Syrian Ambassador Calls for Comprehensive Peace Settlement in the Middle East
Dr. Imad Moustapha addresses UCLA undergraduate class on Syria's relations with the United States, Lebanon, and Israel; calls for marginalizing extremists on both sides in the effort to end Middle East conflicts.
Published: Thursday, June 02, 2005
[Syria's ambassador to the United States, Dr. Imad Moustapha, addressed an audience of almost 300 in the Ackerman Grand Ballroom on the UCLA campus June 2. The event was a special session of a class on International Relations of the Middle East taught by Political Science Professor Steven Spiegel, who is also associate director of the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations. The special class session was open to the general public and was sponsored by the Burkle Center in association with the Center for Near Eastern Studies. The program was part of UCLA's ongoing commitment to providing a forum for the wide range of views on key international issues for the campus community and beyond.
[Dr. Imad Moustapha holds a PhD in Computer Science and was dean of the Faculty of Information Technology at the University of Damascus, and secretary general of the Arab School on Science and Technology. He is a co-founder of the Network of Syrian Scientists, Technologists and Innovators Abroad (NOSSTIA). He is a co-author of the UN-sponsored Arab Human Development Report (2003) which has been widely quoted throughout the world. The ambassador's talk was introduced by Vice Provost of the UCLA International Institute Geoffrey Garrett. Following is a slightly abridged transcript of Dr. Moustapha's remarks. We have added the subheadings.]
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Good afternoon. And let me express my gratitude to Professor Spiegel for inviting me to address UCLA. As you have noticed, my background is academia and I am always feeling happiest when I am talking to students and faculty of universities.
Talking about U.S.-Syrian relations is a thorny issue, as you might imagine. Relations are very difficult nowadays between Syria and the United States. That was not the case in the past but at least this is the case in the present.
Today Syria has two major challenges. One is in Iraq, and the other is with the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is something else that I would have discussed in detail before but now it is already becoming a part of the past, which is the Lebanese issue. But I will discuss that issue as well.
First I will start with the Iraqi issue because it is the most important and it is the core reason behind the political problems that Syria is facing today with the United States. Let me start by reminding you that Syria, just like too many other nations in the world, opposed the war on Iraq on principle, before the war took place. We believed at that time that the war on Iraq would create more problems than it would solve. And we thought that our region was an already troubled region and we have had already our fair share of wars and violence in the Middle East, and we do not need yet another war in our region.
Besides, we believed at that time that for the United States to invade and occupy Iraq will actually inflame extremism and terrorism in our region and help recruit more and more of the likes of Osama bin Laden. We might be wrong or we might be right about that, but this is what we believed in the early days prior to the war on Iraq.
At that time we had very good relations with the United States. I will tell you why, and we tried to convince, or to engage with the U.S. administration, telling them, we belong to that part of the world, don't underestimate local knowledge. Listen to what we are telling you. It will not be an easy enterprise there and the difficulties you might face might be enormous. I think, and I can tell you this, we were readily dismissed as not understanding the situation. Our American counterparts were telling us that according to the intelligence they have, they were sure that they will be warmly welcomed by the Iraqi people and very soon after they "liberate" Iraq, Iraq will become the model that will inspire the whole Arab world.
Today the United States presence in Iraq is a reality. Whether we like it or not in Syria it is a reality. And we have to face this reality and deal with reality. Please do remember that Syria is a very small country. It's something like in size similar to North Carolina. Our population is 18 million people. And we already face too many challenges elsewhere. We are not responsible for what has happened in Iraq.
Of course, I can't deny the fact that we were happy that Saddam Hussein was toppled. He has always been regarded in our region as an evil dictator who caused suffering to his people, but also to other nations including Syria itself. Let me remind you of the following fact. In the early eighties Saddam Hussein used to load lorries with explosives and send them to be set off in the streets of Damascus and Aleppo. We used to consider him responsible for causing death and damage in too many cities.
But this is in the early eighties. And as I told you, we believed in Syria that invading Iraq, yes, would solve one problem, but will create too many other problems. We actually said to our American counterparts at that time that we believe that invading Iraq is equivalent to opening a Pandora's box of woes and evils, because you don't know what's there and you don't know what sort of forces you would be unleashing.
Today we have this new reality, and suddenly Syria has the United States, the world's unique superpower, as its neighbor to our eastern borders. And believe me, it's not easy to have the United States as a neighbor. If you don't believe me, go and ask the Mexican ambassador to the United States.
Washington Accuses Syria of Hiding Saddam's WMDs
When you have the United States as your neighbor, you really have to be very careful. And our worst fears are becoming true nowadays. At an early stage of the war on Iraq, immediately after the invasion, immediately after the fall of Baghdad, suddenly top U.S. officials started appearing on the U.S. media saying that Iraq's WMDs have moved to Syria. And we started really worrying. Because on one hand we never believed that there were Iraqi WMDs, and of course this was proved at a later stage, according even to the United States administration itself. But on the other hand, I mean, why would Saddam Hussein risk having those WMDs, and keep on accumulating them, so that when the Americans decide to invade Iraq he will never use them, he will just move them to Syria?
So that now we will have them, so that if the United States decides to invade Syria looking for those WMDs we will move them to somewhere else -- let's say Jordan. And then the Jordanians will move them to Saudi Arabia, and then to Yemen. It's like a hide and seek game.
We thought that this was absurd and preposterous and actually dangerous. So we took these allegations seriously and we tried to engage U.S. officials, telling them that this is absolutely untrue. We decided to be even more constructive and creative in our approach. So instead of just denying the fact that Syria has WMDs or refuting the allegations, what we did was the following. And please do remember, those were the early months after the invasion of Baghdad when almost on a daily basis you would have one top U.S. official appearing on TV and saying Syria is also a threat, Syria has an arsenal of WMDs.
So Syria went to the United Nations Security Council and proposed a draft resolution declaring the whole Middle East a region absolutely free from all weapons of mass destruction -- chemical, biological, and nuclear. And empowering the United Nations Security Council to have all mechanisms and modalities that will ensure that the Middle East is actually free from those WMDs.
