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The Future of U.S.-Syria Relations
SYRIA’S AMBASSADOR Imad Moustapha spoke to an overflow audience that filled three rooms at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC on May 1. Journalist Kate Seelye, MEI’s new vice president of programs and communications, introduced Ambassador Moustapha who, since his arrival in 2004, has become a familiar face on news programs and a favorite speaker at lectures and conferences across the country. The ambassador is a popular blogger, commenting on life and culture in Washington, as well as a versatile writer who has published articles in the Los Angeles Times, Forward, The Washington Post and this magazine.
While U.S. relations with Syria have never been “warm and fuzzy,” noted Seelye—whose father, the late Talcott Seelye, was U.S. ambassador to Syria from 1978 to 1981—they reached a new low during the George W. Bush administration.
Ambassador Moustapha agreed—but, he added with a smile, during “43’s” presidency relations were at an all-time low with the entire Arab world, not just with Syria. Moustapha said he is confident that relations will improve with President Barack Obama, who even when he disagrees with a country still treats it with respect. “The days of finger pointing and telling us what to do are over,” Moustapha said. Obama’s tone is friendly, respectful, serious and sincere, and his administration is trying to work together with Syrians.
President Obama demonstrated his determination to make peace in the Middle East by his naming as his special envoy George Mitchell, who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland. Of course, regarding Northern Ireland Mitchell was free to serve U.S. national interests, Moustapha noted, and didn’t have an “omnipotent political organization” at home tirelessly working to prevent peace.
In addition, Israelis have now elected an extreme right-wing government, which has no interest in making peace, although Moustapha pointed out that so-called moderate Israeli governments have backed out of the past three peace agreements at the last minute for no reason. “There just is no domestic constituency for peace in Israel,” Moustapha said.
As for Iraq, Syria no longer has any disagreement with the United States now that there is a well-known timetable for withdrawal. “Whenever there is occupation there are people who resist. It’s part of human nature,” Moustapha said. “We are against any occupation; it’s the mother of all evils.”
The 1.5 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria are a “huge burden,” Moustapha acknowledged, “but we will never ask them to leave. When Iraq is stable they will return.” (Later, during the question-and-answer session, he quipped, “Iraqis fled your oasis of democracy to our rogue state.”)
Moustapha reminded the audience that Damascus never had diplomatic relations with Iraq under Saddam Hussain, but he said he was certain Syria could do business with a new Iraq.
The ambassador concluded his formal remarks by returning to U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds, which are touched and pleased by President Obama’s good words and respectful attitude. However, Arabs know U.S. foreign policy is always based on Israel’s, not U.S., interests. If Israel launches a new attack on Lebanon or Gaza under Obama’s watch, Moustapha warned, and this president goes back to a policy of blind support for Israel, all his good intentions and nice words will leave no trace.
Obama will have to say, “Enough is enough. Occupation is not acceptable... We hope Israel will find it difficult to say ”˜no’ to Obama,” the diplomat said.
In the lively question-and-answer session, Moustapha said Syria supports the national reconciliation of Palestinians and wants to bring Hamas into political discussions “because you can’t exclude a major player.” Hamas should enter peace talks without conditions, he argued—unless the same conditions are placed on everybody.
When an audience member compared Syria’s occupation of Lebanon to the occupations in Iraq and Palestine, Moustapha pointed out some big differences: Syria entered its neighboring country with the consent of everyone, in order to end the Lebanese civil war. Syria didn’t bring death and destruction, and never imposed its political system on Lebanon. Its troops never annexed a field or built a wall, or demolished a home or tree. Syria left peacefully the day after the Lebanese protest, he noted. How many protests have there been in the occupied territories? he asked.
Syria supports free elections in Lebanon, Moustapha concluded. While the United States has friends and political allies in Lebanon, Moustapha suggested Obama refrain from excluding all the others, and support whoever wins the June 7 elections.
—Delinda C. Hanley