- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 10, 2011

The State Department is investigating charges that Syrian diplomats are spying on Syrian anti-government demonstrators in Washington and other U.S. cities in order to intimidate their relatives in the restive Middle Eastern nation.

Eric Boswell, assistant secretary for diplomatic security, last week summoned Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha to air “concerns with the reported actions of certain Syrian Embassy staff in the United States,” the State Department said Friday evening.

“We received reports that Syrian mission personnel under Ambassador Moustapha’s authority have been conducting video and photographic surveillance of people participating in peaceful demonstrations in the United States,” the department said.

The charges could spur the State Department to restrict the travel of the ambassador and other Syrian diplomats.

Hamdi Rifai, director of Arab Americans for Democracy in Syria, said he filed a complaint with the State Department in June about reports of the ambassador’s attempted intimidation and surveillance of Syrian-Americans.

“I was told they were actively considering placing restrictions on the movement of Ambassador Moustapha amongst other remedies to the situation,” Mr. Rifai said.

Radwan Ziadeh, the director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights who is in close touch with Syria’s liberal opposition, said he first noticed Syrian diplomats monitoring demonstrations in Washington last month.

“What I know is, we have had demonstrations in front of the White House last month and, for the first time, we were confronted by some supporters of the Assad regime. When we took pictures and looked for their names, some of them worked for the embassy,” he said.

“This happened also in Michigan, New Jersey and Los Angeles, where there is a large Syrian community. We started asking the State Department to follow up on this issue.”

Mr. Ziadeh said he was worried that the activities from the embassy personnel were part of a campaign to intimidate the families of Syrian-Americans.

“All the Syrian exiles who are activists are afraid to go back to Syria,” he said. “My mother is in Damascus. She has been told she cannot travel, and my brothers and sisters have been told they cannot travel. They called my brother to issue statements to discredit and attack me. This is because of what I am doing outside of the country.”

Mr. Rifai said he received a note to his Facebook account from the Syrian Interior Ministry asking him to end his opposition activities and obey Syrian law.

Mr. Ziadeh talked to The Washington Times from Johannesburg, where he was lobbying the South African government to vote in favor of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Syria’s crackdown on nonviolent protests.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, has been fighting widespread non-violent demonstrations for about 14 weeks. Human rights groups accuse his security forces of killing as many as 1,600 protesters.

In its response last week to the allegations against Mr. Moustapha, the State Department said: “The United States government takes very seriously reports of any foreign government actions attempting to intimidate individuals in the United States who are exercising their lawful right to freedom of speech as protected by the U.S. Constitution.

“We are also investigating reports that the Syrian government has sought retribution against Syrian family members for the actions of their relatives in the United States exercising their lawful rights in this country, and will respond accordingly.”

In Syria, main opposition groups boycotted talks with the government on Sunday and said they would not negotiate until Mr. Assad stops the violent crackdown and frees thousands of political prisoners.

Even many of the intellectuals, independent parliamentarians and minor opposition figures who did attend the conference, aimed at setting the framework for national dialogue, were critical of the government crackdown.

Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa called for a transition to democracy in a country ruled for four decades by the Assad family dynasty. He credited mass protests with forcing the regime to consider reforms while warning against further demonstrations.

A senior State Department official said in response to the meeting: “We and the Syrian people are looking for positive and genuine action from the Syrian government that leads to a transition. This transition must meet the aspirations of the Syrian people. The Syrian government will be judged by its concrete actions, not its words.”

The public allegations against Mr. Moustapha could signal the fall in stature for an ambassador who became a fixture of the diplomatic cocktail-party circuit in Washington in the first years of the Obama administration.

Mr. Moustapha, unlike many of his predecessors, is accessible to reporters and even kept up a personal blog. An entry from Jan. 31, 2009, discusses recent dinner parties that the ambassador threw under the title “Friends and More Friends.”

His dinner guests have included journalists Seymour Hersh and Helene Cooper of the New York Times and members of Congress.

“Common sense says that given what has happened inside Syria, Moustapha is in a complicated and tense situation in Washington,” said Steve Clemons, Washington editor-at-large for the Atlantic magazine, who has included the ambassador among his guests at parties.

“I would be highly surprised if the embassy served as a base for intimidation of Syrian-American families but have no sense of this one way or another. I think that Moustapha believes in engagement and supports broad economic liberalization,” Mr. Clemons said.

He added, “Just as ambassadors of the United States need to obey the dictates of policy whether conservative, liberal or neoconservative - Moustapha must follow the instructions of his home base or resign.”

Mr. Clemons said he last saw the ambassador at a dinner he hosted for Robert Ford, who was appointed last year as U.S. ambassador to Syria.

Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the allegations against Mr. Moustapha are “beyond the pale.” He said the Obama administration should kick the ambassador out of the country or at the very least restrict his movement.

“It would be outrageous for any foreign government to do this in the United States. But the fact that this is the Syrian regime that is doing this and is reportedly using the information against families or associates of people here in the United States makes it even worse,” Mr. Singh said.

Mr. Singh served as senior director for the Middle East on the National Security Council staff under President George W. Bush.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.