Syrian foreign minister reflects on war in the Arab neighborhood
By Helena Cobban©
From The Christian Science Monitor, December 12, 2002
President Bush's support among Arab nations is far from solid, even in
a place like Syria that has a long history of uneasy relations with Iraq.
In a 90-minute interview earlier this month with Foreign Minister Farouq
al-Sharaa, I sensed that while he was glad that Syria, a Security Council
member, voted for the Council's recent resolution mandating tough inspections
in Iraq, a large part of Syria's motivation in casting that vote was its
desire to hold Washington back from launching any hasty or unilateral attack
The resolution "does not give the right to the US or anyone to use force
automatically," Mr. Sharaa said. He based that assessment on verbal assurances
he had received from Secretary of State Colin Powell, though he said he
understood those assurances did not constitute a firm guarantee.
Sharaa said he was well aware that Syria's vote for the resolution sparked
strong criticism from many Arab nationalists. But he argued that Syria hoped
its vote would serve the best interests of "the Iraqi people" - which he
differentiated from those of the Iraqi regime. He also said the aim of Syria's
vote was to strengthen the role of the UN and international law.
His 18 years as foreign minister have spanned the presidencies of Hafez
al-Asad, who died in 2000, and of Bashar al-Asad who succeeded his father
that year. During his time in office, Sharaa has helped steer Syria through
many tense confrontations with Israel regarding Lebanon, through Damascus's
participation in the US-led coalition that liberated Kuwait in 1991, and
then through nine years of direct negotiations at - and following - the historic
1991 Middle East peace conference in Madrid. At the launch of those talks,
Sharaa cut a combative figure.
But since then he and his team have come to engage very seriously with
the challenge of making a lasting peace with Israel. (The talks ran aground
in April 2000, and have not resumed.)
Regarding Iraq, Sharaa and his government colleagues have maintained close
relations with many portions of the Iraqi opposition over the years. He
indicated to me that Syria would not mourn the end of Saddam Hussein's regime,
but he expressed clear fears that an American-initiated war against Hussein
would inflict a heavy cost on ordinary Iraqis.
"We have seen what happened in Afghanistan," he said. "There were so many
civilians killed there, and the Americans don't seem to care. In Iraq, the
casualties would be much more, because the population density is much greater....
To be frank, the Americans don't see the difference between the Iraqi people
and the leadership."
He added that "Arabs and Muslims" saw this same lack of discrimination
in many aspects of Washington's policy toward the Muslim world, especially
in the frequent imposition of sanctions on Muslim countries. "These are all
seen as anti-Muslim and anti-Arab," Sharaa said.
He warned that if the US does go ahead and attack Iraq without an international
mandate, "then all the Arabs would stand against the Americans - and the
Americans would fail in reshaping the Iraqi regime to their liking since
even inside Iraq, the opposition to the Americans would be overwhelming."
He rejected accusations made by Israeli and American officials that Syria
provides operational help to groups like Islamic Jihad that have used terror
tactics against Israel.
"When Israel hears of actions of Palestinian refugees living in Syria,
Israelis don't blame themselves for the fact of these refugees' dispersion.
Instead, they blame Syria for giving them freedom of expression," he exclaimed.
(Syria says that the offices that Jihad and other Palestinian extremist groups
maintain in Damascus are used only for public-relations work.)
Damascus's refusal to cut ties with anti-Israel groups like Jihad or Lebanon's
Hezbollah have prompted Washington to keep Syria on its list of "nations
supporting terrorism" - a designation that automatically brings broad US
sanctions. Now, despite evidence that Syria has cooperated with Washington
in the global war on terror, many members of Congress are seeking to tighten
the sanctions against Syria through the Syria Accountability Act.
Sharaa downplayed the idea that this legislation poses any real threat
to his country's interests.
He also hit back at the degree of influence he perceives Israel enjoys
over policymaking in Washington:
"People can't understand how it is that a superpower can't stand up to
Israel, when even a small, unarmed portion of the Palestinian people in the
occupied territories can withstand them."
• Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.