Believe me, because these are known facts and you can verify this, when we submitted this draft resolution to the Security Council, guess which country opposed it immediately, without any hesitation? It was the United States of America. And the official response given to the Syrians was, it's not that the United States does not support the concept of a Middle East free of all WMDs, but we think this is not the right time for such a resolution. However, at least we gained one benefit. Suddenly there was no more public discussion of Syrian WMDs on the American media.
Syria Is Accused of Infiltrating Insurgents into Iraq
Then a month later a new sort of criticism started appearing here in the United States, criticizing Syria for helping or allowing infiltrators to go through the borders from Syria to Iraq and to be responsible for the violence that is taking place in Iraq. Now this also is a major concern for us and we have taken this allegation very seriously. And for you to understand why we do this you have to empathize with us a little bit.
We look at the situation in Iraq and we see the following. We see a very unstable situation. We see violence, bloodshed, and chaos; a daily lawlessness widespread throughout Iraq. And this worries us a lot. I'll tell you why. If you think the Iraqi society is diverse, well the Syrian society is even more diverse than Iraqi society. And we look at those factions in Iraq and we look at the violence, and we fear that if this level of violence continues in Iraq that Iraq might spiral down towards civil war. And if, god forbid, this happens, we fear that Iraq might disintegrate into cantons and smaller entities. And if this happens, terrible repercussions will happen throughout the Middle East. It will have a domino effect, and Syria will be one country that would be worse affected than any other country in the Middle East.
This is why it's not in our national interest nor in our strategic interest to see this level of violence continue in Iraq. This is from a pure self-interest. But also the Iraqis are our brothers and sisters. Syria and Iraq have been two neighboring countries for centuries. At one point Damascus was a capital city for an empire that comprised both Syria and Iraq, the Omayyad Caliphate. But at another point of history Baghdad was our capital city as well, throughout the whole Arab world. So we have very strong cultural, social, and historical issues with Iraq.
It is our strategic interest to stabilize the situation in Iraq. So this is one point.
The second point is the following. Let me be realistic and candid with you. The United States of America -- if you don't know this then I will be very happy to tell you this -- is the world-unique superpower. It has overwhelming military strength. Syria is a very small country. It would be so foolish for Syria to provoke the United States. It is against our national interests, against accepted wisdom, against any logic in the world for us to provoke the United States by allowing infiltrators to go through our borders to Iraq, willingly, so that the United States might retaliate against Syria.
I think anyone with some simple logical analysis can see that on one hand it is against our national interest to have this level of violence in Iraq, and other hand what will we gain from provoking the United States? From pushing the United States to, god forbid, take military action against Syria? We are no match to the United States.
Syria's Offer to Collaborate with the U.S. on Border Controls
Now, when these allegations started appearing on the media, and by top U.S. officials, I was instructed by my government to hold high official meetings with top-level officials from the Pentagon and the U.S. Department of State, telling them, Look, it is not only that we do not allow this to happen. It's not only that we do not believe that this is actually the case. We are willing to work with you on securing these borders.
What we have done from our side of the border is the following. We have built lengthy sand barriers throughout those borders, because those are, you know, desert borders. We have increased the number of our border guards. But this is what we can do [in addition]. You have your troops on the other side of the border, and they are equipped with the most advanced, high-technological equipment. You have tele detection systems, you have night vision equipment. You are better equipped that we are, and what we are offering is that we can work together, the Syrians and the Americans, or even if you want, a trilateral cooperation with the Iraqis. We are willing. We can have joint patrols, we can exchange information, we can share intelligence. But we have the political will to engage with you and to find a solution of this problem that is worrying us a lot.
We don't feel comfortable when we hear top U.S. officials on a semi-daily basis accusing Syria that we are responsible for the violence that is happening in Iraq. We think it is unfair and inaccurate. It's inaccurate because it's not happening, and I can give you some examples that will prove the point to you. And it's unfair because if it is happening the Syrians are telling the Americans, officially on the highest possible level, we are willing to work together with you. If you think this is the case, if you think that these infiltrators are endangering American lives, let's work together. We have done this before with you.
Syria Shared Intelligence with the United States after September 11
After September 11 every country in the world sent letters of condolence to the American government and the American people. Syria did this just like every other country in the world. But we did something else, something more important. We contacted the Americans and we provided them with a wealth of information on Al Qaeda and other extremist terrorist groups in the Middle East, because we were fighting these groups for the past twenty years.
At one point in history, when the CIA was recruiting Mujahadeen from throughout the Arab world, sending them to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Syrians were troubled and worried. Because we have a secular system in Damascus and we told the Americans at that time that you have to be very careful with what you are doing. Those so-called -- we call them in our part of the world the Arab Afghanis -- those so-called Mujahadeen you are recruiting from throughout the Arab world will go and fight the infidel communists in Afghanistan. Once they defeat them, they still believe in this holy war, they will come back to our societies and they will continue the same levels of violence that they were practicing in Afghanistan.
But of course at that time the United States used to consider those Mujahadeen as its best allies against the communists. And of course this is exactly what happened after the fall of the pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan and the end of the Soviet occupation there. Those Mujahadeen went back to Algeria, to Egypt, to Syria, to Jordan, to Saudi Arabia itself, and they did exactly what we feared. They continued their holy war against every body -- everybody.
So what we did with the Americans was we provided them with a wealth of information on Al Qaeda. This is on the record and this is a well-known, well-established fact today. It was not very well known in the past, but now we are trying to tell this story to almost everybody. And we ended up with a letter from Secretary Powell "thanking Syria for helping save American lives," because the information we provided included actionable information on two different planned attacks against American interests. One was in Bahrain, one was in Canada.
That was the golden time of our cooperation with the Americans. When we come back now to the Iraqi-Syrian border issue we tell them, we have cooperated with you before and we are willing to do this now. Of course we are met with adamant refusal to cooperate. This worries us a lot and it troubles us a lot.
