The Washington Diplomat / April 2005
By Larry Luxner
It's only spring, but Imad Moustapha is already feeling the heat — and with good reason.
As Syria's top diplomat in Washington, Moustapha has found himself continually on the defensive, having to explain to the world why 20,000 Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents are still in Lebanon, 29 years after they arrived to put an end to that country's murderous civil war.
"Relations with the United States are extremely difficult," he conceded during a wide-ranging interview at the Syrian Embassy on Wyoming Avenue.
"There's probably no other ambassador as busy as I am," Moustapha told the Washington Diplomat. "I spend seven days a week giving media interviews, lectures, traveling across the U.S., meeting with members of the Syrian community. I'm working 18 hours a day. I have an extremely busy schedule and have only one message: Syria is not an enemy. Stop this negative campaign against Syria."
That campaign, largely unknown to the outside world, had been gathering since last September, when the United States and France co-sponsored UN Resolution 1559, demanding the full withdrawal of Syrian and other foreign forces from Lebanon.
But it really picked up steam on Feb. 14, when former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri — a frequent critic of Syria's military presence in his country — was gunned down by unknown assailants in Beirut. The event triggered widespread anti-Syrian protests throughout the small nation of 3.5 million.
As we went to press, those protests were continuing, encouraged by a Mar. 18 ultimatum by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan demanding that Syria withdraw all its troops before Lebanon holds parliamentary elections this spring.
The United States is pushing hard for complete withdrawal. The day after Annan's announcement, deputy State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters, "We'll be satisfied when the terms of Resolution 1559 are fulfilled. Syria needs to get out of Lebanon. That hasn't happened yet. That needs to happen."
Yet Moustapha sees things differently.
"I understand that the Lebanese people are divided," the ambassador told us. "Even today, we still have a loyal constituency of Lebanese who believe in relations between our two countries. However, there are political forces in Lebanon that oppose our presence. They were always outspoken critics of Syria. Before Hariri's assassination, Syria was reaching out to its critics. However, the assassination gave them the tools to benefit from this. We think this is disgraceful."
He says that at its peak, Syria had 42,000 soldiers in Lebanon, but that in the past two years, President Bashar Assad has pulled his men out of all major Lebanese cities.
"As of a week ago, we had only 13,000 troops there. We will continue our withdrawals and end our military presence in Lebanon, but we will do this in an organized way that will not cause any damage."
He continued: "We care a lot about Lebanon. If, God forbid, violence erupts in Lebanon, this will reflect badly on Syria, while the Americans sit here comfortably in Washington."
Moustapha is a most unlikely ambassador. Before coming to Washington, the 45-year-old Aleppo native — who had never held a diplomatic job — was dean of the information technology faculty at the University of Damascus. He was also secretary-general of the Arab School on Science and Technology, and co-founder of the Network of Syrian Scientists, Technologists and Innovators Abroad.
Moustapha, who is fluent in English and French as well as his native Arabic, holds a doctorate in computer science from the University of Surrey in Great Britain. His wide range of interests include globalization, cultural identities, Western classical music and the social impact of the Internet. He has written, co-authored and edited several books in English and Arabic including "The Echoes of Orpheus," "Creativity Out From the Windows of Hell" and "Concurrent Engineering."
Since assuming his post exactly one year ago, Moustapha has become a passionate defender of his country's often controversial policies. And since Hariri's death, he's been thrust into the spotlight, appearing on more radio and TV talk shows in the last six weeks than he can remember.
"Anyone with simple logic and power of analysis can easily see that the sinister act of assassinating Hariri actually extends far beyond the assassination itself," he reasoned. "We believe that Syria was targeted by this. If you look at the aftermath, how Syria has been terribly damaged, how feelings were stirred up against Syria, how Syria's enemies capitalized on this brutal murder, you will see how bitter and disappointed we feel."
Asked who he thinks was behind Hariri's murder, the diplomat answered: "I'm not a conspiracy theorist. Nobody knows. However, we can easily see who is benefitting from this crime. The United States is trying to use it to score political points against Syria, and allow the criminals who committed this crime to reap the benefits. This is why we are feeling so devastated."
Another reason for Moustapha's pessimism is Syria's continued presence on the U.S. State Department list of terrorist-supporting states — along with such pariahs as Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Cuba.
"We have repeatedly said to the United States, 'the day you have a single shred of evidence, come to us, and if this is true, we will act on it.' We have never refused. We have the political will to engage with the United States. The problem is, it's a strategic decision [to] use Syria as a scapegoat."
Behind this strategy, he said, is the Israeli government, which has long accused Damascus of letting Palestinian terrorists operate from inside Syria — a charge he angrily denies.
"We have categorically said we do not allow any person from Syrian territory to communicate with or provide logistics to the occupied territories. The Israeli actions themselves in the occupied territories are responsible for the vicious cycle of violence," he said. "They build walls, expropriate territories and farmland, they demolish houses, they assassinate leaders of the Palestinian people, and have caused suffering and humiliation for 35 years. It suits the Israelis to claim that Syria is responsible, because they don't want to blame themselves for their own failed policies."
