Syrian Ambassador to the United States Imad Moustapha discusses The U.S., Syria and the New Old Middle East: Confrontation or Cooperation?
On the front lines of multiple Middle Eastern crises, Syria is a key player in regional politics, and a strong diplomatic relationship with the United States is critical in efforts to rebuild Iraq and improve the region's relationship with the West, according to the Iraq Study Group's findings. Moustapha was a dean at the University of Damascus and secretary general of the Arab School for Science and Technology- The Commonwealth Club
Amb Imad Moustapha
Imad Moustapha is the Syrian Ambassador to the United States since March 2004. Prior to that, he was Dean of the Faculty of Information Technology at the University of Damascus, and Secretary General of the Arab School on Science and Technology. He is co-founder of the Network of Syrian Scientists, Technologists and Innovators Abroad (NOSSTIA), and was an active consultant to several international and regional organizations on Science and Technology policies in the Middle East (UNDP, UNESCO, ESCWA, ALECSO).
Good evening and welcome to tonight's meeting of the Commonwealth Club of California. I amMichael Nacht, Dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of CaliforniaBerkeley, and your moderator for today's program. You can find the Commonwealth Club on theCommonwealth-club-.org. And now I would like to introduce today's speaker Dr. Imad Moustapha andAmbassador of Syria to the United States.Dr. Moustapha is a very distinguished student of Computer Science, he holds a PhD in the ComputerScience in the University of Surrey in England and he has risen through the academic ranks in Syria at theUniversity of Damascus where he has been Dean of the faculty of Information Technology at theUniversity. He is also been secretary general of the Arab School on Science and Technology. And is aco-founder of the network of Syrian Scientist Technologists Technologists and Innovators Abroad,NOSSTIA. He has been an active consultant to several International and Regional Organizations onScience and Technology Policies in the Middle East, including the UNESCO and several others. He isalso been the member of the Syrian team responsible for the drafting reform strategies for theministries of Culture Education and Higher education, he is a versatile writer with a long list ofpublications in English and Arabic he has published a wide variety of Arabic publications and also inthe Los Angeles times in the Washington Post among others. He published more than 200 articles Ithink especially noteworthy is he the co author of the UN sponsored human development report inthe Arab World recently published in 2003 which is been widely cited as a path breaking publicationabout an analytical and critical analysis of Arab progress and difficulties in achieving greater economicdevelopments he has widely he has appeared widely on television in the US, Britain, Syria andelsewhere and he has also his own Blog, reflection of modern times where he comments on culture lifeand friends in Washington which is http://imad_moustapha.blogs.com.So he is very very special and this is actually his first diplomatic post ambassador to Washingtonfrom Syria a post he has held since March of 2004. So please welcome ambassador Imad Moustapha.Thank you Dean Nacht for your kind introduction and I am also very grateful for this this wonderfulopportunity to talk to people here in San Francisco on the Bay area, so thank you to theCommonwealth Club of California. As Dean Nacht has noted I am not a career diplomat throughoutmy life, I was an academic so when my government decided to sent me here as the envoy of Syria tothe United States in a way or another I was concerned a bit worried I went and consulted with a friendof mine who who has been a distinguished diplomat from Syria who has served served for a longtime as an ambassador and prior to that as a junior diplomat. So I went and I asked him anapprehension of what will I be facing once I become the ambassador of Syria to the United States. Hetold me it is so easy we need to understand the difference between the ambassador and the camel, toldhim what do you mean he said to me you know a camel can work for days, days and days withouthaving any food. An ambassador on the other hand can eat for days, days and days without doing any work.And I loved that and I came here and what a big, big disappointment believe me being the Ambassadorof Syria to the United States is not an easy job its an uphill battle and the challenges are tremendous,the image of Syria here is very negative image and we do not have a friendly administration in theWhite House. So imagine how difficult it is for a small country like mine to to not to be on the onthe best class of the government of the most powerful nation on earth, of course this did not happen bychoice. This is not what we want. This is not we like. This is what we are trying to do whatever we canwithin our capacity to reverse. We are trying to tell the US Administration we have done this time andagain the last