Imad Moustapha: Syria doesn't aid terrorists
Syria-Iraq-USA, Politics, 3/18/2006
Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, holds a doctorate in computer science from Britain's University of Surrey and was formerly dean of the faculty of information at the University of Damascus and secretary-general of the Arab School on Science and Technology.
He speaks four languages and was a co-author of the United Nations-sponsored Human Development Report in the Arab World.
Moustapha visited San Diego recently as a guest of the San Diego World Affairs Council and was interviewed by the San Diego Union-Tribune's editorial board.
Q: The US government has complained repeatedly that Syria was aiding and abetting the insurgents and terrorists in Iraq. What is your government's response?
A: This is an extraordinary story which is not well-known in the United States. In a nutshell, I would say that this story is equivalent to the story of Iraq's WMDs prior to the war. Two or three months after the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, suddenly we in Syria started worrying a lot because suddenly, day in, day out, top US officers would appear on the media channels and say, you know, all these insurgents are infiltrating; they are not Iraqis, they are jihadists coming through Syria into Iraq. We looked at what was happening in Iraq. Syria is a very small country. You are the world superpower. And we know how easily it would be for you just to move your troops from one country to another. Of course, this does not mean that it would be easy for you to win the war. I immediately received instructions from my government to contact top US officials. I had a series of meetings with top officials at the Pentagon and the State Department telling them these accusations were untrue. But we don't want to go into a game of allegations and counterallegations. We are willing to do whatever it takes to secure these borders. We are willing to work with you. We initially proposed three things.
Q: We're talking 2003 now?
A: I would say April, May 2003. We said Syria is willing to immediately engage with you on whatever it takes to secure these borders; we offer you trilateral patrols, patrolling these borders; we offer you intelligence exchange, information sharing; the field officers from our side of the border meeting with field officers on your side of the border. These are just initial suggestions. But whatever you think is fruitful to secure these borders, we are willing to do for practical reasons. And then the level of the accusations continued to build. And when we felt that there was no way whatsoever we could engage the US administration, we started taking unilateral actions on this.
Q: Such as?
A: You need to understand that these are deserts with porous borders. We never had checkpoints or marked borders. So we started by building more and more sentries on these borders, multiplying the number of border guards there. A year before the war, we only had 700 Syrian border guards. Today we have something like 10,000. This is a huge burden on Syria. And then we started building sand barriers. We installed barbed wire. And we increased the number of our patrols. And yes, we managed to capture people who were trying to infiltrate these borders. And then we started inviting the world media, the diplomatic corps based in Damascus, to see our side of the border, see what we were doing, and most importantly look at the other side of the border, the Iraqi side. Not a single human being (standing guard)! All the burden fell on Syria for something that we have always felt would not bring any good to our region. I mean, with due respect, we do not support your war in Iraq. We think that this war created more problems than it has resolved. But just to focus on this, in the past two or three months, if you have noticed, the US administration has stopped mentioning the border issue at all. For a very clear reason: because we have proved to all of the world, not only to the United States, that Syria was not causing the infiltration. In the past two years, we have managed to capture 1,300 individuals trying to infiltrate these borders. Each individual was incarcerated. If he was Syrian, he was imprisoned in Syria, and if he was Moroccan, Egyptian, Pakistani, he was handed back to the authorities of his country. Our message was a simple message: we are doing whatever we can do to control this situation.
Q: So you deny absolutely that the Syrian government was providing sanctuary in any way for insurgents or terrorists from Iraq?
A: These folks who try to infiltrate these borders usually are fundamentalist extremists. They are our enemies as well. And we don't play games with these guys. We know how dangerous they are. Your government used to train them, finance them and send them to Afghanistan to conduct holy war against the Soviets. We in Syria used to tell the Americans you are playing a very dangerous game. These are extremists who will turn against you after the Soviets leave Afghanistan. And they did. And we understand the nature of these people in Syria. We have a secular regime in Syria. They consider us infidels.
Q: There is a perception in the West that many people have that in the Arab world in particular there is a kind of resentment for the West, that Muslims are viewed by the West as second class.