Sometimes I read in the American media, especially in the right-wing media, that this is a Syrian bluff. My reply would be, if this is a Syrian bluff then call the bluff. If you really believe that Syria is responsible for the violence that is happening in Iraq, and Syria is telling you that we are willing to cooperate with you on this, why refuse to cooperate?
Few Insurgents in Iraq Are Foreigners
A month ago a high-ranking military officer from the United States Central Command in Iraq gave a testimony in the Congress. And he was asked by congressmen -- on the record; you can Google this and you can check it -- he was asked by congressmen in the Armed Services Committee about the size of the violence caused by external elements in Iraq. And this senior military officer said, we do not have accurate information about the size of outsiders in Iraq, but I can give you indicators. And he said the following.
He said, we have managed to catch, to imprison, 10,800 insurgents, and they are in our custody in Iraq today. I will repeat the figure. It is important. 10,800. Out of which 350 were non-Iraqis. 350 were non-Iraqis out of 10,800 insurgents the United States has managed to catch, to capture and to imprison in Iraq. And then the congressman asked the senior U.S. military officer: And out of these 350, from which countries do they come? And he said, well, they come from various Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, and other Arab countries.
I am not telling you no Syrian has ever crossed those borders and gone to fight a holy war in Iraq. But he has not done this with the willing cooperation of the Syrian government. And we consider these people as dangerous elements that are causing death and destruction, and most importantly they might cause civil war in Iraq.
Our message is the following. We want to engage with United States on the Iraqi-Syrian border issue. And we believe that the refusal of the United States to engage is not because they believe that Syria is responsible, but probably they are blaming us publicly because they want to blame somebody for their own failure in Iraq. I can't prove this. But when we try and we try and we repeat the same effort time and again, telling them these accusation are worrying us. and that we are willing to work with you on this and yet you keep on repeating these accusations, [then] we are looking for ulterior motives.
Syria's Vision of Iraq Today
Now, what is our vision toward Iraq today? We believe that Iraq is in a messy situation. The level of violence is on the increase. We can't envision a solution to the Iraqi problem in the mid-term or the short-term. We listen to what the American administration is saying and sometimes we feel troubled. They say, we will stay there as long as it takes to stabilize the situation in Iraq. And we feel that this situation is not being stabilized in Iraq. It is actually deteriorating.
There are good things that are happening today in Iraq. Anyone who denies that this is happening is not being realistic. But also there are some dangerous things that are happening. Most importantly this rift that is being created, gradually but steadily, between the Sunnis and the Shias in Iraq. And this worries us a lot, because as I told you, Syria also consists of a mosaic of ethnic, cultural, religious, sectarian backgrounds. Whatever is happening in our eastern border might affect us as well.
Sometimes I am asked by some American experts, what do you suggest the United States do vis-à-vis Iraq. And we tell them, what we really want to see in Iraq is for Iraq to regain its sovereignty as soon as possible and for all foreign troops to leave Iraq. Because as long as foreign troops are there in Iraq this will be used as a pretext to recruit extremists and to inflame sentiments in the Middle East against the West in general and against the United States in particular. And also against other Arab governments, especially if they are regarded as secular by those extremists groups.
So we do not believe that the U.S. presence in Iraq is a stabilizing factor in the long-term. What we believe is that the best approach would be for the United States to publish a roadmap, a very clear roadmap in which they say, Look, we went to Iraq to free Iraq and to liberate Iraq. We didn't go as occupiers. And to prove that, this is our timetable. On this milestone we will start reducing the number of troops. On this milestone all our troops will go inside military bases, they will not be involved in the daily life of the Iraqis. And at that particular milestone our troops will start leaving Iraq.
At least this will calm sentiments in Iraq, particularly by those skeptics who don't believe that the Americans went to Iraq with the best of intentions. As an example, they read in the news that the Americans are building the largest two military bases in the whole world in Iraq. Those are bases that give an impression that they might be built for permanent reasons, not to be used for the coming two or three years.
And my advice would be, on a personal basis, allow the United Nations to play a more prominent role in Iraq and be very clear about your strategy towards Iraq, and inform the Iraqi people about your strategy there. When do you intend to leave, and how do you intend to do this. And this will help a lot.
There will always be hard-core elements who will never stop this insurgency. But at least you will have a wide ranging support by the Iraqi people who will say, look, the Americans have promised to do this and they are actually delivering. Look, they started doing this according to their roadmap. Now they are redeploying their troops. Now they are starting to leave.
I think this is the only way for you to help the Iraqis themselves rebuild their national institutions and regain their sovereignty on all of Iraq and calm and stabilize the situation there. Otherwise, all the signs are that the situation is deteriorating more and more.
This is our situation on the Iraqi issue. Syria today is still paying the price for our opposition to the war on Iraq. I do not believe that the United States administration has forgiven Syria for its opposition to this war. And we are still paying the price, despite the fact that we continuously say to the American government that we are not a hostile nation. We are not your enemies. We do not believe that portraying Syria as an enemy to the United States serves the United States' long-term interests. It definitely does not serve our interests. I don't think any country in the world can afford to be portrayed as an enemy to the United States.
The only thing we want is to go back to those days when we used to cooperate with the United States and engage with the American government. Let me remind you that during the Clinton era, President Clinton visited Damascus. Not only he did this. Actually every president starting with Richard Nixon visited Damascus, with one exception, that of Ronald Reagan.
In the Clinton era we had more than 38 visits by Secretary [of State] Albright and something like, I would say, 22 or 23 visits by Secretary [of State] Warren Christopher. So at least in those days we had a high level of engagement with the United States and this is what we would like to have once more.
Syria's Three Peace Negotiations with Israel
Now I will move to the other issue, which is that of the Middle East conflict, the historically known Arab-Israeli conflict. A quick reminder. In the past fifteen years Syria was three times on the verge of signing a peace treaty with Israel. I always try to remind the American people and audiences of this, because it is so important. Everybody should know that Syria has made what we call in Syria our strategic initiative for peace. This initiative is based on the following simple principle.
