February 28, I conducted a 70-minute interview in Damascus with
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem. Mr. Mouallem spoke about
numerous issues including Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian question, the Arab-Israeli peace process, Saudi Arabia’s new diplomatic activism, the American role in the
region, and bilateral Syrian-US realtions. Yesterday, I was able
to write a JWN post that contained the central points of what
he said about Iraq. Now, I shall write up what I can of the rest
of the interview, though I might not get it all finished in this post
before my next meeting here in Amman. ~HC
Last November, Mr.
Mouallem headed a small Syrian delegation that, at the invitation of
the Iraqi government, made a short visit to Baghdad. Then in
January, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani made a multi-day state visit to
Damascus– the first time an Iraqi leader had visited Syria for nearly
30 years. (So long as there was a Baath Party government in Iraq
the two Baath Party leaderships, there and in Syria, pursued a very
harsh competition with each other, which seemed to be exacerbated by
the fact that each claimed to be the ‘authentic’ successor to the
mantle of the Baathist version of pan-Arabism. During that
period, Mr. Talabani and many, many other members of what were then
opposition movements much hunted and oppressed by the Saddam Hussein
regime, had made their homes in Damascus.)
In Damascus on Wednesday, Mouallem expressed his concern about the
medical crisis that two days earlier had sent Talabani rushing to Amman
for urgent medical treatment. “I certainly wish him a speedy and
full recovery,” Mouallem said, describing Talabani as “an important
Mouallem made a number of other significant statements about Iraq, in
addition to the ones reported here on JWN
earlier. As noted there, he did decline to specify the total
length of the timetable for the total US withdrawal from Iraq that he
said Syria sought. He said instead that that timetable should be
determined primarily by the length of time it would take to rebuild the
Iraqi national forces on a truly nationalist basis– “and we should
make this the timetable.”
He said that the challenge of social and political reconstruction in
Iraq could not be compared with any other cases–
ethnicities in Iraq and also because of terrible legacy left by
[onetime US administrator L. Paul] Bremer’s many mistakes there.
No-one can completely dismantle an entire army and send all the troops
and the trained officers onto the streets! And there was no logic
to the complete dismantling of the Baath Party that Bremer
ordered. Iraq needs
a nationalist movement as a counter-balance to its different religious
No-one could think of legislation that dismantled the civil service
corps of all the ministries.
Once, when [US Deputy Secretary of State Richard] Armitage came here, I
asked him what kind of staffing they had at that point in any of the
Iraqi ministries. And he told me there were only five or six
people left in each one!
Also, the new Constitution in Iraq is not giving assurances for Iraq’s
Now, we have the issue of Kirkuk coming up. This is a major
issue! Why are the Iraqis and Americans not making Kirkuk into an
example of tolerance and coexistence for the future of all of
Iraq? Why are the Americans not helping to lower the sectarianism
We have an enormous fear of sectarian fitna
[social breakdown]. This type of conflict can be endless and is
always a recipe for division. For this reason, President Bashar
al-Asad sent me to many countries to mobilize political and religious
efforts to prevent this from spreading in the region.
We in Syria are proud that
we are a country of tolerance and coexistence without any discrimination
on a religious or ethnic basis.
I asked Mouallem how he saw the continuing political crisis in another
key neighboring country, Lebanon. He said,
to Syria, and we are also very concerned about Lebanon for humanitarian
During the war against Lebanon last summer we received more than
300,000 Lebanese citizens here in Syria. We opened our homes to
them! And we also received more than 400,000 foreigners who had
been in Lebanon and needed to leave the country quickly. We
helped them to move on to their home countries from here.
We worked night and day to deal with this. This affected us here
in Syria so much!
You know that according to the Lebanese Constitution, the country
cannot be ruled by a majority that rules over a minority, but only by
coexistence and consensus. We hope the Lebanese themselves can
solve the present situation on this basis. I am optimistic that
they can do it. The Lebanese have to depend on themselves.
If they can’t do it, no-one can help them.
The special investigation team charged with investigating the February
2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri has
been continuing its work. Earlier reports from the team have
indicated– though not conclusively– some official Syrian role in the
killing. How did Mouallem see the prospects regarding this team’s upcoming
investigation, because reaching the truth on this matter is in our
The prospect of having a court to try those named as suspects is a
purely Lebanese issue, and it a point of contention among the Lebanese
The demand of the Lebanese opposition is simple. It wants a
larger government there, and to be allotted eleven of the government’s
30 members. And the issue of the court would then be on that
The court itself is not an issue for us. The issue for us is to
prevent others from using
the court issue in a politicized way.
I asked him about the role the French government has played since the
summer of 2004 regarding the Lebanese issue, and Syria’s involvement in
Lebanon. “It is not France’s role as such, but President Chirac’s
policy that concerns us,” he said. “That policy seems negative to
us in Syria. Maybe it stemmed from his personal friendship with
Hariri or from other causes. We don’t understand why Chirac
adopted that policy.”
In the 1990s, Mouallem had played a key role in the diplomacy on the
Syrian-Israeli “track” of the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, first of
all by virtue of his position as Syria’s ambassador in Washington, and
later when he stepped in to lead the Syrian team that negotiated with
Israel until the spring of 1996. (The course of those
negotiations between 1991 and 1996 were the topic of a book I published
with the U.S. Institute of Peace Press in 2000– you can find further
details of this book, including ordering information, through this page on my home
website. Mouallem was one key source for that work, having
allowed me to conduct numerous, on-the-record interviews with him on
the topic between 1996 and 1998.)
That diplomacy was interrupted by Prime Minister Shimon Peres’s
withdrawal from the peace talks in 1996, and was later briefly resumed
by Ehud Barak after he became Israel’s Prime Minister in 1999.
But after a summit meeting held in Geneva in 2000 it all fell apart
again, largely because Barak retracted the offer that PM Rabin had held
out in almost authoritative way back in 1994-95, that in the context of
a full peace with Syria, including wideranging economic and security
provisions, Israel would withdraw from the whole of the territory in
Syrian Golan that it has held under military occupation since 1967…
In Damascus on Wednesday, I asked Mouallem about his current hopes for
the resumption of the peace diplomacy with Israel.
process, ever since the Madrid Conference in 1991. Our question
is always, “Is this process real?”
There was a narrow window after the war on Lebanon last summer, and
President Bashar al-Asad made many interviews saying he was ready to
widen it. Sadly, the response from Israel and from the American
administration wasn’t encouraging. Indeed, if we believe the
press reports, the US intervened with the Israelis to prevent them from testing
our seriousness. Why?
We see the Olmert government as a weak government, and usually weak
governments leave their security and diplomatic policy in the hands of
We didn’t see this US administration put on the agenda the need for a
I asked about the obstacle posed to hopes for peace by the increasingly
large presence of Israeli settlers who have been implanted into the
occupied Syrian and Palestinian territories with the support of
successive Israeli governments. How could the settlers be dealt with?
can’t create de-facto facts on other people’s territories or change the
heritage or status of these territories, because sooner or later you
are still obliged to withdraw from them. This was quite clearly
laid out in Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle
of the exchange of land for peace that they embodied.
Given the particularly heavy presence of Israeli settlers within the
Palestinian West Bank, I asked if he still saw the possibility for the
Palestinians to be able to establish a viable national state there.
decision. The issue is not one of settlers, but their presence
there is used as an excuse
for the lack of political will in Israel.
(Regrettably I need to go to another meeting, so I’ll break off the
interview here and get back to it when I can. More, later.