- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

The Obama administration has signaled a sea change in U.S. policy in its early talks with Syria, seeking Damascus' help in bringing Hamas into negotiations with Israel as well as an agreement enlisting Syrian forces to help seal Iraq's western border from al Qaeda, the Syrian ambassador to Washington said Monday.

In another change from the policies of the Bush administration, the Obama team has not insisted that Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal be expelled from Damascus, Ambassador Imad Moustapha told reporters and editors of The Washington Times.

Mr. Moustapha said relations between the two countries have warmed enough that Syrian officials participated in a regional meeting Monday with Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and expect a visit soon from George Mitchell, the president's envoy to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Mr. Mitchell is slated to visit the region next week, but his schedule released Monday by the State Department did not list the Syrian capital on his itinerary.

Mr. Moustapha declared his country - derided by the Bush administration as a state sponsor of terrorism - stands ready to assist the Obama administration on a variety of fronts in the Middle East.

The Obama administration has not taken a public position on whether the Palestinian Authority should share power with Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist group that seized control over Gaza in 2007. The U.S. has said that Hamas must reject terrorism and adhere to agreements signed by Palestinian leaders. The Bush administration opposed a power-sharing deal between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

“This administration is asking us to use our political influence to bring Hamas into the political process, and we absolutely agree,” Mr. Moustapha said, referring to talks earlier this year among Syrian officials and acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Dan Shapiro, the senior director for the Middle East on the White House National Security. The two visited Damascus last month and met with Buthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Mr. Moustapha said U.S. officials, in contrast to the Bush administration, were no longer telling Syria what it had to do.

They “are telling us, 'we will never ask you to kick Khalid Mashaal out from Syria,' ” the ambassador said, referring to the political leader of Hamas who has been based in Damascus since Israel tried and failed to assassinate him in Jordan in 1997.

A State Department official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to respond publicly to Mr. Moustapha said, “We have stressed to the Syrians that we continue to have deep concerns about Syria's support for terrorist organizations and the safe haven they provide terrorists like Hamas' Khalid Mashaal.”

Another State Department official said, however, that the U.S. government, in talks with Syrian officials, also has explored ways in which Syria could moderate Hamas' behavior.

“They have influence, because they supply and fund Hamas, and they should try to get Hamas to be a positive player,” said the official, also speaking anonymously because he was discussing private talks. “They could exert much greater influence, and until they do, it will be very hard to have a normal relationship.”

Aaron Miller, a former senior Arab-Israeli negotiator for six presidents, said it was likely that Mr. Moustapha was giving a “selective interpretation” of the content of the U.S.-Syria diplomacy.

“We may well cross that threshold and acquiesce in Palestinian unity, but we have not crossed it yet,” Mr. Miller said. “What we want on the issue of Mashaal is one thing, what the Israel's will demand is another.”

Mr. Moustapha said Syria was also eager for a resumption of peace talks with Israel with U.S. participation. Syria-Israel talks brokered by Turkey collapsed in December after Israel began an offensive in Gaza to stop Palestinian rocket fire into Israel.

“We believe no conclusion can come without the U.S. on board,” he said.

Another area where the Obama administration's diplomacy with Syria may differ from than its predecessor regards Iran. Under the Bush administration, proponents of improving U.S. relations with Syria and encouraging Syria-Israel peace talks said that one goal was to pry Syria away from its alliance with Iran. Mr. Moustapha said, however, that Syria could help reconcile the U.S. and Iran.

“Syria is trying to mediate between Iran and the United States,” he said.

Mr. Moustapha said U.S.-Syria talks are still in an “exploratory” phase but that the two sides are close to agreement on Iraq.

Any such agreement, he added, must prohibit American forces from conducting raids inside Syrian territory.

“We will not allow the so-called hot pursuit into Syria,” Mr. Moustapha said.

In October, U.S. Special Forces raided the Syrian village of Sukkariyeh, just over the Iraqi border, in an effort to apprehend a senior al Qaeda financier named Abu-Ghadiya. The Syrian government said that the raid killed defenseless villagers, including 11 women and children.

“They killed them Rambo-style from their helicopters,” Mr. Moustapha said.

He said there have been other U.S. incursions from Iraq. “Time and again, the Americans did infiltrate into Syria,” Mr. Moustapha said.

He added, however, that the desert border between Iraq and Syria was difficult to demarcate and that, in some cases, U.S. forces may have strayed across the border inadvertently.

“I give them the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “They just did not know.”

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell declined to comment on Mr. Moustapha's allegations.

John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, said, “The United States will, of course, pursue its enemies and boundaries are often not well demarcated.”

Mr. Nagl, a former Army officer, helped draft the counterinsurgency strategy for Iraq with Gen. David H. Petraeus, now head of U.S. Central Command.

Mr. Bush and U.S. military commanders repeatedly accused Syria of helping facilitate the travel of suicide bombers into Iraq.

At the height of the insurgency in 2006, U.S. officials said, as many as 100 foreign fighters per month entered Iraq from Syria with the Syrian government's cooperation.

Mr. Moustapha denied such cooperation and said that Syrian officials have arrested 1,200 Islamic militants and have a list of 4,000 foreign fighters denied entry into Syria.

In 2004, Mr. Moustapha said, he met with two senior Pentagon officials and offered Syria's security cooperation regarding Iraq but an agreement did not materialize.

The ambassador said he is confident that with the change in administrations, an agreement is close regarding Iraq. Syria is ready to make such a pact “operational,” he said.

“We will cooperate with the United States,” he said. “It is in our interest.”

In the past two years, the American military has managed to reduce the number of civilian and soldier casualties in Iraq without any formal security agreement with Syria.


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