Yes, we do want our occupied Golan back. But no, we are not going to war with Israel to recapture the Golan. What we want to do is reach a peace treaty with Israel based on the principle of land for peace by which Israel will give us back our occupied Golan and we will sign a comprehensive peace treaty with Israel with normalized relations.
In Syria we believe that is a fair principle. And at one point the Israelis themselves believed that was a fair principle. The late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin wrote the today famously known Rabin Deposit in which he stated that Israel is willing to withdraw to the lines of June 4, 1967, with Syria in exchange for a complete comprehensive peace agreement with Syria. That will lead to normalized relations between both countries.
And once this deposit was written and signed by Yitzhak Rabin, it was deposited with President Clinton. The story is well known now. It has been told by President Clinton himself in his memoirs. But it has also been told in the important, voluminous book published by Dennis Ross, who was the United States special envoy to the Middle East throughout twelve years.
So once Rabin made this, we immediately engaged with Israel on peace talks. A historic peace between Syria and Israel was almost there for the taking. But then Prime Minister Rabin was tragically assassinated by an Israeli right-winger and the whole peace process came to a halt.
But then Shimon Peres became the prime minister of Israel and he immediately sent us a message telling us that he was not only willing to continue what Rabin has started with Syria on the same principles, but actually he wanted to accelerate the pace of the negotiations. He really wanted to reach a deal with Syria.
Of course we reciprocated and we resumed the peace talks immediately. A draft peace treaty was almost completed. But then Peres made a political mistake. He wanted to capitalize on the sympathy that the Labor Party had won because of the terrible assassination of Rabin, and he decided to call for early elections. The Syrians worried a little bit. You can read this in Dennis Ross's memoirs. We sent a message to the Israelis telling them, let's first sign the peace treaty, then if you want to call for the early elections you can do that. But Shimon Peres wanted to have a strong mandate. He called for the elections and he lost.
Benjamin Netanyahu became the prime minister of Israel. And the first thing he said was, I'm not interested in signing a peace treaty with Syria. I do not believe in the principle of land for peace. I believe in the principle of peace for peace. If Syria wants peace, Syria gets peace. But Syria is never getting back its Golan. And the whole peace process between Syria and Israel came to a standstill. For three years and a half there was not a single exchange between Syria and Israel on the peace process.
Those were the first two missed opportunities. Then Barak became the prime minister of Israel. And for the third time, Barak sent a message to Syria telling us that he was willing to resume the peace talks based on the principle of land for peace. But he wants a different approach, so we formed, with the help of the Americans actually -- the Americans were brokering everything; without them nothing would have been almost achieved -- and we had bilateral committees. On every single issue: water resources, borders markup, mutual security arrangements between the Israelis and the Syrians. On every issue.
And every committee reached a partial draft agreement on the issues that they were addressing. Suddenly everybody in Syria became convinced that peace was there and that's it. The end of this historic conflict. The mood in Syria was that now we can start a new phase in our history.
For the third time events happened that did not allow this to happen. According to Dennis Ross in his book, and also to President Clinton in his memoirs, Barak suddenly started getting negative polls when the Israeli public opinion was surveyed. At one point he said to Dennis Ross, I'm afraid I might either lose the elections or lose the peace, but I don't want to lose them both. And he got cold feet and he slowed the whole process down. And when it was time for elections he lost the election, but we also lost the peace. And Sharon became the prime minister of Israel.
Sharon belongs to the same school as Netanyahu. Publicly he said, I'm not interested in resuming the peace talks with Syria. On the record, in the Knesset. And you can verify this. Sharon said, I know the price Syria wants for peace with Israel. They want back their Golan and I'm not willing to give the Syrians back the Golan.
In the past eighteen months the Syrian president has publicly, on the record and in every public event, invited Israel to reengage in a peace process. And Sharon has refused to do this.
What we call our initiative for peace is going to continue. We will not stop this. Actually we will continue to invite Israel to reengage in a peace process. We do not believe that there is another alternative. There is no other exit from this vicious circle that we are both caught in. We don't believe that there is a solution. And we believe that if the Israelis want their grandchildren to live in peace with our grandchildren, they must realize that they need to reach a peace treaty with their neighbors.
The status quo might be in favor of Israel because of their military superiority, and because they realize that Syria cannot send its troops and recapture the Golan by sheer military force. But this is not a creative solution to a crisis that has been lingering there for the past half of a century.
After the last meeting President Assad had with the United Nations Special Envoy to the Middle East, Terje Roed-Larsen, Terje Roed-Larsen went out from that meeting and he immediately met with the media. And he said to the foreign correspondents in Damascus, President Assad has just said to me, I extend my hand in peace to my neighbors. But Syria is still waiting.
Today, if you ask me, I do not believe that Prime Minister Sharon is willing to restart the peace process with Syria. But we are not giving up. At least I can tell you this. We have succeeded in creating a debate in Israel itself about whether Israel should engage or shouldn't engage in a peace process with Syria. And when I'm talking about creating a debate in Israel I'm not talking about some fringe journalists. I'm talking about top Israeli army generals and ex-chiefs of joint staffs of the Israeli army who published an op-ed in Haaretz saying that they think that Ariel Sharon should not lose this historic opportunity for peace with Syria and should engage Syria in peace talks.
We will continue to do this. We believe that at one point the Israeli public opinion will reach a certain level of understanding in which they think that by sheer military superiority they can't guarantee the future and the security of Israel. There are other ways that will be more important to the future of Israel itself.
But I must admit to you that I am a bit pessimistic. Not only because of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's position on resuming the peace talks with Syria, but because there is also a major difference here, in Washington, DC. Every peace initiative, every peace effort that took place between the Israelis and the Arabs, was brokered by the United States. Today the current administration is not interested in even trying to talk with the Israelis and the Syrians about resuming the peace talks. The whole issue is absolutely outside their agenda. So as you can see, this issue is right now put in the freezer, on the back burner, nothing is happening there. But we believe that history moves forward, and at one particular point things will change.
