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Syrian-US Relations, Lebanon, Iraq and Reform

An Interview with Syria’s Ambassador to the US, Dr. Imad Moustapha

by FARRAH HASSEN

The following interview with Syrian Ambassador to the United States, Dr. Imad Moustapha, was conducted at the Embassy of Syria in Washington D.C. on June 2, 2006.

FARRAH HASSEN: On June 15, UN investigator Serge Brammertz will report to the UN Security Council. Comment on Syria’s cooperation with the Brammertz investigation of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination and the current challenges facing Syrian-Lebanese relations?

Ambassador Imad Moustapha: Syria has pledged full cooperation on the investigation and we are unwavering in this. We want the investigation to succeed and reveal the truth about the assassination of Hariri. Our position has not changed. Syria has nothing to do with this heinous crime and it serves our national interest in having this investigation succeed in revealing the truth. If Brammertz will fulfill his promise and conduct a professional, fair and thorough investigation, we would be satisfied. Our only concern is if things happen in a politicized way, but let us be cautiously optimistic and say that if this investigation is conducted in a legal and professional manner based on fact, we have nothing to fear.

We don’t think that the ongoing investigation is affecting Lebanese-Syrian relations, but that it is being used as a pretext to undermine relations between the two countries. There is an ongoing investigation, so stop the rhetorical campaign against Syria. The results of the investigation will reveal the truth. If we want normal relations, there has to be an end to this daily lambasting of SyriaLebanon can’t be seen as a tool to serve US-Israeli interests against Syria. Having said this, I am optimistic that relations will improve because it is contrary to the political reality, destiny and economic and national interests of both countries to have belligerent relations.

FH: Three years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, discuss the political and economic effects of the war on Syria and the larger impact on US-Syrian relations?

IM: The most important impact is the fact that the war has further destabilized the whole region, creating more violence and bloodshed in a region already troubled by too many wars. The long-term effects are yet to be seen. What we are actually seeing right now is not the only effect of the war. Anti-Western sentiments have been stirred across the Middle East-this will have a long-lasting effect and cause problems for the US and Arab states. I believe that the causes of modernization, reform and secular enlightened societies in the Arab world have been dealt blows because of Iraq.

On the other hand, Syria has suffered a lot because of this war. First, the American threats and tension vis à vis Syria did affect the prospects for growth and development. We are working hard to attract FDI to Syria, and such tension does not create a hospitable environment for international investment. This is indirect. Directly, I can tell you the following: the Syria-Iraq border issue has caused a headache. We have said to the US that we are not allowing insurgents to cross into Iraq. We had to do things beyond our capacity, like sending more troops to the border, creating border checkpoints and erecting sand barriers. We never had to do this before-sending around 10,000 Syrian soldiers to work in harsh conditions. This is such a burden. We did not advise the US to invade and occupy Iraq and create problems for itself and neighboring countries.

Had conditions been normal, economic trade with Iraq would be enormous today. For 30 years, we have had the worst possible relations with the Saddam Hussein regime. The situation now is so bad that we can’t think of economic trade relations with Iraq. Add the sentimental factor. The Iraqis are our brothers and sisters-the daily scenes of bloodshed, death and destruction are disturbing Syrians profoundly. We feel a strong bond-what is happening in Iraq is creating a deep scar in our psyche.

Finally, there is the influx of Iraqi immigrants, particularly Christians finding a safe haven in Syria. History is repeating itself. The Palestinians who were expelled from Palestine came to Syria. Now, they are forced to leave Iraq and find refuge in Syria. Also, many Iraqis are buying property in Syria, pushing real estate prices to unprecedented levels. I believe that Syria is paying a heavy price for the American "adventure."

FH: Washington has repeated the charge that Syria continues to "undermine US and international efforts with respect to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq" (President Message to Congress of the US, May 8, 2006). What is your response to this statement?

IM: This is a preposterous statement. It’s the other way around. Syria has been very supportive of the political process in Iraq. We are trying to bring together different factions of the Iraqi political spectrum, encouraging them to talk and reach out to one another. We are spending more time bringing Iraqis together than any other political issue in the Middle East. This is our number one priority. In Damascus, almost daily there is a visiting Iraqi delegation. They all belong to different parties-we have maintained good relations with the Kurdish leaders in Iraq for 30 years, and now Sunnis, whom we never had relations with before. Our relations with the Shi’ites have dramatically improved during the past 6 months, culminating in the visit of Moqtada al-Sadr to Syria [February 2006]. We are working hard for stability in Iraq while the US claims that we are undermining the political process. The only thing that is undermining the political process is the American occupation in Iraq. Iraqi leaders recognize the positive role that Syria is playing, and this is the only reason why they are visiting Damascus in high frequency. If they thought that we weren’t playing a positive role, then why would they bother to come to Damascus?

