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Washington's stubborn failure to communicate

Syria's ambassador says if the White House wants peace in the Mideast, it shouldn't insist on ignoring Damascus.

August 04, 2006|Imad Moustapha | IMAD MOUSTAPHA is the Syrian ambassador to the United States.

LATE LAST MONTH, a number of congressmen called me and asked for an urgent, unscheduled meeting. There, at the Rayburn House Office Building, we spent a couple of hours discussing in-depth the crisis in the Middle East. The paramount concern of these legislators was not the typical Capitol Hill rhetoric (offering unconditional support for Israel, or delivering the routine condemnation and demonization of Syria). Instead, they simply wanted to know what they could do to stop the ongoing massacre in Lebanon.

Their frustration and exasperation about the total nonchalance of the U.S. administration was overwhelming. The very first question they had for me was to clarify the confusion about whether the White House is talking to Syria or not. Although the media have reported that no contacts have been made between the two countries over the last three weeks, administration officials have sent vague signals that this might be happening through back channels.

But no communication whatsoever has taken place. U.S. policy remains to ignore the Syrian government. And it remains fundamentally wrong.

It hasn't always been this way. When President George H.W. Bush faced Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, he realized the strategic need for Syria and knew how to lure us into the American-led alliance: by inviting Syria to the Madrid peace conference.

As a result, and within a short period of time, the Clinton administration engaged Syria and Israel in serious peace talks that, had they succeeded, would have created a very different paradigm in this troubled area.

In Syria, we consider the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as the fatal blow that felled the peace efforts, and since that tragic event, Israel has had no leader with the courage or vision required to accept the inevitable "land for peace" compromise enshrined in U.N. Security Council resolutions 224 and 338.

In sharp contrast, the current U.S. administration has publicly dissuaded Israel from responding to the repeated Syrian invitations to revive the peace process. Syria still hopes that this position might change, as there exists a growing alienation against the U.S. and its policies in the Arab and Islamic world, which is undoubtedly creating fertile breeding conditions for terrorism.

Syria thought that the atrocious events of Sept. 11, 2001, would be a much-needed wake-up call for the Bush administration.

After Sept. 11, we cooperated with the U.S. in fighting terrorism. Syria had been fighting extreme fundamentalist movements in the region for the previous three decades, so we promptly initiated intelligence and security cooperation with the U.S., providing a wealth of information about Al Qaeda, some of which was described in a letter to Congress by former Secretary of State Colin Powell as "actionable information" that led to "saving American lives." Consequently, bilateral relations improved dramatically at the time, much to the chagrin of the neoconservative cabal that doggedly opposed any engagement with Syria, no matter how productive.

This effective cooperation ended when Syria and the U.S. found themselves at odds over how to address the Iraqi problem. Syria fiercely opposed the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and continues to do so. The fact that Hussein was Syria's archenemy did not blind our eyes to the grave consequences such an occupation would bear on our region: bloodshed, destruction, instability, extremism and the ugly face of sectarianism.

The Bush administration never forgave Syria for its opposition to the war. Despite the fact that Syrian-U.S. intelligence and security cooperation continued, even after the fallout on Iraq, well up to January 2005, heavyweights in the White House continued to engage in a rhetorical campaign against Syria. Members of Congress, influenced by the powerful pro-Israel lobby, overwhelmingly passed the Syria Accountability Act in November 2003, enacting trade sanctions on Damascus without serious debate or reference to the crucial intelligence support provided by Syria.

Concurrently, administration officials devised a new "policy" toward my country: Don't talk to Syria at all, and maybe its regime will collapse.

That is why the U.S. decided to change its 20-year position toward Syrian involvement in Lebanon. Suddenly, Syria's "stabilizing and necessary presence" in Lebanon became, overnight and without any change in Syria's behavior, "an evil occupation that should immediately be ended."

The underlying idea behind demanding Syrian withdrawal was simple: It would precipitate the fall of the Syrian regime, and the U.S. would end up with a new government in Damascus that is both Israel-friendly and an ally of the U.S. Does that have any resemblance to the neoconservative justification for the war on Iraq?

To the dismay of U.S. policymakers, this belligerent attitude only rallied Syrians behind their own government.

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