View Full Version : For Syria's Envoy, No Calls From The White House

07-29-2006, 12:29 PM
For Syria's envoy, no calls from the White House


By Thom Shanker The New York Times
Published: July 27, 2006

WASHINGTON Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, has not had a single meeting with any senior Bush administration official in a year and half. Even in the current crisis, his phone does not ring.

The Bush administration may explicitly state that Syria can rein in Hezbollah, whose fighters in Lebanon captured two Israeli soldiers and ignited the fighting that now threatens a wider conflict. But the White House has made no calls to start any kind of dialogue with Syria on resolving the crisis, Moustapha said, nor has the State Department.

Despite Moustapha's political isolation here - after all, he is chief envoy of a nation the State Department lists as a sponsor of terrorism - he rejects a popular appellation that he is the loneliest diplomat in town.

"But I do now occupy the unique position of being the only ambassador of a rogue state in the United States," he said, then quickly added, diplomatically: "That's a joke. We are not a rogue state. But no other 'quote, unquote' rogue state has an ambassador here."

With no movement toward a significant dialogue with the government, Moustapha engages in public diplomacy to take his nation's case to America.

He addresses university audiences about once a month. He counts off the members of Congress he has met. Business leaders are on his weekly schedule. His is a common face on television, especially the Sunday morning talk shows.

In keeping with the times - and as would befit the former dean of information technology at the University of Damascus - the ambassador is a blogger. His Internet log on current events, art, music and travel can be found at http:// imad_moustapha.blogs.com.

The image now at the top of the blog, under the title "Lebanon and Israel," is Goya's gruesome 1819 painting, "Saturn (Devouring His Son)."

Middle Eastern politics is a world of shaded language where issues rarely are black and white, in stark contrast to Moustapha's prior professional universe of computers, where the language is a binary code, written in zeros and ones.

"We are trained to think in a logical way," the ambassador said. "However, there is one particular science in artificial intelligence that is entitled 'fuzzy logic,' in which you deal with the nuances of uncertainty."

Moustapha discussed his diplomatic isolation at the Syrian Embassy, located in elegant northwest Washington, where allies and antagonists routinely share property lines: His embassy is just behind the residence of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, one of the administration's most vocal critics of Syria.

Despite being neighbors, Moustapha said he met Rumsfeld only once, in the holding room of NBC's "Meet the Press" before the two were to appear for separate interviews.

Fluent in English and French, the ambassador is direct in pointing out what his government says are the flaws of Bush administration policy across the Middle East, and in the current crisis.

On the Bush administration's demand that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria order Hezbollah to halt attacks on Israel, the ambassador said: "Syria is willing and is capable of playing a constructive role, but not in a simplistic way. Calling Hezbollah? Telling them, 'Hey, guys: Enough is enough! Stop!' or some such? Life is not like that."

On reports that the Bush administration may try to cleave Syria from Iran, he said: "I was bemused. What sort of simplistic solution is this? We believe the core issue is the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, of Syrian territory, of Lebanese territory. The history of the Middle East did not start two weeks ago. We are allies to Iran because Iran is supporting our causes."

The State Department's latest "Country Reports on Terrorism," issued in April, said Syria provides political and material support to Hezbollah and Palestinian "terror organizations," and that Damascus, the Syrian capital, is a safe haven for leaders of Palestinian terrorist groups.

The American ambassador to Syria was withdrawn after the February 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister; a United Nations investigation into the murder found a strong likelihood of official Syrian involvement. The other two high-profile nations on the terror list, Iran and North Korea, have ambassadors in New York as representatives to the United Nations, but none in Washington.

At the White House on Wednesday, Tony Snow, the president's spokesman, was asked directly whether any government officials had spoken with Moustapha to enlist Syria's assistance in reining in Hezbollah.

"I am not aware of recent conversations along those lines," Snow said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, opening her negotiations in the Middle East this week, also was asked about potential communications with Damascus.

"The problem isn't that people haven't talked to the Syrians, it's that the Syrians haven't acted," she said.

Moustapha joined the embassy here in early 2003, and was promoted to chargé d'affaires before he became the ambassador and submitted his credentials as ambassador to President George W. Bush in March 2004.

He has attained an unusually exalted diplomatic position for an academic who is not even a member of Syria's ruling Baath Party.

But as a co-author of an influential United Nations report on human development in the Arab world, Moustapha lectured widely, and one night the Syrian president was in the audience.

"Gradually, without even me paying attention to this, President Assad began thinking of me as someone who could work on Syrian-American relations," Moustapha said.

A brief honeymoon in relations between Syria and the United States followed the Sept. 11 attacks, when Syrian intelligence shared its reports on Al Qaeda. But relations soured after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, although Moustapha played a central role in an incident that, he said, Syria hoped would increase good will between the two nations.

In early 2005, the ambassador brought a message to the United States government that Syria had captured Saddam Hussein's half brother, a man who once was the widely feared boss of Iraq's two most powerful security agencies. Syria was willing, its government said, to hand him and almost three- dozen associates over to the Iraqi authorities.

But, Moustapha said, his government was angered that officials in Washington explained the hand-over as resulting solely from American pressure, and he said that response was followed by more complaints from Washington and American military commanders in Iraq.

"The moment the United States wants to re-engage, we are willing to re- engage," he said. "But re-engage. Not dictate."