five years that Syria is not an enemy to the United States and it is contrary to our ownnational interests to be regarded as a hostile nation here in this country. But sometimes sometimes wefeel like this is fatalistic and we can't do anything, so in a way or another we have resigned ourselves tothe fact that we just have to wait till the end of the second term of this administration, before we canstart a serious engagement towards the United States of America.Let me be very clear about this. In the past Syria and the United states had many disagreements anddifferences on a political on a political level but there was not enmity no hostility actually we doadmire the United States of America for the great achievements America has done throughout itshistory for the great things America has given to the humanity and science and technology and then toentertainment industry and too many things. Yet to be honest and candid where you we in the Middle-Eastat least this is our side of this story, we are so so bitterly disappointed with the US policies inthe Middle-East, rightly or wrongly, this is our perception. We believe that the United States ofAmerica has given flagrant blind support to Israel, while Israel was actually occupying our territories,and then to add insult to injury the United States decided to invade and occupy Iraq. And suddenly acountry like mine, Syria became caught between the hammer and hardest place. One major conflict toour East one major conflict to our south.The Arab Israeli conflict that is still the corner stone of all conflicts and troubles in the Middle-Eastas it still there brewing non-stop and another conflict has been introduced, thanks to this administrationin Iraq. As I have said in the past despite the disagreements between the Syria and the United States wealways had a good solid working relationship. The - this level of of deterioration and relationsbetween the Syria and the United States is unprecedented in our modern history. Let me remind you ofthe fact that every American President starting with the Richard Nixon ending with Bill Clintonactually paid Damascus our capital city and official head of a State to visit. In a way or another thisreflects the fact that while we were disagreeing with United States, we kept on engaging with theUnited States for the benefit of Syria of the United States and for all other parties of the Middle-East.Please do remember that the past two administrations that preceded the current administration that ofPresident Bush Senior and that of president Clinton worked so hard to broker peace between Syriaand Israel. And twice we were on the verge - on the verge of signing a peace agreement with Israel.That would have had major, major impact on the whole situation in the Middle-East.While we were very critical of US policies towards the Middle East we always believed that the onlycountry in the world that can broker peace in the region was the was the United States of America,because of the influence and leverage of the United States has on all parties, particularly on Israeland this is why we always thought that while we can disagree, we should work with the United States,and we should maintain the possible - the best possible working relationship with the United States. Andwe were successful in the past. I I can give you just two examples before I moved to the currentcurrent conflicts in our region.Years ago when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait the United States invited us to the join the alliancethat drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and our troops were next to your troops fighting againstSaddam Hussein and pushing the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. This is so important for a simple reason, Ihope you will think of it when the United States asked us to join that alliance the United States reallydid not need the Syrian military prowess to defeat Saddam Hussein and kick him out of Kuwait. It did thisfor a simple different reason, out of wisdom, out of understanding that the United States did not want topresent itself. At that time as a Western crusader imposing its values or what ever it wants toimpose, whether benign or malign on the Middle-East. This is why it went and invited two major ArabIslamic Country Syria and Egypt to join the alliance in liberating Kuwait. This is one example of pastco-operation between Syria and United States.Another important example that is rarely mentioned here in United states has to do was September 11,after the tragic events of September 11, when every country in the world send a condolence's letter tothe United States of America, Syria did something else, of course we did send a condolenceletter to the United States, but we initiated contacts with America and I underline the word initiatedbecause we initiated this and we told them look, we in Syria a secular country in the Middle-East have beenfighting against extremist fundamentalists for the past 20 years. They - we are their own swornenemies and we have wealth of information about those guys, that they are more than