Ask Imad Moustapha what Syria’s top foreign policy objective is, and he doesn’t bat an eye. “We want to get our occupied Golan Heights back, regardless of what people say,” he declares. “Here, people claim Syria is not really interested in the Golan, that we really want to return to Lebanon. That’s rubbish.”
“We want the Golan back, and we believe the best way is through peace negotiations with Israel.”
But Syria also wants something else: to be removed from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, a pariah status that for the last six years has prevented U.S. companies from investing in the Middle Eastern country.
Moustapha, Syria’s ambassador to the United States, is confident both goals will be achieved, though the second will probably happen long before the first. Now that Libya and North Korea have been removed from the U.S. roster of “rogue states,” only Syria and three other countries — Cuba, Sudan and Iran — remain blacklisted.
In a mid-October interview at the Syrian Embassy, Moustapha said relations between Washington and Damascus are beginning to rebound, a trend that began just a few months ago and will probably accelerate once a new occupant moves into the White House — whether it’s John McCain or Barack Obama.
“Both candidates have expressed their desire to re-engage with Syria,” Moustapha told The Washington Diplomat. “Relations have already started to improve with this administration in the last few months. I would say this has benefited both Syria and the United States.”
Moustapha attributes Washington’s change of heart mainly to a desire by the Bush administration to regain influence in the Arab world.
“When the U.S. pulled out of Syria, other countries happily jumped in. Egypt helped Hamas and Israel reach a truce. Germany helped Hezbollah reach a prisoner swap with Israel. Syria, France and Qatar helped the Lebanese agree on a president,” he said, paraphrasing a recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.): “The Turks are helping the Syrians and Israel talk peace. Why is the U.S. on the sidelines? Because its policy of trying to isolate Syria ended up isolating the United States instead.”
Moustapha couldn’t agree more. “The U.S. adopted a policy of trying to ostracize Syria, believing this would lead to the collapse of the Syrian government. For Israel to engage in peace talks with Syria would undermine their whole strategy. But this has failed,” he argued. “Today, Syria has re-established excellent relations with Western Europe. All these U.S. attempts to isolate Syria have failed spectacularly. Eventually, the Israelis decided that they wanted to follow their own national interests, despite advice from Washington.”
For its part, the United States says it won’t remove Syria from the terrorist blacklist until President Bashar al-Assad distances his country from Iran and stops aiding Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist organization along with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda.
Interestingly, in mid-October, the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Jarida reported that President Bush proposed a deal under which Israel would pull out of the Golan if Syria severs its ties with Iran.
Bush allegedly made the offer in a handwritten letter delivered to Assad through Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his recent visit to Damascus. The secret letter — which even top U.S. diplomats in Damascus were unaware of — came the day after U.S. officials presented the offer in a meeting with Syrian officials. But Israeli sources denied any knowledge that such a deal was in the works, and Moustapha never mentioned it during our interview.
What he did say was that Syria has no intentions of severing ties with either Iran or Hezbollah for that matter.
“We have no problems with Iran, and our support of Hezbollah is not an accusation,” he pointed out. “On the contrary, we are very proud to support them. Hezbollah is a national liberation movement that successfully drove the Israeli military out of Lebanon and happens to be part of the democratically elected Lebanese government.”
On that front, Syria recently reversed its long-standing policy of not officially recognizing that democratically elected government. Syria had effectively occupied large sections of its smaller neighbor for nearly 30 years until it was forced to withdraw its troops in 2005, although many Syrians have never accepted the idea of Lebanon as a separate, independent nation.
But on Oct. 14, Assad issued a decree paving the way for full diplomatic ties with Lebanon — and before year’s end, an exchange of ambassadors in Damascus and Beirut for the first time since the two countries gained independence from France in the 1940s.
“The Secretary-General hopes that this landmark event will encourage Syria and Lebanon to engage in further constructive dialogue that will bring mutual benefits to both countries,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a statement.
Still, the United Nations is continuing with its investigation into the death of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister who was killed in a massive Beirut bombing that many blamed on Syrian operatives.
Damascus has consistently denied the charge, and Moustapha is optimistic this latest rapprochement will bring the neighbors closer together: “Historically, relations were so close and borders so open that we never thought we needed embassies in each other’s countries. But we have no problems in recognizing Lebanese sovereignty, so we decided to formalize our relations with Lebanon.”
Despite tentative progress with the Lebanese, don’t expect formal recognition of Israel anytime soon.