Syria's Role in Lebanon
The other issue that I would have elaborated upon a lot, but I am not going to do now, is the Lebanese issue. Of course, Syria was criticized a lot about what happened in Lebanon. I admit that this is the fact. I can't deny it. At least let me remind you of Syria's official position on this.
We entered Lebanon for the noblest of reasons. We entered Lebanon to end a civil war that lasted for fifteen years in which 100,000 Lebanese were killed and many more were injured and mutilated. And the Lebanese reached a point in which it was just a crazy war. Everything was being destroyed in Lebanon. The Lebanese were killing each other on what they called "using the identity card." They would stop a car, look at the ID cards, and if they belonged to the wrong sect, a massacre would take place.
Those were dark days of the Lebanese civil war, and this has ended. Our troops have succeeded in ending the civil war in Lebanon. At one point even the American government was describing our presence in Lebanon as a stabilizing factor.
Suddenly the paradigm changed. We slept one night and we woke up in the morning -- of course I mean this with some salt and pepper -- and suddenly we became occupiers of Lebanon. We admit that we have made mistakes in Lebanon. The major mistake was we overstayed our original welcome. Syria should have withdrawn from Lebanon three or four years ago. Because the Lebanese were able to rebuild their national institutions and to rebuild their economy, miraculously. And Beirut once more became the pearl of the Middle East.
Anyone who visits Lebanon today and goes to Beirut can easily see how Beirut is exceptional in our region. It's one of the most beautiful cities in the world. This is what I personally believe. It used to be described as the Switzerland of the Middle East and I believe it is.
So we did a very good job in helping Lebanon rebuild itself, revive its economy and rebuild all its national institutions. But we committed some mistakes and because of these mistakes our detractors were able to use the Lebanese issue to attack Syria. But this belongs to the past now. Syria made a public undertaking four months ago that we will withdraw every single Syrian soldier and Syrian security agent from Lebanon. And we have done this. And I can tell you today that Syria has no presence whatsoever in Lebanon. Whatsoever. A United Nations report that was issued a week ago supports this.
We believe that relations between Lebanon and Syria will now improve. They will never deteriorate. Because the relations between Syria and Lebanon are umbilical. We are almost one people in two different states. We have the same background, the same culture, the same history. We have exactly the same cuisine. Even the same physiognomy.
But we have two different states, and this is good. The familial relations and the social relations are very strong among Syrians and Lebanese. Many Lebanese are married to Syrians. Many Syrians live in Lebanon. Yes, of course, we had a difficult time between us and the Lebanese opposition. I can't deny this. But this belongs to the past now.
From now on even those Lebanese who were most outspoken against Syria, opponents of Syria, are today calling for better relations with Syria. The day we withdrew from Lebanon they immediately are asking now to work on a vision of a future in which Syria and Lebanon can work closely together. And I hope this is what will happen.
From the Question Period
[The questions from the audience were generally inaudible in the sound recording of Dr. Moustapha's meeting. Where possible they have been paraphrased or summarized, and in some cases the questions were repeated by the Ambassador or by Profesor Spiegel before replying. Where we were uncertain of the wording of the question we have placed our best reconstruction in brackets.]
The Murder of Rafic Hariri and the Clean Break Document
Q: [The questioner suggests that the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, a critic of Syria, in February 2005 was "a U.S.-Israeli operation" as part of a plot against Syria motivated by the "Clean Break" Middle East strategy document written by U.S. neocon spokesmen Richard Perle, David Wurmser, and Douglas Feith in 1996.]
Steven Spiegel [repeating the question at the microphone]: As I understand at least one of the questions it was that you claimed to have information and you would like to have the ambassador's comments on the notion that Israel and the United States are responsible for the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri. The second question was about the Clean Break document.]
Dr. Moustapha: First let me be honest with you. We in Syria, we do not know who assassinated Rafic Hariri. But we were absolutely hurt by this heinous crime. The day Rafic Hariri was assassinated Syria immediately realized that we will be targeted and that the sinister plan behind assassinating Hariri extends far beyond merely assassinating this national leader of Lebanon. We thought in Syria, rightly or wrongly, that this will be used against us. And it has been used against us.
Let me be candid with you. Nothing, nothing in the modern history of Syria, has damaged Syria more than this crime. With simple logical analysis you would see which party was damaged by this terrible crime and who capitalized on this crime. Syria does not know who has assassinated Hariri. What we have said publicly, President Assad has said, for Syria to assassinate Hariri is akin to political suicide.
At one point, when the United States was putting Syria under the microscope and was criticizing Syria and lambasting Syria and bashing Syria on a daily basis, at one point in our history when Syria is looking at the United States and is worrying a lot about the intentions of the United States against Syria, this crime takes place. And for us to go and kill Rafic Hariri, we are giving a pretext to our worst enemies.
Officially, Syria has welcomed the United Nations decision to form a committee of experts, forensic experts, that will go and investigate the murder of Hariri. Syria has said, Bashar al-Assad has said on the record, that it is not only that we support this. It is in our own national interests for this committee to come and investigate.
I am not a conspiracy theorist. I can't say who killed Hariri. I have heard a whole wide range of -- it's so easy to point fingers. We were hurt by the fingers that were pointed to us. I am not going to play the same game and point fingers to others. I heard people saying it was Syria, no it was Al Qaeda, no it was Israel, it was the United States. I have to be honest with you. We don't know. The president himself doesn't know.
We only know one thing in Syria. That this crime caused terrible, tremendous damage that was unprecedented in Syrian modern history. And we paid a dear price for it. Those who planned for this crime had Syria in their minds. It is not as naïve or simple as that.
This is on one hand. On the other hand, yes, everybody knows that in 1996 a group of American so-called neoconservative intellectuals authored a document entitled "The Clean Break" document. You can Google this document. The authors of this document have their names on it, so this is not a conspiracy theory. In it they said, in 1996, that the U.S. policy toward Israel and the Middle East should be based on the following three principles:
First, annulling the Oslo agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis and never pressuring Israel to sign a peace treaty that will endanger the integrity of the Israeli territory.
