The Washington Diplomat / November 2008
By Larry Luxner
Ask Imad Moustapha what Syria’s top foreign policy objective is, and he doesn’t bat an eye.
“We want to get our occupied Golan Heights back, regardless of what people say,” he declares. “Here, people claim Syria is not really interested in the Golan, that we really want to return to Lebanon. That’s rubbish. We want the Golan back, and we believe the best way is through peace negotiations with Israel.”
But Syria also wants something else: to be removed from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, a pariah status that for the last six years has prevented U.S. companies from investing in the Middle Eastern country.
Moustapha, Syria’s ambassador to the United States, is confident both goals will be achieved, though the second will probably happen long before the first. Now that Libya and North Korea have been removed from the U.S. roster of “rogue states,” only Syria and three other countries — Cuba, Sudan and Iran — remain blacklisted.
In a mid-October interview at the Syrian Embassy, Moustapha said relations between Washington and Damascus are beginning to rebound, a trend that began just a few months ago and will probably accelerate once a new occupant moves into the White House — whether it’s John McCain or Barack Obama.
“Both candidates have expressed their desire to re-engage with Syria,” Moustapha told The Washington Diplomat. “Relations have already started to improve with this administration in the last few months. I would say this has benefited both Syria and the United States.”
Moustapha attributes Washington’s change of heart mainly to a desire by the Bush administration to regain influence in the Arab world.
“When the U.S. pulled out of Syria, other countries happily jumped in. Egypt helped Hamas and Israel reach a truce. Germany helped Hezbollah reach a prisoner swap with Israel. Syria, France and Qatar helped the Lebanese agree on a president,” he said, paraphrasing a recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.): “The Turks are helping the Syrians and Israel talk peace. Why is the U.S. on the sidelines? Because its policy of trying to isolate Syria ended up isolating the United States instead.”
Moustapha couldn’t agree more. “The U.S. adopted a policy of trying to ostracize Syria, believing this would lead to the collapse of the Syrian government. For Israel to engage in peace talks with Syria would undermine their whole strategy. But this has failed,” he argued. “Today, Syria has re-established excellent relations with Western Europe. All these U.S. attempts to isolate Syria have failed spectacularly. Eventually, the Israelis decided that they wanted to follow their own national interests, despite advice from Washington.”
For its part, the United States says it won’t remove Syria from the terrorist blacklist until President Bashar al-Assad distances his country from Iran and stops aiding Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist organization along with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda.
Moustapha says Syria will do nothing of the kind.
“We have no problems with Iran, and our support of Hezbollah is not an accusation,” he pointed out. “On the contrary, we are very proud to support them. Hezbollah is a national liberation movement that successfully drove the Israeli military out of Lebanon and happens to be part of the democratically elected Lebanese government.”
Interestingly, Syria recently reversed its long-standing policy of not officially recognizing that democratically elected government. Syria had effectively occupied large sections of its smaller neighbor for nearly 30 years until it was forced to withdraw its troops in 2005, although many Syrians have never accepted the idea of Lebanon as a separate, independent nation.
But on Oct. 14, Assad issued a decree paving the way for full diplomatic ties with Lebanon — and before year’s end, an exchange of ambassadors in Damascus and Beirut for the first time since the two countries gained independence from France in the 1940s.
“The Secretary-General hopes that this landmark event will encourage Syria and Lebanon to engage in further constructive dialogue that will bring mutual benefits to both countries,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a statement.
Still, the United Nations is continuing with its investigation into the death of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister who was killed in a massive Beirut bombing that many blamed on Syrian operatives.
Damascus has consistently denied the charge, and Moustapha is optimistic this latest rapprochement will bring the neighbors closer together: “Historically, relations were so close and borders so open that we never thought we needed embassies in each other’s countries. But we have no problems in recognizing Lebanese sovereignty, so we decided to formalize our relations with Lebanon.”
Despite tentative progress on the Lebanese front, don’t expect formal recognition of Israel anytime soon.
The two enemies have technically been in a state of war ever since Israel’s independence in 1948. During the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria and eventually annexed the small, mountainous territory, moving thousands of settlers there. In 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
The Yom Kippur War, known in the Arab world as the October War, inflicted huge casualties on both sides, but Syria didn’t achieve its dream of regaining the Golan. On the contrary, the Golan — which Israel formally annexed in 1981 — is now home to thousands of Jewish civilians living in kibbutzim and small towns, along with the local Arab Druze population. The landscape is dotted with ostrich farms, wineries and military bases, and Israel, citing strategic concerns, appears in no mood to give it up.
Yet the country’s lame duck prime minister, Ehud Olmert, recently conceded in a controversial speech that Israel would have to do just that if it ever wants real peace with Syria. Not surprisingly, Moustapha concurs.
“The Israeli government continues to build settlements in the West Bank, but they claim to want peace,” the ambassador said. “And in the Golan, there are illegal settlers living and cultivating land stolen from Syrian farmers. If the Israeli government has a policy of sending innocent Israelis to the Golan, this is their responsibility.”
Asked if Syria could reach some sort of monetary compensation with the Jewish state for the loss of all or part of the Golan, Moustapha snorted.