The two enemies have technically been in a state of war ever since Israel’s independence in 1948. During the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria and eventually annexed the small, mountainous territory, moving thousands of settlers there. In 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
The Yom Kippur War, known in the Arab world as the October War, inflicted huge casualties on both sides, but Syria didn’t achieve its dream of regaining the Golan.
On the contrary, the Golan — which Israel formally annexed in 1981 — is now home to thousands of Jewish civilians living in kibbutzim and small towns, along with the local Arab Druze population. The landscape is dotted with ostrich farms, wineries and military bases, and Israel, citing strategic concerns, appears in no mood to give it up.
Yet the country’s lame duck prime minister, Ehud Olmert, recently conceded in a controversial speech that Israel would have to do just that if it ever wants real peace with Syria. Not surprisingly, Moustapha concurs.
“The Israeli government continues to build settlements in the West Bank, but they claim to want peace,” the ambassador said. “And in the Golan, there are illegal settlers living and cultivating land stolen from Syrian farmers. If the Israeli government has a policy of sending innocent Israelis to the Golan, this is their responsibility.”
Asked if Syria could reach some sort of monetary compensation with the Jewish state for the loss of all or part of the Golan, Moustapha snorted.
“The outcome has to be respected — whether we separate or remain united with the north,” Lol said. “If [the north wants] to go for another war again, that’s their choice, but they’ll be violating the agreement. And I don’t think it’ll be good for them. They can’t afford another war in the south.”
But it remains to be seen if the north can afford to lose an area that’s inhabited by 12 million people and encompasses the size of Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda combined. The south is also home to something else the north won’t want to give up so easily: oil.
That’s because under independence, Southern Sudan would enjoy 100 percent of the billion or so in oil revenues generated by the crude oil extracted from its territory. Currently, it must split those revenues 50-50 with the central government in Khartoum.
No surprise then that a recent poll conducted by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute found that 98 percent of Southern Sudan’s people favor independence.
“If Khartoum would provide developmental assistance like roads and hospitals, that would appeal to southerners and they’d say, ‘Why should we form an independent state if we’re enjoying these services?’” Lol argues. “But that’s not happening.”
On the contrary, the Sudanese government continues to clash with southerners over precious resources, with the latest flare-up in the town of Abyei disrupting three years of relative peace and quiet in the region.
In a March 2008 dispatch from this dusty but strategic town, columnist Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times called Abyei — which sits on considerable oil wealth — “the tinderbox for Africa’s next war.”
“In the 1980s and 1990s, it was here that the [Khartoum] government perfected the techniques that later became notorious in Darfur: mass rape and murder by armed militias, so as to terrorize civilians and drive them away,” Kristof charged. “Now Sudan is coming full circle, apparently preparing to apply the same techniques again to Abyei and parts of the south.”
Lol prefers not to talk about war, but he insists his government will defend its interests if the time comes. “It has to be a peaceful divorce, not a violent one. If it’s violent, then the north will be the one who loses,” he said. “They won’t have access to our oil or agricultural products, and all our natural resources. The north is dry — it’s all desert. We are feeding Khartoum. All the agricultural land and 90 percent of the oil is in Southern Sudan. We also have minerals such as uranium. So basically they need us, and we need them.
“If they say no,” he added matter of factly, “we will seal our border and trade with East Africa.”
To hedge its bets, the south is also seeking greater cooperation with the United States. With the help of the Bush administration, Lol is aggressively seeking U.S. investment in Southern Sudan, particularly in hotels, agriculture, oil infrastructure and gold mining.
“The divestment campaign doesn’t affect us, because Southern Sudan is exempted from the sanctions,” he explained of the international movement to cut investment ties with companies doing business in Khartoum. “If you want to invest in Southern Sudan, you’re allowed to. We coordinate with the Treasury Department’s OFAC [Office of Foreign Assets Control], so if you call us, in less than two weeks you will get your license.”
In fact, a commentary published earlier this year in Forbes magazine makes the point that “nuance serves U.S. values and foreign policy objectives far better than blunt economic instruments” — especially in the case of Sudan.
“While broad sanctions still apply to much of Sudan, stemming from a series of executive orders and legislative initiatives, U.S. policy has incorporated carve-outs for the Government of Southern Sudan in support of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement,” said the article, jointly written by Jake Colvin of the pro-business National Foreign Trade Council and Adam Sterling, who directs the Sudan Divestment Task Force, a project of the Genocide Intervention Network advocacy coalition.
“More recently, with the support of the U.S. government, the Bank of Juba in Southern Sudan received its own international banking code needed for international wire transfers,” the article continued. “As a result, American and foreign investors can effectively do business in Southern Sudan without having to go through Khartoum.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.