The Syrian ambassador to the United States spoke in his usual candid style to attendees at a fundraising dinner for an active local student group in Dearborn on Friday, March 23. Ambassador Imad Moustapha was asked to keynote the second annual dinner of the Arab Student Union at University of Michigan-Dearborn because students saw him as “the only one speaking on behalf of us” during last summer’s Israeli attack on Lebanon, said Roula Daher, president.
“He was the first person we thought of… we took his words to heart.”
Moustapha spoke on how hard it is being “the only representative of a ‘rogue’ state in the United States.”
“All other states are acceptable. This is why I have to work 10 times more than other ambassadors… so that at least we can tell our side of the story to the American public.”
He told the crowd of about 550 people that the toughest period for him as Ambassador was also the time that he is most proud of.
“During the aggression… the last war on Lebanon last summer… I made 92 TV interviews,” he said, reiterating the idea that he is often, in the media and in Washington, the sole representative of the Syrian or Arab “side of the story.”
“It’s always us being presented as the… ‘rogue state’, members of the ‘Axis of Evil,’ the terrorists…”
He went on to describe apparent changing attitudes in Washington, with congressional representatives now frequently seeking discussions with the ambassador, after two years of adhering to the Bush administration’s policy of silence.
“I was spending all my time talking to the media and political think-tanks, and Syrian and Arab Americans… suddenly I received a telephone call from a congresswoman from Ohio who wanted to meet with me. So I went to meet with her and she was there with 17 of her colleagues. So there were 18 members of Congress who really wanted to discuss with me the possibilities about what’s going on in the Middle East and what can we do and how come the situation has deteriorated to such a level.”
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has since made plans to visit Syria next week to meet with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. She will be most senior U.S. official ever to meet with President Assad, and will be joined by Reps. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., Nick Rahall, D-West Virginia, Tom Lantos, D-Calif., Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and David Hobson, R-Ohio.
The White House on Friday strongly criticized the planned visit, with spokesperson Dana Perino saying “We think it is a really bad idea.”
“Things have changed,” he said, in Europe as well, as states “starting with Spain, Greece and Italy,” with more following, stopped bowing under U.S. pressure not to talk to Syria since the assassination of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon in 2005.
“They listened for two years, but then they realized that this is leading to nowhere, and they realized that whether they like it or not, Syria is a major player that can not be overlooked. And they realized that not talking to Hamas, not talking to Hizbullah, not talking to Syria, not talking to Iran is a stupid policy. Even if you disagree with someone you need to talk to your… I don’t want to say enemies. We don’t consider ourselves enemies with the United States. The whole problem between us and the United States is their flagrant, blind, biased support for Israel… We are not enemies with the United States. We admire this great nation. We admire the many achievements and contributions that it has made to civilization, but we are extremely, profoundly disturbed by America’s foreign policy in the Middle East.”
Moustapha further told about a recent “sudden” invitation he received from the U.S. State Department to discuss Iraqi refugees.
“I told them that we refuse to discuss with you the issue of the Iraqi refugees… however important the issue is.”
He said he was willing to talk about issues of U.S. policies in the region, but found it ironic that they would want to discuss with Syria the refugees that their destructive policies produced.
“You apply your policies in Iraq and we in Syria end up with 1.4 million Iraqi refugees. You apply your policies in Palestine… in Lebanon… and now suddenly you want to wake up and discuss the issue of Iraqi refugees?”
He spoke about the effects of different resistances to occupation in the Arab World, that the resistance in Lebanese has been a source of “great pride,” that the Palestinian resistance has faced great adversity but has “persevered,” and that the Iraqi resistance has “taught the U.S. a great lesson, that no country in the world can impose its will on another country.”
On Iraq, the ambassador put forth three ideas that he said were necessary for achieving stability: that there is “no military solution” to the violence and that any further military escalation would not help; that “all parties with no exceptions should be included in the political process;” and that there should be a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops.
He said that the he was proud of the Arab American community, and they should not feel alone, in that two thirds of the nation are opposed to continued occupation of Iraq and are in support of withdrawal.
After the speech, Moustapha told “The Arab American News” that there are “two schools of thought” with regard to changing attitudes in Washington toward policies and dialogue — one that efforts being made are genuine as leaders face “tremendous pressure from within the country and internationally, and a second that U.S. leadership is “incapable of change… entrenched in ideologies.”
Moustapha said that he is somewhere in between, both optimistic and weary.
Daher said that at least half of all proceeds from the “Empowering the Youth” dinner would go to Lebanese war victims.
“We had families, students, community members, business leaders, and even politicians joining together to… give back to the ones that deserve it most,” she said.
“I feel that now ASU has the credibility in the eyes of the community that we have been working so hard to earn.”
Daher, a pre-med student, said that future plans for the student group include putting together a Kahlil Gibran exhibit at the university, and an Arab/Israeli panel discussion possibly to take place in early fall.
The group presented a “Peace & Justice” award to Moustapha at the dinner, as well as an “Empowering the Youth” award to Judge David Turfe of 20th District Court, the first Arab-American judge elected in Dearborn Heights, and a “Sponsor of the Year” award to Ali Ashkar of PrintXpress.