Q&A: Syrian Official Speaks on U.S. Raid

The U.S. commando raid earlier this week on a Syrian town that borders Iraq has prompted a backlash in both Damascus and Baghdad. In the Syrian capital, a few hundred people protested about a mile from the American Embassy on Thursday, while the Syrian government demanded an apology and compensation for victims of the raid. In Baghdad, key Iraqi politicians engaged in negotiating a security agreement with the United States—which had been progressing slowly even before the strike—are now seeking to deny explicitly the use of Iraq as a staging ground for attacks on other nations. Security sources have said that the target of the raid was a top Al Qaeda smuggler who goes by the name Abu Ghadiyah, but the U.S. military has not issued an official account, and details are still scant. In an interview with NEWSWEEK's Dan Ephron, Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, said that the dead were all civilians. He also spoke about the raid, his country's talks with Israel and other issues. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK : What ' s the Syrian version of what happened?
Imad Moustapha : The only version is what actually happened. Four U.S. helicopters penetrated Syrian territory. They attacked a small residential house in the Sukarieh village. Two helicopters started firing from above while two helicopters landed. The criminals [U.S. troops] came out of those helicopters shooting on everyone that was there. Those who were already injured on the ground, they just shot them again to make sure they're dead and left. Only one woman and a man survived. The rest were all killed, one father and his four sons, a husband and wife and a fisherman.

Were the people in the house armed?
No, they were not armed. They were civilians, they were defenseless residents of that village who were working on constructing a small house, a village-type house.

What about reports that an Al Qaeda operative nicknamed Abu Ghadiyah was among the dead?
Absolute rubbish. This is just a small addition to the huge series of lies [that America has told] about what is happening in and around Iraq.

Then why did the United States launch the raid in the first place?
For the past five years they have fabricated a huge amount of lies about the role of Syria in the violence in Iraq and how infiltrators are coming from Syria to Iraq. But they never ever did anything like this. In the last six months they have publicly admitted that the situation has improved dramatically in Iraq. Syria has done everything possible to try to secure the Syrian-Iraqi border and then this unprecedented criminal attack happens. Give me an explanation.

What ' s your explanation?
It has everything to do with domestic politics here in Washington, D.C. It has nothing to do with what's going on in our region.

How does this affect domestic politics in Washington?
There is a slight possibility—but we don't believe this is serious—that they got terribly wrong intelligence. But we don't believe that they think there really was an Al Qaeda activist there. What we believe is that for purely domestic reasons, the United States of America decided to escalate the conflict and tension in the region because certain politicians here are saying that U.S. troops should not really be in Iraq, they should be in Afghanistan fighting Al Qaeda. So now they [the Bush administration] want to circulate a story saying Al Qaeda is not only in Iraq, so we need to maintain our troop levels in Iraq, we need to attack neighboring countries. We believe in Syria that it's a purely domestic political issue in America that led to this crime.

You ' re saying there are no infiltrations of jihadis from Syria into Iraq?
Prior to the United States invasion of Iraq there was not a single Qaeda activist or man in Iraq or Syria. Now, the whole region—Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt [and] Lebanon—are suffering from these extremist groups that were spawned as a natural reaction to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. So today Syria is caught between two troubled areas. The northern part of Lebanon has become a hotbed for extremist Salafi fundamentalists and there are terrorist groups there. They have attacked targets in Syria in the past. And of course Iraq is a hotbed of extremism and of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Now, can they cross into Syria? Of course it's a possibility. We have 600 kilometers [370 miles] of open borders, desert borders with Iraq. We have done everything possible within our capacity to try and secure these borders. We have asked the United States many times for help to [secure] these borders but we were always turned down.