willing toprovide to the United States, not expecting anything in return, but because of our understanding of the thedangers these groups represent to our own societies, what they did to you was horrible was terrible,but it was - and forgive me for saying this an isolated incident, while there threats to our societies andto our present day existence is a fundamental threat.We provided the United States with information on Al-Qaeda that with intelligence that was describedby a letter sent by the secretary Powell to United States Congress as actionable information that hashelped saved American life. That was the sort of cooperation we used to have with the United Statesprior to the war on Iraq. However once we in Syria realize that the United States was adamant oninvading and occupying Iraq, we became more alert and we tried to discuss this with the United Statesbecause we were still on talking terms of the with the United States at that time. I rememberpersonally being a member of a Syrian delegation, that came to the United States and met with the highranking number of US officials and I tried to argue with them, to convince them not to go and invadeIraq. We told them look this is our region, we belong to that region, we understand exactly the natureof that region, everything you are being told is absolute absolutely false and untrue. There are noWMD's in Iraq. There is no relation whatsoever between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda. Iraq is notany more eminent to danger on any of its neighbors.I don't want to elaborate until all the details we offered to US, but we were very clear in telling the USthat we believe that for you to go and invade Iraq it would be equivalent to opening a Pandora's Box ofwoes and evils. We said to the Americans don't believe what the neocons are telling you you would bebe met with rice, flowers and all ululations in the streets of Baghdad, and major Iraqi cities. Actually ifyou go there you would unleashing forces you really do not understand their true nature. We finallytold them look our region is already troubled with too many wars and conflicts, we don't want yetanother war, yet another major conflict in our region, please don't do this. Of course needless tosay they ridiculed all our arguments, they told us to the face - I remember very well because this isa part of my personal history, I was at there when they told us you claim that you belong to that region and youunderstand very well your region will let us tell you what will happen within two month of our quote-unquote liberation of Iraq. Iraq will become a model of prosperity and democracy that will inspirethe whole Arab world. And believe us, every Arab the nation in the Arab region will be dreaming ofhaving the same fate as that of Iraq within two to three months of our liberation of Iraq.I don't want to go back to history you exactly know what has happened to Iraq what is happening in theMiddle-East today. Our relations have deteriorated dramatically after that with United States. Webecome suddenly a rogue state and now probably we are most eligible nation to join officially theaxis of evil list that has been compiled by this administration. I know this seem a little bit funny orsarcastic, but believe me the United States is imposing sanction on embargos on Syria, and this ismaking our life very, very difficult. The whole life of the whole Syrian population regardless ofwhether they sympathies with the government or they don't sympathies with whether they areresponsible for serious opposition to the war on Iraq or they supported the US Grandiose Project onnation reengineering, regardless today Syria is paying a heavy price.And this is one aspect, but there are other aspects. today in Syria we have 1.6 million Iraqi refugees.This is an incredible burden on our infrastructure our social services, our medical services, ourschooling services and for you to understand what does this mean 1.6 million Iraqi refugees you haveto imagine 30 million refugees suddnely influxing into the United States, and you are a rich nation,we are not as bestowed by riches and fortunes as you are and I am sure that if this happens here inthe united states and suddenly suddenly within a very short period of time, you will end up with 30million refugees. I think I think you can imagine what will happen in the United States, this ishappening to Syria. Take our population and proportion and to account, you will understand themeaning of having 1.6 million Iraqi refugees in Syria. This is a burden that Syria has has troubled by,but it is just at one one aspect of the ongoing conflict in in Iraq. There are other other issues, all ofthem are very troubling and concern us a lot, and are causing lots of troubles for everyone in theMiddle-East. It's also also the fear that Iraq might disintegrate and the repurcussions this thisintegration will have under whole region. It might have a domino effect, Syria that Syria has acultural, religious, ethnic sectarian, linguistic mosaic that is far richer than the one in Iraq. Luckily forthe last 2000 years we