“We will never take money in exchange for our occupied territory,” he insisted. “We want to end this conflict, which will last only until the Israelis understand the reality of the war they are living, and elect a leader with a vision of peace. If they elect a prime minister who will enter into yet another conflict, this is their decision. There will just be more and more human misery.”
In mid-October, the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Jarida reported that President Bush had proposed a deal under which Israel would pull out of the Golan if Syria severs its ties with Iran.
Bush allegedly made the offer in a handwritten letter delivered to Assad by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his recent visit to Damascus. The secret letter — which even top U.S. diplomats in Damascus were unaware of — came the day after U.S. officials presented the offer in a meeting with Syrian officials. But Israeli sources denied any knowledge that such a deal was in the works, and Moustapha never mentioned it during our interview.
Moustapha is certainly a forceful, articulate diplomat, although he is a most unlikely ambassador. Before coming to Washington, the 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 holds a doctorate in computer science from Britain’s University of Surrey, has written more than 200 articles in English and Arabic, as well as several books, including “The Echoes of Orpheus,” “Creativity Out From the Windows of Hell” and “Concurrent Engineering.” His wide range of interests includes globalization, cultural identities, Western classical music and the social impact of the Internet. In fact, Moustapha is also an online blogger, keeping friends abreast of literature and arts via his “Weblog of a Syrian Diplomat in America.”
But the ambassador’s blog steers clear of politics, and the biggest political hot potato these days is Syria’s relationship with Israel.
Moustapha declined to offer any opinions about either Tzipi Livni, the newly elected leader of Olmert’s Kadima party, who is about to become Israel’s next prime minister, or Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish former prime minister who would likely challenge Livni — and win — in a general election next year.
“Israel goes through cycles of moderation and extremism, war-mongering and peaceniks,” Moustapha said. “But there is a constituency in Israel which believes that peace is the only way forward.”
Yet Syria’s own political track record is a long way off from Israel’s constantly changing one. Assad came to power in 2000 on a wave of hope for political and economic reform, and although he instituted a number of changes, Syria is far from being a full-fledged democracy.
According to the BBC: “President Assad has made clear his priority is economic rather than political reform, in a country that has a great deal in common with the dictatorships of Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
Although it noted Assad has made some progress in opening up the country’s economy and media, the BBC added: “Some observers believe an old guard with entrenched interests may be holding back the young leader. But Syrian politics is still played out very much behind the scenes, and it is hard to see what is actually going on.”
But it is clear that like many of its neighbors, Syria isn’t immune from terrorism. Moustapha blamed a recent Damascus car bombing that killed 17 people not on Israel, but on homegrown troublemakers intent on overthrowing Assad and turning Syria into a Muslim state.
“Extremist Islamic fundamentalist movements are being spawned in our region. This is not a secret,” he told The Diplomat. “In the past two years, there’s been an increase in the number of attacks. This is why we were opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.”
But discontent with the reigning Alawite regime certainly plays a role as well. Syria, with nearly 19 million inhabitants, is considerably larger than neighboring Israel, which only has 7.2 million people, yet it lags far behind Israel in life expectancy, per-capita gross domestic product, and nearly every other economic and social indicator. Peace though could relieve both countries of the need to spend massive amounts of money on defense.
The two adversaries did pursue peace talks in the past, but those negotiations stalled several times after the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
“Originally, Syria believed in a comprehensive approach to address all the issues, but then the Egyptians decided to go their own separate way, and then the Jordanians, and then the Palestinians. So it became theoretically implausible to insist on a pan-Arab approach,” Moustapha explained.
So Syria decided to go it alone, with mixed results. “In the last four years, Syria invited Israel to engage in peace talks, but Israel was reluctant, claiming the only reason they couldn’t was the Bush administration’s opposition to such talks. Even the Israelis are saying this publicly,” Moustapha said.
The ambassador says it’s now up to Israel — not Syria — to convince the Israelis that peace with Syria is more important than holding onto the Golan. “The Syrian government has always respected every international agreement it has signed; even the Israelis can attest to this. However, if they don’t want to make peace with us, the onus is on them,” he said.
“We have the obligation to convince our population why a peaceful settlement is the only way forward,” he added. “We are not going to try to influence Israeli public opinion. We need to work on our public opinion.”
That work was made all the more difficult when tensions flared in September after an Israeli air strike targeted a suspected nuclear bomb-making facility that the Olmert government claimed was being built with help from North Korea. Syria angrily denied it was building nukes, and in any event claimed the Israeli jets destroyed nothing of significance.
Yet both sides have been surprisingly mum on what actually happened — and neither the mysterious bombing nor Israel’s brief but devastating war with Lebanon back in 2006 seem to have derailed at least the prospect of peace between Israel and Syria.
“Thirty years ago, many Syrians would have said no to peace with Israel, but now, after the events of 2006 — with the massive destruction of Lebanon and people losing their lives on both sides of the conflict — an overwhelming majority of Syrians favor peace, and only a fringe minority are opposed to it,” Moustapha said.
He added: “I firmly believe that Syria and Israel will have peace one day. How unfortunate it is that we’ll have to wait for so many years for Israel to finally realize that they have no other alternative.”
“However,” the ambassador warned without elaborating, “if peace will not give us back our Golan, then we will reconsider all our strategies.”