Marc Lynch

A Syrian view on the future of relations with the U.S.

Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustpha (photo: AP / Kevin Wolf)  This afternoon I headed over to the Middle East Institute to hear Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha talk about the future of U.S.-Syrian relations.  While Moustapha radiated optimism about and appreciation for the Obama administration’s approach, it is clear that there is a long road ahead.  His ...

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Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustpha (photo: AP / Kevin Wolf)

 This afternoon I headed over to the Middle East Institute to hear Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha talk about the future of U.S.-Syrian relations.  While Moustapha radiated optimism about and appreciation for the Obama administration’s approach, it is clear that there is a long road ahead.  His surprisingly old-school approach to argumentation — deflecting all difficult questions either by attacking AIPAC or talking about Israel – does not suggest that there’s been a sea change in Syrian thinking.  Still, he made a number of important points — particularly on Syrian views of the Obama administration, on Palestinian politics and the peace process, on Iraq, and on Lebanon.

Perhaps the most interesting single thing he said was the claim — repeated twice — that the U.S. was asking Syria to use its influence with Hamas to convince them to overcome its differences with Mahmoud Abbas and join a unity government.  That would be very interesting, if true. I have my doubts, given the administration’s very clear line against including Hamas in the unity government without its first meeting the Quartet pre-conditions, but it’s worth looking into.  According to Moustapha, Damascus supports a unity government and the Egyptian mediation, is pushing both Fatah and Hamas to compromise, and is urging the U.S. to be realistic about Hamas and to drop the Bush-era Quartet pre-conditions against dealing with it.  Syria has no intention of expelling Khaled Meshaal, in case you were wondering. 

Like every other Arab official I’ve seen in the last few months, Moustapha praised Obama’s public commitment to working for a two-state solution and the appointment of George Mitchell.    Moustapha fell over himself to praise the seriousness of the Obama team and the President’s diplomatic overtures.  Where Bush officials would begin every discussion with a recitation of demands that Syria must meet (to which Syrians would respond with a litany of complaints about Israel), Obama officials — he claimed — used a civil and respectful tone and avoided lecturing or listing demands.  There are still sharp disagreements, he said, but now there is the possibility of having productive discussions aimed at solving the problems.   Instead of dual monologues achieving nothing, there was now the opportunity for real dialogue.

That sounds great, but…. at the same time, Moustapha continued to fall back on the old style in his own responses to questions and challenges — exactly the litany of complaints about Israel which he a few minutes earlier had self-mockingly described as the stock response to the Bush administration’s lectures.  For instance, he dismissed questions about Syrian material support for Hezbollah and Hamas by waving it away as the sort of thing the Washington Institute for Near East Policy would produce. His low point came in his response to a Syrian man who asked him to speak about human rights abuses and repression inside of Syria.  His response, equating the Syrian questioner with the Israelis and WINEP and then going on about Israeli war crimes, drew audible grumbling from the audience. If the Obama administration has indeed adopted such a fresh new  style with Syria, it does not yet seem to be reciprocated in Syrian public diplomacy.

On Iraq, Moustapha took great pains to present an enormous opportunity for cooperation with the U.S. rooted in mutual self-interest. He explained that Syria no longer disagreed with the U.S. about Iraq, that it fully supported an American withdrawal on a responsible timetable and that Syria would do whatever it could to ensure that the withdrawal succeeds and leaves behind a stable Iraq.  He also spoke about the claimed 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, noting that despite the great burden they posed on the country they would not be sent back.  A stable Iraq would make it more likely they would leave of their own accord, he argued, by way of demonstrating the Syrian national interest in Iraqi success.  All of this makes it puzzling that Syria has evidently not yet done as much as it could to control its border with Iraq.  Perhaps that’s the bargaining chip Damascus intends to offer up when Jeff Feltman and Dan Shapiro head back to Syria next week? 

Finally, I asked him about Syrian views of the upcoming Lebanese elections. Moustapha said that Syria supported a peaceful, successful election.  He noted that the U.S. was trying to help its friends and allies in those elections, and so was Syria.  But regardless of the results, he argued, the winner of the election must include the losers in a participatory coalition government instead of trying to rule by a zero-sum logic. He claimed that Syria was giving this advice to its Lebanese allies, and that they were saying the same thing back to Damascus.  We shall see. 

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