Seven Questions

Seven Questions for Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha

Was last Sunday’s raid by U.S. forces on Syrian territory ”terrorist aggression,” electoral politics, or righteous punishment?

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On Sunday, Oct. 26, U.S. military forces launched a daring raid into Syria, the first such incursion since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Syria said the attack killed eight unarmed civilians, and Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem condemned the raid as terrorist aggression. Anonymous U.S. officials, however, claimed the raid killed Abu Ghadiya, an Iraqi member of al Qaeda who is notorious for smuggling foreign fighters into Iraq. The attack, they said, was a warning to Syria for failing to cooperate.

The fallout from the attack continued throughout the week. On Tuesday, the Syrian government announced its decision to close the American-operated Damascus Community School and the American Cultural Center. Amid escalating tensions, Foreign Policy‘s David Kenner sat down with Syrian Amb. Imad Moustapha to discuss the flow of foreign fighters crossing into Iraq from Syria, Syria’s hopes for the next U.S. administration, and the state of Syrian-Israeli peace talks.

Foreign Policy: The United States claims its Sunday night raid was undertaken to stem the flow of militants into Iraq. Why do you think this raid happened?

Imad Moustapha: Do we know why? Of course not. The only analysis we have is that they are doing this for pure domestic political reasons that have everything to do with the elections and the electoral campaign. They want to come out with a story.

But we are still waiting for the U.S. administration to come out and tell the American people: We killed [Abu Ghadiya], and here is the proof that we killed him. We have presented our side of the story. We have published the photos of the eight people that were killed, their names, and what they were doing. This is our side of the story. Let the United States come with its side.

FP: For years, George W. Bushs administration has complained about the passage of insurgents across the Syrian border. Why has this problem proved so intractable?

IM: Why didn’t [the United States] stop [the insurgents] for five years? They are the most powerful, advanced nation in the whole world. Their military size is at least 500 times our military’s size. Their military hardware is zillions of times more advanced than ours. If we can stop them, the United States can do a 10,000-times better job than us.

Each border in the world has two sides. I would say to [U.S. officials]: “We are doing everything possible within our means to stop them. These are porous borders. These are our means and capabilities. Prior to your war on Iraq, we used to have a couple of hundred of soldiers across this border. Because of your invasion and occupation of Iraq, we increased the numbers to tens of thousands.”

FP: What contact have you had with U.S. officials about securing the Syrian-Iraqi border?

IM: In May 2004, I was instructed by my government to meet officials at the Pentagon and to tell them: “Please stop these public accusations on TV screens about us allowing infiltrators [into Iraq]. We are not [doing so]. We have captured many people trying to infiltrate across this border.”

Suddenly, after everybody has recognized that the situation has improved dramatically in Iraq, [the United States] comes and they attack a village in Syria. They coldbloodedly murder eight Syrian civilians, villagers who are totally defenseless, totally innocent. This is a terrorist, criminal act.

FP: What specific measures has Syria taken to prevent the infiltration of foreign fighters into Iraq?

IM: We have more than 10,000 troops working in very harsh desert conditions. Syria is not a rich country. We were not supposed to build dormitories and posts there just to help the American invasion of Iraq. However, we had to do this for one simple reason: If the United States believed that there are insurgents crossing the border into Iraq, we will not give the United States a pretext to attack Syria.

We have installed barbed wire and we have erected sand barriers. We have intensified our patrols; we have captured scores of people trying to illegally cross this border — not necessarily for violent reasons. Some of them are smugglers. But regardless, were not going to ask the gentleman or the guy we arrest, “Are you a smuggler, or are you a terrorist?” If he is Syrian, he goes to Syrian prison. If he is Saudi, or Libyan, or Egyptian, or Jordanian, he will be handed over to his authorities and they will be told that this guy was caught trying to cross the Syrian border [into Iraq].

FP: Would you say that, at this point, the Syrian government is finished negotiating with the Bush administration?

IM: We had resigned ourselves to this fact at least a couple of years ago. We started to work diligently with congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle, telling each side in a very clear way, “Look, Syria is not your enemy.” We believe that once there will be a new administration, there is an ample chance to engage between Syria and the United States.

However, to our big surprise, only last month in New York in September, while we were attending the U.N. General Assembly meetings, [U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice out of the blue requested a meeting with our foreign minister. So we sat with her, and the meeting was pleasant. Two days later, this meeting was followed with an extensive, in-depth meeting with Assistant Secretary of State David Welch. Every issue was discussed, and in general the overwhelming tone of the meeting was very positive. He told us clearly that the United States was reevaluating its policies towards Syria. We thought, “Things [are] finally starting to move in the right direction.”

And suddenly, this [raid in eastern Syria] happens. I dont believe the guys from the State Department were actually deceiving us. I believe they genuinely wanted to engage diplomatically and politically with Syria. We believe that other powers within the administration were upset with these meetings and they did this exactly to undermine the whole new atmosphere.

FP: U.S. presidential hopeful Barack Obama says that he would be willing to sit down with states that are now considered enemies of the United States. Is that encouraging to you?

IM: I have reason to believe that even if [Senator John] McCain becomes president of the United States, he will also be inclined to sit and talk with Syria. I can tell you this on the record: Senator Joe Lieberman, who is supposed to be very close to McCain, has said this explicitly and very clearly to me personally.

FP: There were news reports about negotiations between Syria and Israel for a while, but they seemed to have stopped. Is the Syrian-Israeli peace track still active?

IM: The only reason [the talks] stopped is the domestic issues in Israel. We had three rounds of talks, and they were very good and very promising. But then [Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert resigned, and there were talks about forming a new cabinet. The natural thing is that the peace talks will stop until a new cabinet is formed in Israel. And the Turks who are negotiating and mediating between us and the Israelis have told us that once a new government is installed [in Jerusalem], they will immediately resume their role as a broker of peace between us and the Israelis. They will contact the Israelis and work on convening a fourth round of talks.

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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