Syria and Israel, sworn enemies ever since Israel's establishment in 1948, have fought four wars against each other. In 1967, Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel; little progress has been made since the last war in 1973.
"We were on the verge of signing a peace accord with Yitzhak Rabin when he was assassinated. Then Shimon Peres repeated the same offer, and he lost the elections. The day Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister, he said he would never give back the Golan Heights, and the peace process collapsed," said Moustapha.
"Ehud Barak immediately re-engaged with us, but then he started getting negative signs in the Israeli press and began worrying about losing the election. Eventually, he did not sign any treaty, he lost the elections anyway — and a third historic opportunity for peace was lost."
But the dynamics of the Middle East are changing, and now might be different, he suggests. With the death of Yasser Arafat and his replacement by Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority, peace talks have been energized. Both Egypt and Jordan have returned their ambassadors to Tel Aviv after a four-year absence, and Israel is prepared to evacuate all its settlements in the Gaza Strip later this year.
Syria, with 18.5 million inhabitants, is considerably larger than Israel, with only 6.5 million people, yet it lags far behind Israel in life expectancy, per-capita GDP and nearly every other economic and social indicator. Peace could relieve both countries of the need to spend massive amounts of money on defense.
"Right now, there is a window of opportunity for peace in the Middle East," says Moustapha. "Syria supports Abbas 100%. We are using all the influence we have with Palestinian groups. We do not think anyone should undermine his efforts. However, we are very worried that the Israelis don't want this to happen."
That, he said, is because Israel enjoys "unfaltering, blind American support" as well as military superiority over its enemies, which he says gives the Jewish state a feeling that time is on its side.
But it is not, he warned.
"Right now, they don't give a damn about engaging in peace with their neighbors," Moustapha complained. "This is the core issue. Over the past 18 months, Syria has repeately invited Israel to re-engage in the peace process. Every time, they rebuff our calls. Sharon is telling his people he can't resume peace talks. This same message can't be repeated in Washington, so they say Syria is a terrorist state. Because the Israelis are feeling awkward and Syria is exposing them, they go on the offensive by saying Syria is responsible for terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv and Haifa."
He added: "I firmly believe that Syria and Israel will have peace one day. It's regretful that some politicians in Israel don't have this vision. How unfortunate it is that we have to wait for years, for Israel to realize that they have no other alternative."
In the meantime, Moustapha said he has cultivated close ties with many U.S. Jewish leaders and claims that some of them actually support the Syrian position against Israel.
"I have had contacts with almost every prominent Jewish leader in the United States. I don't hesitate to talk to these people. I tell them, 'I'm not asking for you not to care about Israel, I'm only asking you to support the peace camp. I tell them, 'Go and use your leverage with your Israeli friends and convince them.'"
The ambassador is particularly fond of talking about his friendship with American Jews of Syrian origin.
"I'm very proud of the excellent relationship I have managed to build with the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn," he said. "Since introducing myself to them, we've become very friendly. They've invited me to their weddings and bar-mitzvahs, and I have met their grand rabbi. I think they are very upset about this campaign against Syria."
As Syria's ambassador, Moustapha has no official contact with his Israeli counterpart in Washington, Daniel Ayalon. Nor may Syrian Embassy officials socialize with Israeli Embassy staff at receptions, even if they wanted to.
"I represent my country. They represent their country," he said matter-of-factly. "This is not about Israel occupying my country and me having nice relations with their representatives. The idea is preposterous."
For an ambassador, Moustapha is astonishingly frank when talking about his frustrations in Washington — particularly with regard to Capitol Hill and U.S. lawmakers' traditional support of Israel.
"I'm not going to name our friends, but I do know who our enemies are ... people who have an extremely pro-Israel agenda," he said. "The majority are congressmen who have very little understanding about the issues of the Middle East, but only accommodate the desires of their constituents."
Asked about whether Syria will ever become a democracy, with free elections and complete freedom of speech, Moustapha said "this is an ongoing debate."
The American approach, he told us, "is to send troops and tanks, introducing democracy using brute force. We have our own approach. Civil liberties in Syria are expanding nonstop. Soon, we will have new laws allowing political parties to form and function. This is not a secret."
"Democracies should flourish from within, not be imposed from without," he added. "The U.S. is not helping Syria move toward a more open system. If anything, it is undermining this movement."
On the economic front, Syria is already going through "profound" changes, he noted.
"We are moving from a centrally planned economy to a market economy. It is opening its laws and regulations regarding finance. We have introduced private banking to Syria, and we're working to open our telecom system. We now have a national project to have an information superhighway to allow easy Internet access from even the most remote villages."
But Moustapha expressed frustration at U.S. laws that restrict Syrian access to technology, arguing that if the United States wants Syria to modernize, it should help his country rather than put obstacles in its path.
"Syria has changed a lot. It's unfair to always look for negative images," he said. "Syria has never been a totalitarian state. We have never been like the ex-Communist countries. I'm not claiming that it was not a more centrally controlled state, but this was in the past. Why are people still talking about this today? Go to Syria today and you will be surprised."