In Syria, we understand that the only way to comprehensive peace in the Middle East is for the US to play the role of the honest broker. So, it would be wise for us to maintain good relations and encourage a constructive US role in the region-it is the only country with leverage on Israel, so our national interest is to engage the US to help us and the Israelis reach a comprehensive peace treaty to help us retrieve the occupied Golan Heights. While Syria was looking for the US to enhance its level of engagement in the Middle East, it suddenly involved itself in the war on Iraq-it has become a party of the Middle East problem, not even a dishonest broker! Now, we need someone to play the role of an honest broker between the Arabs and Americans.

We believe that the American military occupation must end as soon as possible. The longer US troops stay, the more death and destruction will continue. There’s no third option.

FH: A year ago, the 10th Ba’ath Party Conference convened in Damascus, with some press reports labeling the final outcome as a "great leap backward." Could you provide an update on the status of economic and political reforms in Syria since then?

IM: I could clearly indicate that the reform process is facing tremendous challenges in Syria, principally created by the unstable situation in the Middle East, mainly because of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. The repercussions of this invasion include extreme fundamentalism, the opening up of terror cells. As just one example, this morning [June 2] in Syria, a battle between Syrian security forces and a terrorist-fundamentalist group in Damascus took place, resulting in five individuals killed [four gunmen and a security guard] and four arrested. The security forces had received information on a weapons cache in a sensitive area in Damascus near Ummayad Square and ambushed the cache, with gunfire exchanged between the individuals and security forces.

Having said this, I would say that yes, the focus in Syria has shifted because of the instability in the Middle East, including Iraq, the events in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, which have moved the focus away from political reforms to focusing on security and stabilizing the region. This was not our choice. This was imposed on us. When a country feels threatened, it needs to prioritize. I can claim that the financial/economic related reforms are still moving rapidly in Syria. Many achievements have been attained, particularly our monetary policy, which has saved the Syrian lira from being devalued, despite the tremendous political pressure exerted on Syria within the last yearNevertheless, in such an atmosphere of crisis in the Middle East, the reform process in general has been dealt a big blow. This doesn’t just apply to Syria, but the whole Middle Eastern region.

FH: Comment on the National Salvation Front holding its first conference in London, bringing together former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam and Syrian Muslim Brotherhood head Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni, which some have suggested as a potentially long-term problem for President Assad?

IM: I can’t comment for one reason. Who are Khaddam and Bayanouni? Khaddam is a former Vice President who decided to jump on the wagon of US opposition to Syria and thinks he can reap the benefits. His history in Syria doesn’t give him any credibility. Bayanouni is the historic leader of the MB which committed acts of terrorism in Syria. Both have no popular following in Syria. It would be a waste of time to give them attention, because they don’t represent the aspirations or political hopes of Syrians. They don’t even have a grassroots following. I am being serious. I am not trying to dismiss them. Any serious analyst of Syria would know that these individuals have no credibility with the Syrians.

FH: Several news outlets have focused on the "wave of arrests" of activists in Syria, including Michel Kilo, for reportedly signing a petition calling for renewed Lebanese-Syrian relations. On May 20, Human Rights Watch said, "arresting respected critics like Anwar al-Bunni and Michel Kilo shows that the Syrian government has no interest in peaceful, homegrown reform." How and why have the arrests been linked to that petition?

IM: This is an unfortunate incident. I hope it will not last for long and will be resolved. At this sensitive time, these intellectuals issued a statement that caused a lot of frowning in Damascus. Unfortunately, they were detained. I hope this will not last for long and that the President of Syria will interfere and put an end to this issue as soon as possible. I don’t think it is serving anyone’s interest. 12 people were arrested, and I am not defending this, but 3 were released the next day, and yet the whole Western media are commenting on these "wave of arrests," while atrocities are happening elsewhere with minimal comment.

FH: There are those in Washington who insist that only pressure, like sanctions, will push Syria to "change its behavior." Others advocate conditional engagement. Thus far, this administration has relied on a policy of coercion, exemplified by the recent renewal of trade sanctions under the Syria Accountability Act [prohibiting US exports to Syria, Syrian flights from entering or leaving U.S. territory, severing financial ties with the Commercial Bank of Syria, and freezing the assets of Syrians believed to be linked to terrorism]. What is your response to the renewal of these sanctions in place since 2004 and what impact have they had on the Syrian economy?

