Date: Sun, 11 Mar 2007 22:51:04 -0400
From: Imad Moustapha
Attached is an article I have just published in the latest issue of
the Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs with the title:
U.S.-Syrian Relations: The Untold Story and the Road Ahead
All the best,
Imad Moustapha, Ph.D.
Ambassador of Syria to the USA
Embassy of Syria
2215 Wyoming Avenue NW
Washington DC 20008
Tel: (202) 588 70 13
Fax: (202) 234 95 48
U.S.-Syrian Relations: The Untold Story and the Road Ahead
By Ambassador Imad Moustapha
It is no secret that Syrian-American relations have been quite strained,
to say the least, for some time now. Initial talks of a U.S. invasion of
Iraq sparked the first signs of tension with Syria’s fierce opposition
to such a plan. While we were Saddam Hussain’s arch-enemies, the notion
of infringing on another country’s sovereignty to dispose of its leader
based on dubious, or even fabricated, pretexts was unacceptable to
us—and should have been for everyone else. Besides, we were absolutely
convinced that any foreign occupation is a perilous concept that will
create serious problems and yield grave consequences.
Consequently, relations between both countries continued to spiral
toward diplomatic stalemate. Nonetheless, while the administration and,
for a while, Congress refused to engage or listen to what we had to say,
the so-called “rational center” (academia, think tanks, the media, and
thoughtful American citizens) were eager to hear from us and advocate
engagement with Syria.
Although the paradigm concerning Syria has shifted drastically in the
past few months, it is important to review the events that led to the
current deadlock and share a side of the story that has yet to be revealed…
Syria’s Untold Side of the Story
Relations between the U.S. and Syria were not always this strained.
Syria was one of the first countries to condemn the atrocious terrorist
attacks of 9/11 and approached the U.S. with intelligence on
al-Qaeda—which, according to Secretary of State Colin Powell in a letter
addressed to Congress, was “actionable information” that “helped save
when the U.S. started leveling accusations at Syria claiming that Syria
was allowing the infiltration of foreign fighters into Iraq. In March
2004, I was directed by my government to initiate contacts with
officials from both the State Department and the Pentagon to address
these accusations. The aim was not merely to “refute” these allegations
but, more importantly, to formally inform U.S. officials that Syria was
willing to cooperate with the U.S. on securing these borders. I conveyed
to the U.S. officials Syria’s willingness to do whatever it takes to
secure these borders, including exchanging information, sharing
intelligence, holding field meetings between Syrian and U.S. military
officers, and even participating in trilateral border patrols with the
Iraqis and Americans. Needless to say, while my suggestions aroused
serious interest in the State Department, they were flatly rejected by
In September 2004, I delivered an official letter from the Syrian
leadership to the U.S. administration in which Syria explicitly offered
cooperation toward securing and stabilizing Iraq. The U.S. reply was a
In January 2005, when former Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage
visited Damascus, Syria agreed to further enhance security and
intelligence cooperation with the U.S. to include any terrorists
crossing from Syria into Iraq, or those operating from within Syria.
Meanwhile, I had strict directives from Damascus to inform high-ranking
officials at the National Security Council, the State Department and the
Pentagon that if they wanted Syria’s security cooperation to continue,
the U.S. administration had to cease its somewhat-daily diatribe against
Syria. The underlying message was that Syria is not a charity. If the
U.S. wants cooperation with Syria on security issues, political
engagement should ensue.
Ostensibly, the U.S. was not interested. Washington withdrew its
ambassador from Damascus and embarked on a vicious political offensive
on Syria. Still, the U.S. continued requesting Syria’s security
cooperation! Unfortunately, I had to announce in April 2005 that Syria
was severing all cooperation between Syrian security agencies and their
American counterparts. Damascus would refuse to cooperate behind closed
doors and be lambasted in the open.
Where to Go From Here
An interesting pattern is emerging out of Washington regarding U.S.
policy toward Syria. While the Bush administration has invested so much
into isolating Syria, it seems that the plan has only backfired,
resulting in the isolation of the administration itself in regards to
various major players in the region. Top congressmen and senators from
both sides of the aisle have stressed the importance of re-engaging with
Syria. In their response to President Bush’s State of the Union address,
the Democrats stressed the role of a “regional diplomatic effort” in
order to achieve stability and peace in Iraq. Key Republican figures,
such as Senators Richard Lugar, Arlen Specter and Chuck Hagel, have
stressed the same notion. Such a “regional diplomatic effort” will
ultimately include Syria, among other neighboring countries.
