- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
The Hezbollah militia battling Israeli forces in Lebanon is widely believed to receive arms and other support from Syria and Iran. Last year Syria withdrew its remaining 15,000 forces from Lebanon to comply with the demands of the UN Security Council, but regional experts say it continues to exert influence in the country, particularly through assisting Hezbollah.
Syria’s U.S. ambassador, Imad Moustapha, denies any Syrian role in the arming of Hezbollah forces although he says Damascus politically supports the militia in its conflict with Israel. As an actor in the region with ties to the parties confronting Israel, Syria can play a constructive role in ending the bloodshed, says Moustapha. But he says Bush administration officials have declined contacts with Damascus, even though they have been fruitful on a number of occasions since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Since the start of the fighting in Lebanon, what contacts have you had with the Bush administration?
No contacts whatsoever. They do not talk to Syria.
Have there been any contacts through intermediaries?
No, none whatsoever. However, having said this, many congressmen and some senators have contacted me. They are surprised that at this very crucial, difficult time the United States is not talking to many parties in the Middle East: the democratically elected [Palestinian] government of Hamas; Hezbollah, which has democratically elected members of the Lebanese parliament and which is a member of the Lebanese government’s coalition; Syria; and Iran. And by doing this, the United States has pushed itself to the diplomatic sidelines.
Has Syria attempted contacts with the United States?
We did not attempt contact but we made it very clear to the Americans that the moment they think it’s time to be engaged with Syria, Syria is more than willing to engage. However, when we talk about engagement, we are talking about actual talking with Syria, not dictating to Syria what it should do. In the past whenever there was a crisis the United States would immediately dispatch an envoy to Damascus, would sit there with Syrian officials, brainstorm, discuss, try to find a creative solution and eventually reach a settlement and compromise. Not with this administration. It doesn’t talk.
If there were talks, what would Syria be able to do?
We could play a very constructive role, and very [balanced], provided the parties are willing to engage. And I mean by other parties the United States and Israel, because the United States has made itself a party to this conflict by, on the one hand, refusing to ask Israel to implement a cease-fire, and on the other hand expediting the dispatch of sophisticated bombs to Israel so that Israel can inflict more death and destruction on Lebanon. However, if the other side is willing to engage, then Syria believes two things should be addressed: a short-term solution and a long-term solution. A short-term solution is, of course, very clearly an immediate cessation of hostilities and exchange of prisoners. Hezbollah holds two Israeli military soldiers. Israel holds thousands of Arab prisoners, some of them civilians, some of them women and children. We think this is a very fair exchange. This is on the one hand. On the other hand, we believe that a long-term solution should be addressed.
It is high time the United States adopt the policies of previous administrations, particularly those of [President George] Bush Sr. and [President] Clinton, and help the Arabs and Israelis reach a comprehensive solution to the Middle East conflict. These incidents in the occupied territories, parallel to what’s happening in Lebanon, prove to any thoughtful American that Israel cannot continue to depend on sheer military superiority to impose its policies on the Middle East. They decide what they want to do and they do it unilaterally without even talking to the Arab states. Yes, they are more powerful than all the Arab states combined, but this is not bringing Israel peace and security.
Obviously, from the Israeli side they see this as an existential issue, and are especially alarmed by Hezbollah’s firepower. This particular incident was triggered by Hezbollah seizing two Israeli soldiers. What do you believe triggered that incident?
Well, let me first remind you the history of the Middle East didn’t start two weeks ago. Here in the United States, the establishment has immediately adopted the Israeli version of Israel being the benign, peace-loving lamb of the Middle East surrounded by the hateful Arabs who really are bent on destroying Israel. This is totally untrue. In the past four or five years all Arab leaders have adopted the King Abdullah initiative [known as the Arab Peace Initiative], from Saudi Arabia, and there were two pan-Arab summit meetings in Beirut and in Algiers in which all Arab countries without a single exception embraced this initiative. They offered Israel total peace, comprehensive peace, total normalization of relations, in return for our occupied territories and allowing the Palestinians to have their viable independent free state. Israel flatly rejected those initiatives, continues to build more and more illegal settlements in the West Bank, has converted Gaza into a huge prison and brazenly would say, "Look how nicely we withdrew from Gaza."
And I disagree with you: this is not an existential problem for Israel because had it been an existential problem, Israel would have signed a peace treaty with the Arabs.
Getting back to the incident that triggered what is going on right now, let’s focus on Lebanon, not the Palestinian territories.
The Lebanese have issues with Israel. First, Israel continues to occupy the [disputed border region of] Shebaa Farms. Second, Israel continues to hold Lebanese prisoners illegally. Hezbollah managed to imprison some Israeli soldiers in the past and through the mediation of a third party, Germany—this happened a few years ago—Germany brokered an expat prisoners exchange between Hezbollah and Israel. Hezbollah, in the past six months, go and read what they have been saying: "We still have prisoners in Israel and we want Israel to release our prisoners." Israel is not heeding these calls.