Second, changing the regime in Iraq and planting a government in Baghdad that is friendly to the West and to the Americans, pro-Western.
And third, rolling back Syria and weakening Syria. And particularly doing this in Lebanon.
Now this will seem so wild, like as if I was in Hollywood or very near to Hollywood. But I live in Washington, DC. I do not follow Hollywoodian scenarios or scripts. What I'm trying to say is this. I'm not claiming that this document explains everything. The only thing I'm claiming is go and read the names of the authors of this document and look today at the positions that they hold in this administration. This is for you to investigate. You are students and I know how students love to go and look for things. So I would say that I have addressed this issue.
Syria's Recent Agreement with Iran
Q: [In February Syria and Iran concluded a united front agreement. You later denied that this was against the United States. How can this not be seen as a provocation to the U.S.?]
Dr. Moustapha: The question is, and I will repeat it for the benefit of those of you who have not heard it. The question was by this gentleman that on this or that date Syria and Iran formed a united front, and then he said that I appeared on TV and I denied the fact that this front was directed against U.S. interests.
Actually if you go and check every single record that there is, Syria and Iran did not form any front whatsoever. This is the way they treat us here in the U.S. media. What can we do? We do not have a political front with Iran. The fact is the following. I was telling the audience in this hall that Israel occupies a part of Syria. We have a quarter of a million Syrian refugees living in Syria from the Golan. And we still have 128,000 Syrians living today in Golan under occupation. And we are telling the Israelis, let's negotiate, let's reach a peace treaty.
Now Iran does not even have common borders with Syria. For us to travel to Iran we have to go across either Turkey or Iraq. They are not our neighbors. They have never occupied a single Syrian inch. We do not have problems with Iran. And we do not have the habit in Syria of labeling countries, like, this is a rogue state, and this is a member of the Axis of Evil. We don't do this. We are a very small country. We are many times smaller than Iran itself. And we believe in regional cooperation.
The treaty we signed with Iran is a treaty about cooperation in commerce, in transportation, culture, and agriculture. It is exactly a replica of a treaty we have signed with Turkey and a treaty we have signed with Egypt and Jordan. And why shouldn't we sign such a treaty with Iran?
Iran has very good relations, by the way, with Europe. France and Germany are free to have cooperation with Iran, but not Syria. Because in the American media it will be regarded as an unholy alliance between Iran and Syria against the United States. Please try to remember this. We have lots of problems that are our own problems. If the United States has a problem with Iran it is not our problem. We believe in regional cooperation and let me repeat this. Even with Israel, we are inviting Israel to engage with Syria. It would be preposterous for a small country like Syria to form an alliance -- with who? With Iran? Against who? Against the United States of America.
Do Syrian Agents Remain in Lebanon?
Q: You say that Syria has withdrawn all of its troops from Lebanon but there has been evidence that there are still intelligence agents in northern Lebanon. How do you account for that?
Dr. Moustapha: I'm sorry. You are saying that there is evidence? Can you prove this evidence? Now look, Syria has made a historic decision, a strategic decision. We have withdrawn every single Syrian official from Lebanon. You can continue to say this for, like, twenty, thirty years: No, no, Syria is still in Lebanon. Nobody in the whole world will believe you. We have withdrawn. End of the story.
What would we do hiding agents in Lebanon? What would they do? Look at the Lebanese elections that are taking place. Use logic. You can always hear wild stories. It's so easy. Right now I can fabricate twenty crazy, wild scenarios. But always use logic. This is what I used to tell my students. Look at the Lebanese elections today. Can anyone, any fair observer of these elections say that Syria is playing any role whatsoever in these elections? None!
Not even the Lebanese who used to criticize Syria all the time are claiming this. Why would Syria be that stupid, to leave two or three agents, or ten or twenty or forty in Lebanon, so that someone in the United States can stand up and say, No, you have not withdrawn?
The day we realized that our presence in Lebanon was creating a rift among the Lebanese themselves, the day we realized that our presence in Lebanon has become a controversial issue -- and I remind you that in the days when people were demonstrating in the streets of Beirut against the Syrian presence, also other demonstrations took place supporting the Syrian presence. But we were not saying, no, we are not going to listen to those Lebanese, we are going to listen to these Lebanese. On that day we realized that our presence in Lebanon is creating a rift among the Lebanese themselves. We do not want to do this. This will be bad for any future relations between the Syrian and the Lebanese people. We have withdrawn. End of the story.
Anyone can continue to say this is untrue, but I don't think this will help the credibility of anyone. These are just wild stories. If you have a proof, I don't mind. Present it, please. Thank you.
What Can Be Done to Support the Palestinians?
Q: . . . The core issue is Israel's genocide against the Palestinians. Is there anything that you can tell those of us who have been working in this area for years and years, what we can do to solve it? What we can do to help the Palestinians?
Dr. Moustapha: This is a tough question. For years and years nobody in the world would recognize the ordeal of the Palestinian people and their tragedy. Today they still are suffering quite a lot under terrible occupation and terrible conditions. But at least, in my heart as a human being, I am an optimist. I believe that things are moving forward.
Even look at the Israelis. Golda Meir used to say publicly, go and read her memoirs, there is no such thing as the Palestinian people. That is a myth, they do not exist. The Israelis have evolved. They have moved forward. At one point they signed the Oslo peace agreement. Many Palestinians thought that was an unfair agreement. But it was a step forward.
Today the Palestinians are having problems with the Israelis. They believe that the wall is an unfair wall that is being built deep into their own territories. They believe that the plan of Gaza first is preposterous and illogical and it will just change Gaza to a huge prison, because actually the Palestinians will not have control of their airports or their border cross points or anything. They believe the Israelis are still expanding their settlements in the West Bank.