lived harmoniously with each other. We never had any domain in civil conflictor internal conflict in Syria, but we fear of what is happening in Iraq might have a a spillover effecton the whole region.I don't want to tell you about the other things because really our problems are nothing compared to thetragedies and the the agonies of the Iraqi's themselves. I am trying to become cynical, I am tryingto tell you look how much we are suffering in Syria while our suffering is nothing compared to those ofthe Iraqi's. Now having said this about the problem of Iraqi refugees in Syria, please do remember thatalso we have half a million Palestinian refugees in Syria. Also please do remember the last summerwhen Israel was bombarding Lebanon, we ended up with 625 thousand Lebanese refugees into Syria.And also at to this the fact that today in Syria there are 125000 Syrian refugees in Syria dreaming ofthe day they can go back to their towns, villages and houses in the occupied Syrian Golan, because theywere forcibly expelled from the Golan when Israel occupied the Golan.This only would this would only give a glimpse about this sort of problems - problems that's a countrylike mine is facing in the Middle-East, but it will also show you this short of responsibility the UnitedStates has got towards Middle-East. For a very simple reason you decided to come uninvited to ourregion and to become our neighbor. You decided to provide Israel with full absolute support forwhatever Israel does rightly or wrongly, I am not criticizing Israel right now. I am just telling you thatby giving Israel this astronomical military and financial support while Israel continues to occupy ourterritories, while the Palestinian has gone through incredible, incredible suffering and humiliation forthe last decades, in a way or another it is a it a decision taken by the United States to becomeimplicated in the issues of the Middle-East.In the last five minutes before I stop I wanted to go from the negative to the positive. I want to tell youthat today there is hope in the Middle-East, despite the bleak vision picture that I have just painted foryou. At least I can tell you that all Arab countries without a single exception including my own countrySyria have embraced the so called prince Abdullah initiative that has become after the Pan ArabSummit Meeting, the Pan Arab Peace initiative towards Israel. All Arab countries without a singleexception are offering Israel they have done this publicly on the record and repeatedly. Full peace,comprehensive peace, absolute normalization of relations if they are willing to accept the fair principleof land for peace, if Israel is willing to give us back our occupied territories, the Syrian Golan, theLebanese Shaba Farms, and Ghajar Village and allow the Palestinians and the West Bank in Gaza tohave their own independent sovereign viable state just like every other nation in the world. The Israeliswill get comprehensive peace and total security in return. And we think this is a fair and andvenerable history compromise between the Arabs and the Israelis, and in a way or another even inIsrael itself there is a large constituency for peace that is supporting the Pan Arab initiative.Sadly the Israeli Government has not yet excepted this Pan Arab Initiative having said this we believewe believe that peace between the Arabs and the Israelis has inevitable. There is no third option warsnot cannot continue for ever between the Arabs and the Israelis and they will lead to nowhere thelast war on Lebanon is is a solid proof of what I am saying, and more and more Israelis today arerealizing that they cannot continue for ever to depend on their sheer military superiority and theabsolute American support for their policies to impose on us the acceptance to their occupation theirpolicies of occupation and they have seen last summer in Lebanon how that despite their sheer militarysuperiority they were incapable securing their towns and villages and then in a way or another, moreand more Israelis realize that the only way in which their grand children can live in peace with othergrand children in which they can be accepted by us as much we might be accepted by them is for themto relinquish their grand vision of expanding on our account taking and grabbing more and more ofour territories, driving more and more of our peoples outside their countries, their towns, their villages,their farms, and bringing more and more immigrants from else where on the world and to what theyregard as the Jewish historic republican from east land.This is this is why I am hopeful. The constituency for peace in Israel is today a minority but it is alarge minority, not a fringe minority, and it is growing steadily slowly but steadily. And at one pointthere will be a pivotal point after which the Israelis will realize exactly as we have realized years agobut the only path forward for us and for them is to reach a comprehensive fair a venerable peaceagreement based on the principle of land for peaces I have said. The United States bear a responsibilitythere and it has full