Why wouldn’t Hezbollah work through the Lebanese government to deal with this issue as opposed to unilaterally acting?
Life is not as rosy as you just said. The Lebanese government—I’m not talking about Hezbollah—has repeatedly said Israel has to withdraw from the Shebaa Farms Lebanese territories. Israel has refused. Israel has violated the Lebanese air space at least twenty-six times in the past six months, and every time, the Lebanese government has protested and registered a complaint at the UN Security Council. Nobody cares.
You mention there had been a history of Hezbollah-Israeli exchanges. Perhaps on this occasion Hezbollah miscalculated, or they did not understand the new Israeli government?
Israel has also miscalculated. Israeli was totally surprised by the fierce resistance of Hezbollah. Probably both parties have miscalculated, but this is unimportant. The important thing is the following: Hezbollah has captured two Israeli military soldiers and did not execute them, it did not behead them, it immediately offered an exchange of prisoners. But Israel is actually killing civilians, particularly children in Lebanon.
Characterize Syria’s relationship with Hezbollah.
On the political, diplomatic level, we totally support the fight of Hezbollah against Israel. Not only us, the whole Arab world, across the Islamic world, everybody is supporting Hezbollah. But on the logistical level, it’s totally untrue that we provide Hezbollah with arms for many reasons. First, Hezbollah does not need Syrian aid. Second, I’m always surprised here in the United States when I listen to the media. They say Hezbollah has a very sophisticated set of arms, rockets, and missiles provided to them by Syria and Iran. Then they choose two of the most sophisticated missiles that were targeted at Israel by Hezbollah, and they say those two were Syrian and Iranian. Then they forget this and start discussing Syria, and say Syria has a very weak, backward army, it has no means whatsoever of fighting against Israel, their weapons are outdated and obsolete. For God’s sake, they have to decide: Are we providing Hezbollah these arms, which means we have a very powerful and modern army, or are we a weakened army with obsolete weaponry?
Or a third thing: just providing them a safe conduit from Iran to the Bekaa Valley.
They are claiming those are Syrian-made missiles.
Some of the claims are also that Syria is providing passage for those missiles.
These are claims. I don’t care. What we really care for in Syria is the following: You can continue saying this forever, you can continue [scrutinizing] Syria, demonizing Iran, describing Hezbollah as a terrorist group. Where will this lead to? Nowhere. The only solution is for all parties to sit together and for Israel to recognize we all need a comprehensive solution.
There has been a lot said about the realpolitik aspect to U.S.-Syrian relations under former President Hafez Assad. Some have noted a change under his son Bashar—in, for example, his willingness to be more openly supportive of Hamas leaders, or allowing insurgents to cross the border into Iraq.
Let me remind you of a fact: Basher al-Assad was the president of Syria on September 11[, 2001]. We immediately contacted the U.S. security and intelligence agencies and told them, "We have been fighting against al-Qaeda and other extremist fundamentalist groups for the past thirty years, and we have a wealth of information." We started providing this information to the Americans. This was actionable information that "actually helped save American lives." I’m quoting an address by Secretary [of State Colin] Powell to the Congress.
Second, when the issue of Iraq happened at the beginning, there were many accusations that we are allowing insurgents to go from Syria to Iraq. Of course, we were denying this was happening but it led nowhere. And then on August 2004, a high-level U.S. official delegation [led by U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns] came to Damascus, they told us: "Look, this has been like a public rhetorical campaign against Syria. We are accusing Syria and Syria is refuting the accusation. Can we move forward and go back to the days of engagement? Can we do something about Iraq?" And we agreed. From August 2004 to January 2005, contrary to what is widely spread in the United States, we were actually helping the Americans in Iraq.
I was there. I’m telling you exactly what I witnessed from August 2004 to January 2005: we were cooperating with the Americans once again. This time not only on al-Qaeda, but also on the Iraqi issues. In January 2005, [U.S. Deputy Secretary of State] Richard Armitage came to Damascus and asked us to help on Iraq on many levels, most of them political, but some of them actually related to security. To make a long story short, they asked us to help them capture the No. 1 on the U.S. wanted list at the time, the half brother of Saddam, Sabawi [Ibrahim Hassan], and we did. We captured him with thirty-two of his aides and we delivered him to the Americans. What we told the Americans after we delivered Sabawi was the following, and this was January 2005: "We do not want anything in return for this, it only proves to you our goodwill. However, if you want the level of engagement and cooperation between Syria and the United States to increase you have to stop this public rhetorical campaign against us, this daily routine of lambasting Syria."
[But] everybody here in Washington, DC was saying: "See, this proves the only way to deal with Syria is to exert maximum pressure. When we pressured Syria, Syria delivered. This is the only way to deal with Syria."
As a response, my government directed me to inform the United States that from now on, all security channels between Syria and the United States would be severed and no cooperation whatsoever will take place, because enough is enough. We can’t continue to do this. That was the very end of our cooperation with the United States.