damascus. Though U.S. officials have said there is no prohibition on U.S.-Syrian contacts, Moustapha says there has been "no contact" here in Washington or in Damascus between officials of the two countries. He contends that the Bush administration is not following the past American practice in Mideast crises of talking to all of the affected parties. And he stoutly rejected President Bush's suggestion on Tuesday that Syria might seek to take advantage of the turmoil in Lebanon and return to the country after troops withdrew under Lebanese and international political pressure last year. (Bush said, "Syria's trying to get back into Lebanon, it looks like to me.") Replied Moustapha, "The only way to tell President Bush that we're not going back to Lebanon is through the media....We're flabbergasted in Syria [at the Bush remarks]. Syria has no intention whatsoever of coming back to Lebanon." He also rejected Bush's assertion, in private conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair this week, that Assad could tell Hezbollah to desist from attacking Israel and bring the immediate crisis to an end. "This is such a simplistic approach," he said.
Moustapha said that Syria was sending medical and food aid to Lebanon and assisting refugees (some 190,000 in the past week) by waiving visa requirements to cross the Lebanese-Syrian border. He said some 200 Americans have called his embassy seeking information for family members trying to flee Lebanon. They were told that Americans would not need visas to cross into Syria and leave the region from there.