Posted by Joshua on Monday, March 12th, 2007
U.S.-Syrian Relations: The Untold Story and the Road Ahead
By Ambassador Imad Moustapha
Originally published in Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs
It is no secret that Syrian-American relations have been quite strained, to say the least, for some time now. Initial talks of a U.S. invasion of Iraq sparked the first signs of tension with Syria’s fierce opposition to such a plan. While we were Saddam Hussain’s arch-enemies, the notion of infringing on another country’s sovereignty to dispose of its leader based on dubious, or even fabricated, pretexts was unacceptable to us—and should have been for everyone else. Besides, we were absolutely convinced that any foreign occupation is a perilous concept that will create serious problems and yield grave consequences.
Consequently, relations between both countries continued to spiral toward diplomatic stalemate. Nonetheless, while the administration and, for a while, Congress refused to engage or listen to what we had to say, the so-called “rational center” (academia, think tanks, the media, and thoughtful American citizens) were eager to hear from us and advocate engagement with Syria.
Although the paradigm concerning Syria has shifted drastically in the past few months, it is important to review the events that led to the current deadlock and share a side of the story that has yet to be revealed…
Syria’s Untold Side of the Story
Relations between the U.S. and Syria were not always this strained. Syria was one of the first countries to condemn the atrocious terrorist attacks of 9/11 and approached the U.S. with intelligence on al-Qaeda—which, according to Secretary of State Colin Powell in a letter addressed to Congress, was “actionable information” that “helped save American lives.”
This security coordination faltered after the invasion of Iraq, however, when the U.S. started leveling accusations at Syria claiming that Syria was allowing the infiltration of foreign fighters into Iraq. In March 2004, I was directed by my government to initiate contacts with officials from both the State Department and the Pentagon to address these accusations. The aim was not merely to “refute” these allegations but, more importantly, to formally inform U.S. officials that Syria was willing to cooperate with the U.S. on securing these borders. I conveyed to the U.S. officials Syria’s willingness to do whatever it takes to secure these borders, including exchanging information, sharing intelligence, holding field meetings between Syrian and U.S. military officers, and even participating in trilateral border patrols with the Iraqis and Americans. Needless to say, while my suggestions aroused serious interest in the State Department, they were flatly rejected by the Pentagon.
In September 2004, I delivered an official letter from the Syrian leadership to the U.S. administration in which Syria explicitly offered cooperation toward securing and stabilizing Iraq. The U.S. reply was a deafening silence.
In January 2005, when former Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage visited Damascus, Syria agreed to further enhance security and intelligence cooperation with the U.S. to include any terrorists crossing from Syria into Iraq, or those operating from within Syria. Meanwhile, I had strict directives from Damascus to inform high-ranking officials at the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon that if they wanted Syria’s security cooperation to continue, the U.S. administration had to cease its somewhat-daily diatribe against Syria. The underlying message was that Syria is not a charity. If the U.S. wants cooperation with Syria on security issues, political engagement should ensue.
Ostensibly, the U.S. was not interested. Washington withdrew its ambassador from Damascus and embarked on a vicious political offensive on Syria. Still, the U.S. continued requesting Syria’s security cooperation! Unfortunately, I had to announce in April 2005 that Syria was severing all cooperation between Syrian security agencies and their American counterparts. Damascus would refuse to cooperate behind closed doors and be lambasted in the open.
Where to Go From Here
An interesting pattern is emerging out of Washington regarding U.S. policy toward Syria. While the Bush administration has invested so much into isolating Syria, it seems that the plan has only backfired, resulting in the isolation of the administration itself in regards to various major players in the region. Top congressmen and senators from both sides of the aisle have stressed the importance of re-engaging with Syria. In their response to President Bush’s State of the Union address, the Democrats stressed the role of a “regional diplomatic effort” in order to achieve stability and peace in Iraq. Key Republican figures, such as Senators Richard Lugar, Arlen Specter and Chuck Hagel, have stressed the same notion. Such a “regional diplomatic effort” will ultimately include Syria, among other neighboring countries.
