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Syria's Ambassador to the U.S.--Newsweek interview

The Syrian ambassador to the U.S. didn't used to get many visitors.
Suddenly, his date book is filling up. What he makes of the new
American outreach—and how Syria hopes to gain from it.

By Dan Ephron
Newsweek
Updated: 6:02 p.m. ET April 23, 2007

Syria’s Suddenly Popular Man in Washington

April 23, 2007 - The inked-up pages of Imad Moustapha's date book have
a story to tell. In the first four months of 2007, the Syrian
ambassador to Washington has had more interaction with U.S. officials
than in all of 2005 and 2006. He has met with every single member of
the Senate Armed Services Committee. He coordinated the trips to
Damascus of at least three congressional delegations, including House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi's this month. He's even had talks with a senior
official in the State Department. (As further evidence of the warming
trend, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travels to Egypt next month
to meet with representatives of Iraq's neighbors, including Syria).
Many people in Washington still support the Bush administration's
strategy of shunning Syria for its alleged ties to terrorist groups
like Hizbullah and Hamas and its possible involvement in
the assassination two years ago of former Lebanese prime minister
Rafik Hariri. But Moustapha, a computer scientist by training, says
the isolation policy is unraveling. He spoke recently with NEWSWEEK's
Dan Ephron.
NEWSWEEK: A lot was made of the visits by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
and others to Syria, but what tangible results came of them?
Imad Moustapha: Syria sent very clear messages to all the
congressional representatives and leaders from both sides of the aisle
that visited Damascus. First, we reiterated Syria's willingness to
engage with the U.S. on the different issues of mutual concern….
Second, we asked them to deliver a message to the U.S. administration
stating that working with Syria will always yield better results than
working around, or isolating, Syria.

But to many people here in Washington, Pelosi's visit looked more like
partisan politics. What's your view?
It is unfortunate that this visit has been turned into a partisan
topic.  The bipartisan Baker-Hamilton report recommended that the
U.S. engage directly with Syria. Mrs. Pelosi's visit was a result of a
general consensus amongst leaders from both sides of the aisle
advocating talking to Syria.

You've been the ambassador since 2004. How lonely has it been?
There were no contacts on any level for a very, very long time—since
February 2005.

So the visits mark a real change. Still, we're talking about trips by
members of the legislative branch. As you know, foreign policy is made
largely by the executive branch.
I think the United States, strangely enough, is reconsidering its
policies…. I got an invitation from the State Department recently to
meet with officials there. The assistant secretary of state for
immigration, refugees and population went to Damascus. Regardless of
the issue, this is the assistant secretary of state going to Damascus
when three months ago they used to say, we will never talk to the
Syrians. Very soon there will be a ministerial-level meeting of the
neighboring countries of Iraq, somewhere in the region.

What does the U.S. stand to gain from engaging with Syria? How could
Syria help improve the situation in Iraq, for example?
Nothing magical. We don't have a magic wand. But we are neighbors and
we have excellent relations with all the groups across the spectrum.
At least we can help revive the national dialogue among Iraqis. Some
of them do listen to us. Some of them do heed our advice…. Our policy
is different from the United States. We talk to all the parties.

Some people hope engagement would be a way of wooing Syria away from
its relationship with Iran? What are the chances?
It's bemusing to hear this…. While we are the best possible friends
with Iran, we don't have the same policies as Iran. Iran has a well-
publicized policy against Israel, but President Assad, at least once a
month, has publicly invited the Israelis to peace talks in the last
four years…. Iran is a friend to Syria. It is an ally on many issues.
But we disagree with Iran on other issues.

How do you respond to the U.S. assertion that Syria is undermining
stability in Lebanon?
Today the Lebanese are divided half and half. The tension is very high
and Lebanon can easily reach a tipping point after which, God forbid,
a civil war might erupt. And there is a very keen initiative to try
and convince the Lebanese to have a coalition of national unity. We
are supporting this, the Saudis are supporting this, the United States
is opposing this…. Yet we are considered as negative and disruptive,
and the United States considers itself the moderate player in the
Middle East.

When did Syria drop its demand that talks with Israel resume from the
point they left off years ago?
We used to say we want to resume peace talk from the point where they
stopped, that it would just be a waste of time to go back to the
beginning. The issues are well known for us and the Israelis. For us,
it's the (Israeli withdrawal to the) line of June 4, 1967. For them,
it's total security arrangements, total peace between Syria and
Lebanon on one side and Israel on the other side. So why waste time
again on these games? But Israel claimed publicly that Assad's
insistence that we would start from the point we left off is proof
he's bluffing. That became the issue. So we said, OK, if this is the
point, fine, let's start wherever you want to start. Once we said
that, Israel changed its mind and said it's about Syria's support for
terrorism.

When did the shift take place?
It happened over time. There wasn't one meeting when the policy

changed.
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