Also, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—who has yet to visit
Damascus—downplays engagement with Syria as “fruitless,” former
secretaries of state who have actually negotiated with Damascus have all
stressed the importance of dialogue with Damascus. Only recently, former
Secretary of State Powell told Newsweek that “we got plenty” from
talking with Syria. Prior to that, one of the two top figures behind the
Iraq Study Group report, former Secretary of State James Baker, who
dealt extensively with Syria, recommended that the U.S. talk to Syria.
The list of former secretaries of states calling for engagement with
Syria also includes Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger.
The Bush administration’s isolation is not confined to the political
realm. It seems they are in isolation from their own military, as well.
Col. William Crowe, in charge of the border area between Syria and Iraq,
was asked by reporters at a Jan. 12, 2007 Pentagon briefing about the
number of foreign fighters infiltrating Iraq from Syria. The colonel
candidly replied, “There is no large influx of foreign fighters that
come across the border.” He added, however, that “smuggling has been
taking place in this part of the world for thousands of years.” In most
cases when his troops had caught an infiltrator moving across the
border—a possible average of two per day—Colonel Crowe hastened to add,
“it turns out it is someone smuggling sheep, eggs, or cigarettes.”
Moreover, on Feb. 13 Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared that,
based on the National Intelligence Estimate, “Syria …[is] not causing
the strife within Iraq…
The…Syrians have nothing to do with it.” Yet, Washington is still
somehow adamant in its accusation of Syria’s involvement in allowing
infiltrators into Iraq.
The administration is in isolation from its Iraqi allies, as well,
regarding Syria. In January of this year, to the chagrin of the U.S.
administration, Syria and Iraq re-established diplomatic relations after
a lapse of 25 years, resulting in a Security Memorandum signed by the
two countries. Our foreign minister paid an official visit to Baghdad,
and Iraqi President Jalal Talibani concluded a weeklong visit to
Damascus. Meanwhile, the U.S. administration continues to blame Syria
for its own failed policies in Iraq.
Syria firmly believes that the only way to achieve progress in Iraq is
through the political engagement of all parties, without exception or
exclusion. This includes all Iraqi factions, regional neighbors of Iraq,
and international players with interest in stabilizing the situation in
Iraq. A strategy of consensus and dialogue is the only way forward.
Syria can play a constructive role if such a path is adopted. Alas, the
new strategy formulated by President Bush will only lead to more
violence and bloodshed.
In February 2007, the U.S. State Department invited me to a meeting
aimed at discussing the status of Iraqi refugees in Syria. I told them
that Syria refuses to discuss one consequence of failed U.S. policies in
Iraq and opts, instead, to engage with Washington on the very policies
that led to the series of disasters—of which the refugee strife is but
one example. I also had to remind them that whereas more than one
million Iraqis fled what they call “an oasis of democracy” into our
“rogue state,” the U.S., which bears the full responsibility for
everything taking place today in Iraq, had granted refugee status to
only 450 Iraqis. They claimed that the number would be raised to 7,000
Syria’s willingness to sit at the negotiating table arises from two
aspects: self-interest and empathy with the Iraqi people. Syria is not
looking for a deal on Iraq. The humanitarian toll paid by the Iraqi
people through daily killings, exodus, hunger, and other brutal
conditions is unacceptable, based on human and international law. While
not comparable to the suffering of the Iraqis, Syria also has shouldered
some of the weight of Washington’s failed policies in Iraq. Syria has
welcomed around 1,300,000 Iraqi refugees—a tremendous burden on any country.
Whether it is for the benefit of the Iraqis, the Syrians, the
neighboring countries, or the young American and British soldiers dying
on the ground, the chaos needs to come to an end.
This is not America’s war, nor is it the world’s war—it is President
Bush’s war. Nonetheless, it is the duty of America and the world to put
an end to the suffering of Iraqis, primarily, and the suffering of every
party shouldering a burden from this administration’s uncalculated
failed policies. The road ahead undoubtedly will be difficult. Yet, if
we are to bring this sad chapter in our history to an end, it will
inevitably require all of us to take this road together, and work toward
a brighter future.