Syria’s Suddenly Popular Man in Washington

The inked-up pages of Imad Moustapha's date book have a story to tell. In the first four months of 2007, the Syrian ambassador to Washington has had more interaction with U.S. officials than in all of 2005 and 2006. He has met with every single member of the Foreign Relations Committee, including many Republicans. He coordinated the trips to Damascus of at least three congressional delegations, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's this month. He's even had talks with a senior official in the State Department. (As further evidence of the warming trend, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travels to Egypt next month to meet with representatives of Iraq's neighbors, including Syria). Many people in Washington still support the Bush administration's strategy of shunning Syria for its alleged ties to terrorist groups like Hizbullah and Hamas and its possible involvement in the assassination two years ago of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. But Moustapha, a computer scientist by training, says the isolation policy is unraveling. He spoke recently with NEWSWEEK's Dan Ephron.

NEWSWEEK: A lot was made of the visits by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others to Syria, but what tangible results came of them?
Imad Moustapha:
Syria sent very clear messages to all the congressional representatives and leaders from both sides of the aisle that visited Damascus. First, we reiterated Syria's willingness to engage with the U.S. on the different issues of mutual concern…. Second, we asked them to deliver a message to the U.S. administration stating that working with Syria will always yield better results than working around, or isolating, Syria.

But to many people here in Washington, Pelosi's visit looked more like partisan politics. What's your view?
It is unfortunate that this visit has been turned into a partisan topic.  The bipartisan Baker-Hamilton report recommended that the U.S. engage directly with Syria. Mrs. Pelosi's visit was a result of a general consensus amongst leaders from both sides of the aisle advocating talking to Syria.

You've been the ambassador since 2004. How lonely has it been?
There were no contacts on any level for a very, very long time—since February 2005.

So the visits mark a real change. Still, we're talking about trips by members of the legislative branch. As you know, foreign policy is made largely by the executive branch.
I think the United States, strangely enough, is reconsidering its policies…. I got an invitation from the State Department recently to meet with officials there. The assistant secretary of state for immigration, refugees and population went to Damascus. Regardless of the issue, this is the assistant secretary of state going to Damascus when three months ago they used to say, we will never talk to the Syrians. Very soon there will be a ministerial-level meeting of the neighboring countries of Iraq, somewhere in the region.

What does the U.S. stand to gain from engaging with Syria? How could Syria help improve the situation in Iraq, for example?
Nothing magical. We don't have a magic wand. But we are neighbors and we have excellent relations with all the groups across the spectrum. At least we can help revive the national dialogue among Iraqis. Some of them do listen to us. Some of them do heed our advice…. Our policy is different from the United States. We talk to all the parties.

Some people hope engagement would be a way of wooing Syria away from its relationship with Iran? What are the chances?
It's bemusing to hear this…. While we are the best possible friends with Iran, we don't have the same policies as Iran. Iran has a well-publicized policy against Israel, but President Assad, at least once a month, has publicly invited the Israelis to peace talks in the last four years…. Iran is a friend to Syria. It is an ally on many issues. But we disagree with Iran on other issues.

How do you respond to the U.S. assertion that Syria is undermining stability in Lebanon?
Today the Lebanese are divided half and half. The tension is very high and Lebanon can easily reach a tipping point after which, God forbid, a civil war might erupt. And there is a very keen initiative to try and convince the Lebanese to have a coalition of national unity. We are supporting this, the Saudis are supporting this, the United States is opposing this…. Yet we are considered as negative and disruptive, and the United States considers itself the moderate player in the Middle East.

When did Syria drop its demand that talks with Israel resume from the point they left off years ago?
We used to say we want to resume peace talk from the point where they stopped, that it would just be a waste of time to go back to the beginning. The issues are well known for us and the Israelis. For us, it's the (Israeli withdrawal to the) line of June 4, 1967. For them, it's total security arrangements, total peace between Syria and Lebanon on one side and Israel on the other side. So why waste time again on these games? But Israel claimed publicly that Assad's insistence that we would start from the point we left off is proof he's bluffing. That became the issue. So we said, OK, if this is the point, fine, let's start wherever you want to start. Once we said that, Israel changed its mind and said it's about Syria's support for terrorism.

When did the shift take place?
It happened over time. There wasn't one meeting when the policy changed.