What kind of help?
We told them, as an example, that we need some technological means to control these borders: advanced telecommunications systems, night-vision goggles, things we really need to improve the situation. They never listened to our request. We have done what we can. We increased the number of our troops along the Syrian-Iraq border from a few hundred before the invasion to tens of thousands presently. This is a huge burden on us. Meanwhile, 1.5 million Iraqi refugees have crossed into Syria. If some of them are recruited by extremist or terrorist organizations, how can we control this? We did not invite them to leave their country and come into Syria. It's the United States building democracy and prosperity in Iraq that created the largest exodus in the history of the Middle East. We are also cooperating with the Iraqis themselves. We have bilateral committees on security and intelligence issues, and this raid will also jeopardize our cooperation with the Iraqis. However you look at it, this is very bad.

The United States has said in the past, 90 percent of suicide bombers in Iraq cross through Syria. How does that square with what you ' re saying about your efforts to seal the border?
Ninety-nine percent of the suicide bombers in Iraq are Iraqis. This is a fact. Now, is there 1 percent that might be coming from outside Iraq? Yes. But this does not mean we are allowing this to happen. If you think we're responsible for every outsider who penetrates these borders, I can give you lists of thousands of people we caught trying to cross these borders. We are doing everything possible to try to seal these borders, but we can't hermetically seal a desert.

Prior to this infiltration, it had looked like relations were thawing somewhat between the United States and Syria. Is that perception accurate?
Contacts with the administration had been improving in the last six months. Only a month ago, back in September in New York, Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice requested a meeting with her Syrian counterpart. She sat with us and said that the United States wants to engage with Syria, wants to re-evaluate its relationship with Syria. And we thought that was a very positive sign. And suddenly this raid happens out of the blue.

What is the state of Syria ' s indirect talks with Israel? The Israeli prime minister gave an interview a few weeks ago saying he understood that Israel would have to part with the Golan Heights for peace. In that case, why aren ' t the two sides closer to an agreement?
For a simple reason: this has to do with the domestic political scene in Israel. As you know, [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert resigned. His successor failed to form a government. As far as we are concerned we had three successful meetings in Istanbul. We agreed that both parties want to have peace. The political desire for peace is there. And the principle is land for peace. The Israelis understood that in order to make peace with Syria they need to return the Golan to us. And we thought it was a very good starting point for the peace negotiations.

The United States had no role in the Turkish-brokered negotiations?
The U.S. tried in every way possible to convince the Israelis not to sit and talk to us, but they failed. They were successful at the beginning—this is what the Israelis told us. But then they decided not to heed the voice of the Bush administration and to sit down and talk with us. We are optimistic. The three rounds of talks were very successful.

Did the Israelis commit to withdrawing all the way to the line of June 4, 1967?
Olmert did say this.

In a newspaper interview or through proxies in the talks?
I'm not going to get into details. I'm only going to tell you that we are very satisfied with the three rounds of talks.

What about the Israeli demands? What did the Syrian side say about Israel ' s demands vis- à -vis Syria ' s ties with Iran and support for Hizbullah? How clear was Syria on these issues?
The Israelis know us very well. Historically, whenever we signed an agreement, we fully respected and fulfilled our obligations. On the other hand, we're not going to negotiate with Israel our relations with third countries. We're not telling the Israelis, for example, that we are unhappy with their relations with Georgia so they have to sever the relations.

Who killed Imad Mugniyah , the Hizbullah military commander who died in a car bombing in Damascus in February?
Israel killed Imad Mugniyah. Do you have any doubt?

Do you?
No, I don't have any doubt.

Is that the conclusion of the Syrian investigation?
I can tell you yes.

How did they do it?
I can't go into details.

What about the Syrian general who was killed on the coast a few months back? Who killed him?
I don't know. There's an ongoing investigation.

Don ' t these incidents point to a security breakdown within Syria?
I wouldn't say at all it's a breakdown in security. We're a country surrounded by a hammer and a hard place. We have two major occupations surrounding us, the Israeli occupation of the Arab territories and the American occupation of Iraq. The whole region is troubled by extremism.