- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Buthaina Shaaban, Syria’s minister of expatriates and former information director of the Foreign Ministry, arrived in the United States after President Bush signed the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act on Friday. Mrs. Shaaban was interviewed by Claude Salhani, international editor of United Press International.

Question: President Bush signed the Syria Accountability Act into law on Friday. How do you see this affecting Syrian-U.S. relations?

Answer: This puts another obstacle in the way of Syrian-American relations, but in Syria we find this act as a tool to threaten Syria. We believe that there is a much better way to handle things in the region and we believe the strategy of the United States concerning combating terrorism, or as they claim, “to bring peace and stability in the region,” is not going to be that at all.

A different way should be found, and Syria is always ready to resume peace negotiations. It’s a contradiction in terms really that the United States should proceed with the Syria Accountability Act.

Q: You say the United States should find a different way. How so?

A: The different way that would be most effective is to resume peace negotiations and to address the Arab-Israeli conflict, which we believe is the source of all problems in the region, and unless the source is addressed, no peace can prevail in the region. Syria, by the way, said even before the war on Iraq, we stressed that the priorities should be different. The priority should be to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Q: Are you saying that Syria is ready to resume negotiations with Israel?

A: From the point at which they stopped, yes, and according to the Madrid conference framework and according to the [United Nations] Security Council resolutions.

Q: Syria has been accused of supporting jihadi fighters in Iraq and allowing such fighters to cross the border from Syria into Iraq to fight American troops in Iraq. Last week a Kuwaiti newspaper reported the arrest of Syrians in Iraq who were in possession of “Syrian security identity cards.” What do you say about that?

A: This is a whole lot of misinformation, and a whole lot of ungrounded and untruthful information.

American senior officials acknowledge that Syria has cooperated with the United States in the war against terrorism, and that Syria has saved American lives. All the noise about either Syrians stepping into Iraq or about Iranians or Arabs is only to divert attention from the solid fact that there is a huge problem the Americans are facing in Iraq.

There are 22 million Iraqis who do not need anyone to come to them to tell them what to do. It is their country. Their history is quite well known, and they have never accepted occupation. No occupier was ever able to stay in Iraq. The Americans are only trying to divert attention from the real fact, that they have to address the problems in Iraq, and there is a huge problem that they have to address in Iraq.

Q: You mentioned cooperation on the intelligence front between Syrian and the United States in fighting terrorism. Can you be more specific?

A: As the president [Bashar Assad] said when asked the same question, he said for the sake of cooperation, I will not mention any specifics, but the fact of the matter is that Syria cooperated with the United States and it saved American lives and the contradiction is that Syria is placed on the terrorist list. So the question is: Where is the credibility in what the United States is doing?

Q: Do you see Mr. Bush’s signing of the Syria Accountability Act hampering the relationship between Syrian and U.S. intelligence services?

A: I am not sure whether it would. Syria has been in the war against terrorism, anyway. But it certainly will have a negative impact in the general relation. What we are saying is that this is an unnecessary new obstacle in the way of better Syrian-American relations.

We find that there are conflicting forces within the American administration regarding Syrian-American relations. I think this is an important point. Within two days [the Bush administration] appointed a new ambassador to Damascus and the second day the president signed the Syrian Accountability Act.

Q: The legislation signed Friday by Mr. Bush is said by some to offer the president a “stick” in negotiating with Syria. What do you see to be the “carrot” needed by Syria?

A: Syria will always do its work according to its own strategy, according its own right, according to its own sovereignty. We are not going to pursue our policy because the [U.S.] Congress does this, or the Congress does that.

The only thing that Syria would like to have is a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. All the issues [the Bush administration] talk about, whether they are Palestinian organizations, or Hezbollah, or borders, or whatever, to us is all a waste of time.

All what they are mentioning is a result of the Israeli occupation of Arab territory. It is the result of Israeli settlements in Arab territory. It is a result of Israeli attempts to transfer the indigenous people and build settlements in their place. The only solution is a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, which by the way, would be in the interest of all people in the Middle East, and in the interest of the reputation of the Americans and their credibility in the Middle East.

Q: What do you see as the biggest stumbling block to peace in the Middle East?

A: The biggest stumbling block is the attitude of the Israeli government that is building an apartheid wall, grabbing at least 20 percent of the best, fertile territory. This is apartheid in the 21st century. There are settlers that are ethnic cleansing an indigenous people and building settlements in their place.

This is really the stumbling block, especially if I can remind you of the Arab initiative [drawn up in March last year at the Arab summit in Beirut], that all Arab countries put an initiative on the table, that they are ready to make peace with Israel, if Israel would withdraw to the borders of June 4, 1967.

So who is preventing this from happening? It is the policy of [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, and the lack of leadership on the part of the United States.

Q: Would Syria be ready to discuss peace with Israel?

A: According to the framework of Madrid, according to Security Council resolutions, and to pick up where we left off — yes.

Q: Part of the Syria Accountability Act calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Are you willing to pull out?

A: In the last year or so, there were four redeployments from Lebanon and President Bashar said that the redeployments will take place as agreed on between the two governments. But also what has to be remembered is that we have long borders with Lebanon and that it is our security that is at stake, and being at war with Israel, we really cannot leave our borders unattended. That is why, again here, it is comprehensive peace that will be the solution for all the problems we are facing.

Q: What about the offices of what is considered “terrorist” organizations in Damascus?

A: They are not terrorist organizations. We have to redress the balance in the minds of people: What is happening in the Middle East is occupation, and as a result of occupation there are people who are resisting this occupation.

The resistance to the occupation is in the occupied territories, it is not coming from Syria. The thing we have to change is ending the Israeli occupation. These resistance groups were not there before the Israeli occupation, and Hezbollah was not there before Israel occupied Lebanon. All these are a result of occupation.

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