Washington’s stubborn failure to communicate

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.

Ultimately, the Bush administration has to realize that by trying to isolate Syria politically and diplomatically, the U.S. continues to lose ability to influence a major player in the Middle East. In the wake of the ongoing instability in Iraq and violence in Palestine and Lebanon, it begs the larger question: Has isolating Syria made the region more secure?

Currently, the White House doesn’t talk to the democratically elected government of Palestine. It does not talk to Hezbollah, which has democratically elected members in the Lebanese parliament and is a member of the Lebanese coalition government. It does not talk to Iran, and it certainly does not talk to Syria.

Gone are the days when U.S. special envoys to the Middle East would spend hours, if not days, with Syrian officials brainstorming, discussing, negotiating and looking for creative solutions leading to a compromise or settlement. Instead, this administration follows the Bolton Doctrine: There is no need to talk to Syria, because Syria knows what it needs to do. End of the matter.

When the United States realizes that it is high time to reconsider its policies toward Syria, Syria will be more than willing to engage. However, the rules of the game should be clear. As President Bashar Assad has said, Syria is not a charity. If the U.S. wants something from Syria, then Syria requires something in return from the U.S.: Let us address the root cause of instability in the Middle East.

The current crisis in Lebanon needs an urgent solution because of the disastrous human toll. Moreover, the whole Middle East deserves a comprehensive deal that would put an end to occupation and allow all countries to equally prosper and live in dignity and peace.