Syrian ambassador speaks

On Monday, there was talk of conflict and peace in McConomy. A lecture, titled “U.S., Syria, and The New Old Middle East: Confrontation or Cooperation,” brought out voices from all sides of the debate, who engaged in a heated discussion.

The conflict in question was that among the U.S., Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries and the talk was led by Imad Moustapha, Syria’s ambassador to the U.S.

The lecture was brought to Carnegie Mellon by the efforts of the University Lecture Series and the newly re-founded Arab Student Organization (ASO).

“I met the ambassador through a journalist friend when I was visiting Syria this summer,” said Mansour Nehlawi, a junior economics major and president of ASO. “We got to talking and he said he would come speak.”

Moustapha spoke on the U.S. misconceptions of the current state of the Middle East, as well as the need for U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern affairs to facilitate peace.

While Moustapha recognized the serious nature of the topics, he maintained a sense of humor.

“His humor allowed him to frame issues in his favor and effectively argue that the U.S. should improve relations with Syria,” said Daniel Liptz, a sophomore mechanical engineering major and president of Tartans for Israel.

Before becoming ambassador in 2004, Moustapha served as the dean of the faculty of information technology at the University of Damascus in Syria.

“As an academic, I used to think that diplomats lived from gala to gala and cocktail party to cocktail party,” Moustapha said. He noted that his life as a diplomat has been quite different from this stereotype.

“I found myself the ambassador most eligible to take Iraq’s spot in [President George W.] Bush’s axis of evil,” Moustapha said.

Addressing U.S. misconceptions, Moustapha brought up repeated declarations by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in which she cited Syria as the cause of problems in the region.

“The way I see it, there are two major problems in the Middle East: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S. war in Iraq, and neither of these involve Syria,” he said.

Moustapha spoke of U.S. journalists, specifically at The New York Times and The Washington Post, portraying Syria in a negative light by barely publicizing the ways in which the country has helped the U.S. in times of need. He cited three examples of this assistance.

Moustapha first noted Syria’s immediate aid when prompted by the U.S. to assist in the liberation of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein in 1990. According to Moustapha, Syria was eager to help, not only because the U.S. had asked them, “[but mainly] because we in Syria abhor occupation,” Moustapha said.

His second example was the 1991 U.S. Middle Eastern Peace Conference in Madrid. Syria played a key role in organizing the event with the U.S., which had beneficial discussions between all parties.

Moustapha’s third demonstration of Syria’s compliance was in their effort to assist the U.S. after the Sept. 11, 2001 events.

“So many countries sent letters of condolence to the U.S.,” Moustapha said, “but we did even more. We made direct contact with the administration and offered information on al Qaeda.”
Moustapha noted that Syrian intelligence resulted in the abortion of two attempted terrorist attacks on U.S. interests, one in Canada and another in Bahrain.

He said that these are the types of facts the U.S. press does not focus on, also speaking of the little-known fact that Syria consulted with President Bush and his officials before the U.S. invaded Iraq.

“We told them that invading Iraq would be equal to opening a Pandora’s box of woes and evils,” Moustapha said. “They refused our suggestions and mocked us to our faces.”

He also spoke of the exodus of refugees, including doctors and professors, leaving Iraq and coming in mass numbers to Syria and Jordan.

“We think of Iraqis as our brothers,” Moustapha said in expression of his sympathy.

He noted Syria’s peaceful tendencies. “Syria has never had civil war. People have never killed each other over sectarian identity,” Moustapha said.

However, while he acknowledged the U.S.’s mistake in the Middle East, he said that U.S. involvement is essential in the peace process. The U.S. has become so involved in Iraq and provides so much support to Israel, for example, that Middle Easterners have no options in choosing which country should take the lead in the peace process, Moustapha said.

Moustapha’s talk did not go without heated response from a number of students during the
question and answer session.

“I do think that he went out of his way to denigrate Israel, and did not acknowledge the fact that Syria has done its fair share to stall peace talks,” Liptz said.

However, Nehlawi noted that while opinions may differ, this lecture was an important stepping stone not only for future ASO speakers, but for general discussion of the Middle Eastern conflict.

Nehlawi said that plans are underway to make this lecture series an annual event in collaboration with other student groups to diversify the selection of speakers.

“Even though people differed in opinions, it’s still important that they came out and listened,” he said. “That is the first step in any peace process.”