A: In the Islamic world and in the Arabic world, they believe that the West is targeting the Arab and Islamic worlds. They look at what's happening in Palestine and in Iraq and they don't feel happy about it. The United States is so worried, so concerned, about Iran's potential nuclear capabilities, yet it ignores the fact that Israel has the world's largest per capita nuclear arsenal in the world.
Q: A United Nations investigative panel has concluded that Syria's intelligence service was responsible for the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. There is a further extension of this investigation going on. What is the status of Syria's cooperation with that investigation?
A: Probably this is the most serious issue that is facing Syria today. Yes, assassination of Hariri has caused Syria great damage. Great damage. The day he was assassinated, before even the commission did anything, everybody, especially in Washington, was pointing fingers at Syria, saying Syria assassinated Hariri. The important thing is that the United Nations formed a commission and sent it to Lebanon. And the commission was headed by Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor. After a year, Mehlis published a report in which he says we have no evidence whatsoever against Syria, incriminating in Syria in this assassination. However, he said he believes Syria was involved. Within one week, a resolution was passed in the United Nations that was very critical of Syria. Of course, Syria was outraged. We tried to say that this report is unfair. Mehlis in his second report did accept the fact that one witness had committed perjury and had misled the investigation. Days later, the other witness recounted his testimony. Mehlis was replaced. Today we have another commissioner, Serge Brammertz. He has actually visited Damascus. We are very happy with the way he is dealing with this investigation. They have 400 investigators. This is considered the largest criminal investigation in the history of mankind. Forensic scientists, criminal investigators, judges. Our concern is that there may an inconclusive result that nobody knows who killed Hariri. Then, the blame will always be held against us.
Q: Now that Hamas has been elected to run the Palestinian Authority, and given Hamas' background and its declared aims, what hope is there for a revival of a genuine peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians?
A: When Yitzhak Rabin, the late prime minister of Israel, signed the peace accord with Yasser Arafat, and engaged Syria in peace negotiations, we were on the verge of signing a historic peace treaty between Syria and Israel. Hope was prevalent throughout the Middle East. Today, I hear this in the United States: what are the prospects for peace after the victory of Hamas? And we are bemused and flabbergasted. What prospects of peace were there in the past two, three, four, five years, when the Palestinians were suffering in terrible conditions? Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate, peace loving and was unable to do anything. Israel kept on building new outposts and settlements in the West Bank, grabbing more and more of the Palestinian territories. Building a wall deep into their land. The Palestinians were in a very desperate state. And suddenly, suddenly here everybody is saying so what are the prospects of peace now? I think the Palestinians opted for Hamas because they gave up any hope with the so-called moderate Palestinians. But we believe that it's not Hamas who can deliver or prevent this from happening. It's Israel. Does Israel want peace with its neighbors or not? If Israel wants peace with its neighbors, it must allow the Palestinians to have a sovereign, viable, free state. Otherwise these conditions will continue to prevail for yet another decade. With more violence, with more bloodshed, with more lives lost. And this is insane. And the same applies to Syria. Twice in the past 15 years - twice - we were on the verge of signing a peace treaty with Israel. And twice, this failed. Not because of us. Twice Israel backed out at the very last moment.
Q: Is there any chance of reviving a deal between Israel and Syria in which Israel relinquishes the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty signed by the Syrian government?
A: We cannot convince Israel today to engage in peace talks with Syria. If the Israelis really want their grandchildren to live in peace with our grandchildren, they have to allow us to have back our Golan and allow the Palestinians to have their independent sovereign state.
Q: It looks like the ties between the Syrian government and Hezbollah have become much stronger over the last few years.
A: Hezbollah is part and parcel of the Lebanese social and political fabric. They have representatives in the Lebanese parliament. And most surprisingly, and this always astonishes us, they have cabinet ministers in the Lebanese government headed by Fouad Siniora, who had a red carpet reception in Washington. This is amazing. So the United States administration is upset because of the relations between Syria and Hezbollah, but they think it's all right and good for Hezbollah to be represented in cabinet ministerial positions in the Lebanese government and the United States is happy to deal with this government. I think there is no correlation whatsoever between the Syria/Hezbollah relation and the peace process.