IM: Let me categorically refuse the premise that Syria has to "change its behavior" and which are the best means to convince Syria to do so, such as by using "sticks" or "carrots." If any country has to change its behavior, it is first Israel and then the US. We are not causing the terrible suffering of the Palestinians or Iraqis. Second, let us be realistic. Yes, there are disagreements between the US and Syria, but they need to find creative solutions to these disagreements. This is the history of diplomacy. And yes, the US has taken a very belligerent attitude toward Syria. The so-called political pressure against Syria has backfired. Constructive engagement between the two countries would have resolved many issues, but with an absence of dialogue and the US’ hostile attitude towards Syria, Syria is taking the most natural response, by not cooperating anymore with the US. We believe this is neither good for Syria nor the US, or the Middle East.

Sanctions have adverse effects on a country. Luckily, Syria has had little trade with the US, so the direct damage is minimal. In this globalized economy, however, it does not help psychologically and politically to have a country with sanctions when it comes to trying to attract FDI, opening up the economy and liberalizing trade regulations, so I cannot deny that these sanctions are causing damage to Syria-not to the government, but to the prospects for development and prosperity in Syria. This administration is harming the Syrian people, despite claiming that it doesn’t want to hurt them. Syrians want to benefit from a more open economy.

If you look at FDI to Syria, it actually increased last year. My theory is that it would have increased far more had there existed a more politically stable situation. It is not our fault that the US stupidly decided to launch war in Iraq and create this tension. The Syrian people are paying the price of this foolish policy.

FH: What is driving the "strengthening" of Syria’s relations with Iran on political and economic levels, and is this part of a larger, long-term regional strategy? Some have even suggested that Syria is exporting its foreign policy to Iran.

IM: I think the whole way of discussing Syria-Iran relations is being distorted. First, Syria has always had good relations with Iran. Relatively speaking, our relations with Turkey over the last three years have improved 100 times more than with Iran. We are open to improving relations with any country. Syria has excellent relations with many Arab states. Syria-Iran relations are not improving. They’re already good. Why should we disagree with Iran? Does it occupy Syria? It’s preposterous, but it just shows you how superficial the West and political pundits in the US analyze things. We are not "exporting our foreign policy" to Iran. Our foreign policy is based on our national interests, not anyone else’s.

FH: According to scholar Phyllis Bennis, US policy in the Middle East represents a consistent triad of oil, power/stability and Israel. Where does Syria fit into this triad?

IM: On one hand, Syria is not an oil rich country, so the US doesn’t have vested interests in Syrian oil. On the other hand, Syria has been a staunch defender of the Palestinian cause, and thus we have been labeled as Israel’s arch enemy, and everyone knows about the influence of the Israeli lobby in the US decision-making process. And this is where we fit into this triad. No major oil company considers Syria a country of great importance for the US, and the powerful Israeli lobby is instigating against Syria incessantly.

FH: Did the Canadian consular officer see Maher Arar [the Canadian and Syrian citizen detained by US authorities at JFK airport in September 2002, and then deported to Syria, where he maintains he was tortured until his release on October 5, 2003] and affirm that he was not tortured by Syria?

IM: First, we have nothing against Maher Arar. It was the US that contacted Syria and said that he was a member of Al Qaeda. If Syria didn’t interfere, then the US would say that this is proof that Syria is cooperating with international terrorism. If we arrested him, then human rights groups would say that Syria abuses human rights. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Syria arrested Arar and asked the US to provide information related to his case so that we could either put him on trial, extradite him or set him free. The US didn’t deliver any information. Meanwhile, we allowed the Canadian consular to visit him twice in Damascus, and twice he said he was treated well and not abused. End of story, the US wouldn’t deliver anything against Arar, so we set him free. He says he was tortured in prison. We said we didn’t torture him.

A similar story, this is not known, was repeated on March 31, 2006. Despite the problems between Syria and the US, the US sent us information about an American citizen [Mohammed Tawhid] arriving at Damascus Airport, telling us he was active in Al Qaeda. We were faced with the same dilemma. If we didn’t cooperate, we’d be accused of being terrorists, so we detained him but we immediately said to US authorities, you either provide us with the evidence, or you request his extradition or we’d set him free. After 4 days passed, Syria released him. We didn’t have any information about him or Arar.

FARRAH HASSEN is a Seymour Melman Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at: fhuisclos1944@aol.com