Also, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—who has yet to visit Damascus—downplays engagement with Syria as “fruitless,” former secretaries of state who have actually negotiated with Damascus have all stressed the importance of dialogue with Damascus. Only recently, former Secretary of State Powell told Newsweek that “we got plenty” from talking with Syria. Prior to that, one of the two top figures behind the Iraq Study Group report, former Secretary of State James Baker, who dealt extensively with Syria, recommended that the U.S. talk to Syria. The list of former secretaries of states calling for engagement with Syria also includes Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger.
The Bush administration’s isolation is not confined to the political realm. It seems they are in isolation from their own military, as well. Col. William Crowe, in charge of the border area between Syria and Iraq, was asked by reporters at a Jan. 12, 2007 Pentagon briefing about the number of foreign fighters infiltrating Iraq from Syria. The colonel candidly replied, “There is no large influx of foreign fighters that come across the border.” He added, however, that “smuggling has been taking place in this part of the world for thousands of years.” In most cases when his troops had caught an infiltrator moving across the border—a possible average of two per day—Colonel Crowe hastened to add, “it turns out it is someone smuggling sheep, eggs, or cigarettes.”
Moreover, on Feb. 13 Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared that, based on the National Intelligence Estimate, “Syria …[is] not causing the strife within Iraq…
The…Syrians have nothing to do with it.” Yet, Washington is still somehow adamant in its accusation of Syria’s involvement in allowing infiltrators into Iraq.
The administration is in isolation from its Iraqi allies, as well, regarding Syria. In January of this year, to the chagrin of the U.S. administration, Syria and Iraq re-established diplomatic relations after a lapse of 25 years, resulting in a Security Memorandum signed by the two countries. Our foreign minister paid an official visit to Baghdad, and Iraqi President Jalal Talibani concluded a weeklong visit to Damascus. Meanwhile, the U.S. administration continues to blame Syria for its own failed policies in Iraq.
Syria firmly believes that the only way to achieve progress in Iraq is through the political engagement of all parties, without exception or exclusion. This includes all Iraqi factions, regional neighbors of Iraq, and international players with interest in stabilizing the situation in Iraq. A strategy of consensus and dialogue is the only way forward. Syria can play a constructive role if such a path is adopted. Alas, the new strategy formulated by President Bush will only lead to more violence and bloodshed.
In February 2007, the U.S. State Department invited me to a meeting aimed at discussing the status of Iraqi refugees in Syria. I told them that Syria refuses to discuss one consequence of failed U.S. policies in Iraq and opts, instead, to engage with Washington on the very policies that led to the series of disasters—of which the refugee strife is but one example. I also had to remind them that whereas more than one million Iraqis fled what they call “an oasis of democracy” into our “rogue state,” the U.S., which bears the full responsibility for everything taking place today in Iraq, had granted refugee status to only 450 Iraqis. They claimed that the number would be raised to 7,000 by 2008.
Syria’s willingness to sit at the negotiating table arises from two aspects: self-interest and empathy with the Iraqi people. Syria is not looking for a deal on Iraq. The humanitarian toll paid by the Iraqi people through daily killings, exodus, hunger, and other brutal conditions is unacceptable, based on human and international law. While not comparable to the suffering of the Iraqis, Syria also has shouldered some of the weight of Washington’s failed policies in Iraq. Syria has welcomed around 1,300,000 Iraqi refugees—a tremendous burden on any country.
Whether it is for the benefit of the Iraqis, the Syrians, the neighboring countries, or the young American and British soldiers dying on the ground, the chaos needs to come to an end.
This is not America’s war, nor is it the world’s war—it is President Bush’s war. Nonetheless, it is the duty of America and the world to put an end to the suffering of Iraqis, primarily, and the suffering of every party shouldering a burden from this administration’s uncalculated failed policies. The road ahead undoubtedly will be difficult. Yet, if we are to bring this sad chapter in our history to an end, it will inevitably require all of us to take this road together, and work toward a brighter future.