Today a Palestinian, a human being equal to you, cannot easily travel from one village to another within their own homeland. The problems are still there. The obstacles are there. And what we can do, what you can do in the United States, I think, the only thing you can do is by supporting Israel in the right way, not in the wrong way. When I say this let me tell you what I mean. I go a lot in Washington, DC, and meet with congressmen and senators. Some of them are ardent supporters of Israel. And when they receive a phone call from me, the ambassador of Syria, the historical enemy of Israel, who wants to visit with them, they are usually curious. They want to hear my message. The expect me to go and tell them, Will you please stop supporting Israel and start supporting the Palestinians? I never say this to them.
What I say to them is the following. Look, I'm not telling you to stop supporting Israel. You have a peace camp in Israel. But there's also a war camp in Israel. For god's sake, support the peace camp in Israel. I only ask and hope the American people will convince their government, their congressmen, their representatives, that the best support for Israel is to help Israel reach peace with its neighbors. Particularly with the Palestinians. Because the plight of the Palestinian people is a disgrace for humanity. And I have met many Israelis, by the way, too many Israelis, who feel ashamed of what's happening there. And who believe that they should work with the Americans and with other peoples toward resolving this issue.
How Can Syria Support Hizbullah and Be Friends with the United States?
Q: President Bashar al-Assad says that he supports Hizbullah, while Hizbullah says that it remains the eternal enemy of America and death to America. If your boss supports Hizbullah how can you be both our friends and support the organization that before 9/11 killed more Americans than any terrorist group in the world?
Dr. Moustapha: You know what? These are, how would I say it, propaganda statements. It would be so easy for me if I wanted to come here and make propaganda statements and leave. I came here to engage with the audience. To discuss things with them with honesty. By standing up and saying Hizbullah has said we are the eternal enemies of America, and Iran has said America is the Great Satan. I don't use this language. I don't believe it is useful. I think I have a very clear message. And I have been trying to repeat this message too many times.
Let me tell you who created Hizbullah. Syria did not create Hizbullah. Israel created Hizbullah. Do you know how Israel created Hizbullah? When Israel invaded Lebanon, Hizbullah was not even an entity there. And when Ariel Sharon, who was then a military general, laid siege on Beirut for ninety days, the Lebanese became extremely anti-Israel. Hizbullah emerged then as a national resistance movement who fought against the Israeli army on the Lebanese territories, not inside Israel itself.
Throughout its history, it's a fact, Hizbullah has never, ever, sent a suicide bomber into Israeli to kill or get killed. Hizbullah has fought Israelis on Lebanese territories, and has been successful in driving the Israelis outside Lebanon. And since Israel has withdrawn from Lebanon the situation more or less has been very calm between Lebanon and Israel.
And let me remind you of one fact. These are facts, not statements. Israel has negotiated with Hizbullah, twice, on the exchange and release of prisoners. At least the Israelis, while they speak in this language here in the United States about Hizbullah, at least they realize that Hizbullah is part and parcel of the Lebanese social fabric. It's a grassroots movement and it's there in Lebanon, and the reason it was created was because the Lebanese fought the Israeli occupation and drove the Israeli army from Lebanon.
Do we support Hizbullah or do we not support Hizbullah is irrelevant. What is relevant is the following. We believe that there is one issue in the Middle East. The lady here has pointed out this issue. It is the Palestinian issue. And it's the fact on the ground that Israel occupies territories that do not belong to it. What Syria wants is to reach a comprehensive peace settlement for the Middle East. It is so easy for people who do not believe in peace in their hearts to stand up here or there and say, no, the reason is this is a terrorist movement, or that is a terrorist movement. And then we have also extremists on our side who will stand up and say, no, we must throw the Israelis into the sea, we must never sign a peace agreement with Israel. Those both parties exist. Both camps exist on both sides. But they must be marginalized by people who belong to the mainstream. Decent people who believe that there is a creative, honorable, fair solution to the problems between the Arabs and the Israelis.
The whole Arab League has made a summit meeting in Beirut and then has repeated the same statement of the Beirut summit in Algiers in which all Arab countries together simultaneously offered Israel a complete comprehensive peace and complete normalization of relations, including diplomatic exchanges and everything, in return for one single thing: end the Israeli occupation of Arab territories and allow the Palestinians to have a sovereign, free, independent nation just like every other nation under the sun.
Offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Damascus?
Q: [. . . How would you respond to Israeli allegations that Syria supports terrorist groups.]
Steven Spiegel: I think the question refers to how does the ambassador respond to allegations that Syria has headquarters of many of these organizations in Damascus. I think that is what you are trying to say, that it supports these groups.
Dr. Moustapha: At one point I appeared with my friend Ambassador Martin Indyk on a TV program. Ambassador Martin Indyk today works at the Saban Center of the Brookings Institute. Before that he was the United States ambassador to Israel twice, and before that he was the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policies in Washington. I also think he was Assistant Secretary of State at one point. Now, that was a televised debate, and I was discussing the fact that Syria is inviting Israel to engage in the peace process and Israel is not responding.
And Ambassador Indyk said, well, the reason Israel is not responding to the Syrian initiative is that you have offices of Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad in Damascus. Of course, because Martin Indyk is an intelligent person and he doesn't want to show himself as not being an expert on the Middle East he didn't say the headquarters of Hamas and Jihad. He said offices of Hamas and Jihad. I said, well, if that was the case, then how come in the past fifteen years Israel did engage Syria in the peace process? The answer on the high logical level would be, if there are really these issues, if they are real issues, and they really concern the Israelis, why don't they sit with us and find a comprehensive solution?
But this is on the strategic level. On the actual level Syria has never, ever been engaged in any operation that took place in Israel. We in Syria are not responsible for the vicious circle of violence and counter violence that's happening in Israel. We do not have any means of communication whatsoever with anybody living in the occupied territories. Actually, if, according to the claims, people in Syria are planning the suicide attacks in Israel and the occupied territories, very good, how are they doing this? Through satellite telephones? This can easily be intercepted and Syria can easily be exposed.