filled partially this responsibility in the past, the United States helped Egyptand Israel reach peace. It has helped Jordan and Israel reach peace. In the past also at broker, peace talksbetween the Palestinians and the Israelis, and the Syrians on the Israelis.Today unfortunately is the other way around, the Israelis have time and again send us messagesindirectly through indirect mediator telling us that they have no problem resuming peace talks withSyria had that not being for the fierce opposition of the White House. So look at this how how the USpolicies have shifted from a time in which the US was actually, actively involved in trying to brokerpeace talks between the Syrians and the Israelis to a position in which they tell that Israeli friendsand allies literally don't talk to the Syrians.I will stop by this small end story. I meet one of the prominent American Jewish leaders here in theUnited States, a Jewish community leader who really truly believes in peace between Syria andIsrael. And he was discussing with me the possibilities to revive the peace talks between Syria andIsrael. Then I arranged for him to go and visit Damascus and meet with the Syrian President here fromhim personally if Syria was committed and sincerely desiring to make peace with Israel. Then he wentand he met with the Prime-minister of Israel. The prime minister of Israel said to this leader of theAmerican Jewish community we have don't to mind resuming peace talks with Syria we havedone this twice in the past the problem is not with us. The problem is with your friends in WashingtonD C, they opposed doing this.In brief this gentleman came back to Washington D C and he met with a very senior official in the statein in the White House who is in charge of the Arab Israeli files and portfolio, I think you can knowhim without me mentioning his name. He told him how come that you are opposing peace talksbetween Syria and Israel. The gentleman said to him because we don't want to reward Syria for its badbehavior and the Jewish community leader was outraged and said to him can't you understand thatpeace between Syria and Israel is not a reward to Syria it is a reward to Syria its also a reward to Israeland most importantly is a reward to the united states. This is the mentality today in the white house thisis why there is a lot of talk but that is much ado about nothing a lots of talk about that peace conferencethat would take place in Annapolis, late November most probably this peace conference will lead tono where, because as far as we are concerned nobody is discussing anything with us there are conceptpapers, no white papers, no memorandums of understanding, no intensive discussions prior to thatmeeting, nothing, nothing which is so different in contrast to the Madrid Peace Conference thatwas convened by President Bush senior and Secretary Baker when they were in the White House.We remember very well in Syria the amount of intensive diplomatic negotiations that immediatelypreceded the Madrid Peace conferences. We compared to what's happening today absolute nothingand in a way or another forgive us if we deduce that this is only about a photo opportunity and aboutpeople in Washington D C telling there electorate look don't accuse that first only only of of a startingwars, look, we are working for peace in the Middle-East. But to be honest whether you we don'tseriously belief we don't seriously believe that this is a peace conference that will lead to anywhere. Idon't want to end my speech on on negative terms I asked one funny story to tell you before I stopand start taking your questions it has to do with President Bush himself and myself. When I presentedmy credentials to President Bush as the ambassador of Syria to the united states I have to admit that hewas a genuinely pleasant person and he do not try to make my meeting with him difficult. According toprotocol I asked my wife to accompany me - during this meeting followed by a protocol celebration avery small one really.So President Bush met my wife and he said to her are you enjoying your life in Washington D C. shesaid no Mr. President right now I do not live in Washington D C I am pursuing my doctoral studies inEngland and he was impressed he said to her wow an Arab woman doing a PhD in England in whichhe said. She said to him in computer science and he was genuinely flabbergasted and then he looked ather and he said isn't that something he looked at me and he said to me Mr. Ambassador your wife isboth beautiful and intelligent and then he said to me ambassador we both married up. I thought thatwas a nice compliment but this is not the story the story happened in the evening in the evening I wassupposed to have dinner with my friends and they knew that I was to meet with the president earlier inthe day so I went to the restaurant my friends were waiting for me and they asked me how was yourhow did your meeting with president Bush go. I told them it would sound very well really he actuallyflirted with my wife and they said to me well thank god it was not president Clinton. Thank you very much.