U.S. wonders if Syrias charming new face is merely superficial

washington | Syria’s ambassador to Washington says he wants peace with Israel because it’s in Syria’s interest, the region’s interest and — “this might be bizarre for me to say,” he admits — Israel’s interest.

Gregarious, grinning and looking younger than his 44 years, Imad Moustapha is the face of a new Syrian charm offensive launched during a low point in Syria’s relations with the West, and the United States in particular.

The Bush administration has made ending Middle Eastern regimes like the one in Syria — a hereditary autocracy and a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism — a foreign policy priority.

Just before last year’s U.S. invasion of Iraq, Syrian President Bashar Assad made possibly his worst gamble since ascending to power in 2000, reversing his late father’s policy of giving Saddam Hussein the cold shoulder.

Not long after U.S. troops swept into Baghdad, administration officials hinted that Damascus could be next, though they later backed off. In May, President Bush slapped Syria with trade sanctions because of its failure to comply with U.S. demands to crack down on terrorism, end its weapons programs and clear out of Lebanon.

Syria expected some relief from Europe, but European nations also have reprimanded the Assad regime for flouting the West. The European Union is considering extending free-trade status to Syria, but first wants guarantees that Syria won’t try to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Against that background, Assad’s appointment this year of Moustapha, a computer science professor noted for his Western outlook, was no coincidence — nor were Moustapha’s gestures toward Syrian Jews.

Within weeks of Bush’s imposition of the sanctions, Moustapha took an official U.S. Jewish delegation to Syria. After the visit — which Moustapha says succeeded beyond his wildest dreams — he seemed to have a newfound appreciation for the Jewish people.

“We are proud in our history that when the Jews were persecuted in Spain they came to Syria,” he said.

Moustapha acknowledges the link between his outreach to Jews and Syria’s desire to restart peace talks with Israel, though he cautions that the Syrian public is not ready for gestures to Israel itself.

“The overwhelming majority of, I believe in my heart, Syrians and Israelis want to have a peace accord,” he said.

That message was echoed recently by Moustapha’s bosses. In December, Assad told the New York Times he was ready to pick up negotiations with Israel where his father unceremoniously cut them off in early 2000. Moustapha went even further, saying the quasi-peace Syria sought then is no longer applicable. Moustapha dismisses the Syria Accountability Act, which the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed last year and which led to Bush’s sanctions, as the product of a cabal of “neoconservatives and Israel’s war camp.”

“What would they gain by creating yet another enemy for the United States?” he said. “I don’t understand the ideology.”

He attributes the act to the fanaticism of ideologues. “They believe the United States thrives when there are enemies. First it was the Communist bloc, then it was Osama bin Laden, then it was Iraq. Now they are dreaming of portraying Syria as their enemy. But we are not their enemy.”

Israeli and U.S. officials dismiss what they say is pure rhetoric.

“We think the Syrians have very serious problems, not just with Israel, not just with the United States, but with much of the global community,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington. “In a world that has condemned terrorism, Syria hosts a whole series of terrorist groups in Damascus.”

Moustapha insists that Syria is meeting the provisions of the Syria Accountability Act and has shut down terrorist offices in Damascus.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.