We have half a million Palestinian refugees in Syria. These refugees came to Syria uninvited. And if you ask us now, why don't you kick them out of Syria? I will tell you, where to? Will Israel allow them back to their homeland, to the villages and houses they were forced to leave? Okay. We have this problem today in Syria. Half a million Palestinian refugees. They belong to different groups.
What do you want us to do with them? Put them in prisons and ask them not to belong to Hamas or Jihad? Suppose we pick up their leaders and put them in prison. They will be immediately replaced by another tier of leaders. And a third and a fourth. And we think this is just a philosophical argument that Israel uses as a pretext not to engage in a peace process with Syria.
And I can prove this to you. [Hamas and Islamic Jihad] are very active. They have actually their headquarters in the occupied territories, where Abu Mazen -- Mahmoud Abbas -- was elected president. And the Israelis are engaging in discussions with Abu Mazen. The pretext that we allow terrorist operations to take place in the West Bank and Gaza out from Damascus is preposterous. Syria has nothing to do, no influence whatsoever, no leverage whatsoever on what's happening in the occupied territories. What's happening in the occupied territories are the catastrophic sad results of the continuous occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Steven Spiegel: Let me just follow up on this because I want to clarify this for our students. The United States government and the Israeli government frequently claim that Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Islamic Jihad particularly, gain support from Iran and from Hizbullah, both of which have been associated with the Syrian government. First of all, is that true? Secondly, if it's true, if they have means of communication with local groups inside Gaza and the West Bank how is it that Syria doesn't?
Dr. Moustapha: Why would a young Palestinian, a desperate person, take instructions from Damascus to put explosives on him or herself and go and kill himself and get others killed? Do you realistically believe that they need someone from Damascus to tell them if they should do this or that? Do people in Hamas or Jihad need Iranians and Syrians to tell them if they should do this or that?
Once more, these are scenarios, stories that are being circulated. I always ask people, I beseech you, use your logic, use your simple analysis. What is the national interest of Syria to engage in an exercise that will only damage our own interests and to allow our detractors a pretext to attack us and criticize us? Why would we give Ariel Sharon a pretext not to engage in a peace process with Syria and thus allow him to continue occupation of a part of our territory, the Golan? We want to have the Golan back. And we believe the only way to have the Golan back is to engage Israel in a peace process.
I know that there are people in this room who believe that Syria is a terrorist country. I believe that Syria does not support terrorism. I have my beliefs. You have your beliefs. But I only ask you to use logical analysis and to understand that not everything that you hear in the media is the reality. Please remember what you used to hear in the media about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction.
Civil and Political Rights in Syria
Q: [Asks about political and democratic rights in Syria.]
Dr. Moustapha: Let me start with two things that we have done very well on, we are very proud of, and then move to somewhere that I think we have not done very well on. On the freedoms of religion, Syria is the most tolerant country in the Middle East. The most tolerant, and I am very proud of this. In Syria we have Muslims, we have Christians, and we have a small Jewish community, but they all have absolute freedom to worship and to practice their religion. Syria is the one country in the whole Middle East in which the majority are Muslims -- 70% or a little bit more, and we have something like 25% Christians -- and yet every single Christian holiday in Syria is a national holiday for all of Syria.
Furthermore, if you look at the Christian community in Syria they are evenly divided into Catholics and Antiochian Orthodox, Eastern rite and the Western rite. And they do not have the same calendar for, let's say, the Easter holiday. So we have two different national holidays for Easter in Syria, for all of Syria. The same applies even to people who do not follow any religion at all. Syria is very tolerant and very open on the religious front. So on this aspect we have done a good job.
Another aspect that we have done a good job, before I move to the gray area, is women's empowerment. Syria has [scored] great achievements on the front of women's empowerment. In the past fifty years women have enjoyed equal rights under the Syrian law, equal right to men. Actually, when I met with President Bush, I will tell you this story. I have said it before, on CSPAN. I had my wife with me, and President Bush was kind enough to ask my wife about her life in Washington, DC, and whether she was enjoying it. And my wife said to him, Right now Mr. President I do not live in Washington, DC. I live in England because I am pursuing my PhD studies, my doctoral studies, in England. And he said to her, Well, an Arab woman doing a PhD, this is remarkable. In which field? And she said to him, in computer science. And the president was genuinely impressed.
And then I said to the president of the United States of America, Mr. President, with due respect may I remind you of the fact that in the past fifty years Syria has had women judges, women cabinet ministers, women ambassadors, women director generals of companies, women members of the Syrian parliament. Women enjoy equal rights to men in Syria, and this has always been the case since our independence. So on the issue of women's rights Syria also has done a good job.
Now on the issue of civil and political liberties I do not think that we have done a good job. I have to be candid with you. But as I said at the beginning of my speech, Syria is evolving. There has been a political monopoly in Syria by the Baath Party, which is a national secular party. But I don't think that this is the case any more today in Syria. Very soon, on June 6, there will be a landmark Baath Party conference that will take place in Damascus, a week from now, and it's already a fact known today that after this conference a new decision will be taken allowing all political parties, all of them, to freely form in Syria and to compete in the forthcoming general elections.
The United States decided to bring democracy into Iraq. But the price that the Iraqis are paying is a heavy price. We told the Americans that we believe our societies can evolve from within, not from without. We do not need external assistance, thank you very much. We do not need your help. Let us try to evolve on a domestic agenda ourselves. Let us move forward. We understand our society. We do have formidable challenges. And yes, we have made mistakes. Nobody can deny the fact that we have made mistakes. But at least Syria is moving forward and we are evolving.
Now Syria is concentrating all its efforts on our domestic agenda. We are opening up our economy, liberalizing our economy, because I also must admit that Syria has not done a good job on the economic front. But two major strategic decisions will be taken next week in Syria. The first is to completely adopt what we call the market-oriented economies. The second is to allow political parties to freely form and to compete in the forthcoming parliamentary elections in Syria. Thank you very much.