Q: The US State Department says Syria's government facilitates the subsidies and supplies that Iran provides to Hezbollah. True?
A: Of course this is untrue. What I'm trying to say is that Hezbollah is a part of the Lebanese entity. If the United States has troubles with Hezbollah, it should discuss this with the Lebanese government, not blame Syria for it. Just like you blame Syria for what's happening in Iraq. The extraordinary thing is we have the best possible relations with all leaders of all the Iraqi factions - Sunni, Shiites and Kurds. And they all come to Damascus, and they all ask for help and for mediation between the Iraqi factions. And yet here in the United States we are considered the party that is causing all the troubles in Iraq.
Q: If you were the US national security adviser looking at Iraq now, what would you be telling President Bush?
A: I can tell you what Syria thinks should be the best exit strategy for the United States from Iraq. We do not ask the United States to immediately withdraw from Iraq. We advise the United States that they should come out with a very clear plan, a road map, for the withdrawal of your troops from Iraq. With milestones and benchmarks developed by you in cooperation with the Iraqis. In which you say publicly and as explicitly as possible, by this date we will redeploy our troops and withdraw them from the major cities. By this date, we will start reducing the number of troops. We expect that by this date, I'm not talking two or three months, we will withdraw our troops from Iraq. Today in Iraq, people that are not convinced that you will ever withdraw. They think that you are occupiers.
Q: What would happen in Iraq after the troops withdraw?
A: The presence of foreign elements in Iraq will never help stabilize the situation in Iraq. Forget about the mess that circulates here in the United States about the Iraqis unable to live with each other forever. They have lived with each other for thousands of years. We are not asking you to leave immediately. Today the United States is engaged in building four military bases in Iraq. Two of them are ordinary military bases. Two of them are the world's largest military bases ever. The Iraqi people, the Arab people wonder why the Americans are building those huge, enormous military bases. You've done a good job. Declare victory and leave.
Q: Can we expect a democratic opening in the Syrian political system?
A: I personally believe that democracy is a process no one can stop. But it's a process that should evolve from within, not from without. If you look at the democracy you have enforced on Iraq, if you look at the appearance of it, well, that's very good. But we in Syria look at this democracy and we fear some of the aspects. As an example, we in Syria, we are planning to introduce very soon a multiparty law. That will allow different parties to compete freely in the parliamentarian elections in 2007 in Syria. Because of what we have seen in Iraq, we are terrified. We don't want Syria to end up exactly like what's happening in Iraq, where the Sunnis only vote for Sunni leaders, Shiites follow the directives of their clergymen and vote for religious leaders, Kurds for Kurds, Turkoman for Turkoman. No parties would be allowed in Syria based on ethnic or religious platforms. Today Syria is opening up in a controlled way that's not well understood here in the United States. Under the Syrian constitution of the past 50 years, women have had absolutely equal rights to men.
Q: As a Syrian, do you have fears about a nuclear-armed Iran?
A: We do not have even joint borders with Iran. Iran is thousands of kilometers away from Syria. Why are we are supposed to worry about a potential Iranian capability to develop nuclear weapons while a part of Syria today is occupied by Israel? And Israel has a huge nuclear arsenal. When we go to the United Nations Security Council and request that our Middle East becomes free of all those weapons, it is the United States who immediately opposes and rejects our proposal.
Q: Maybe one difference is that Israel has never said that Iran ought to be wiped off the map, and the president of Iran has said that Israel should be.
A: Living comfortably in this beautiful San Diego environment, you can worry about a rhetorical debate. The reality on the ground is today in Syria we have 250,000 Syrians, refugees in Syria, dreaming of the day they can go back to their villages and homes and houses in the Golan, and we have 128,000 Syrians living under the Israeli occupation in their own Golan. Without any rights whatsoever, political or civil.
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