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Israel Will Pay a Price
Interview: Syrian Ambassador on Israeli Raid
Sept. 14, 2007 - Israel has imposed strict military censorship over news of a recent air strike deep inside Syrian territory. U.S. officials have confirmed that an air strike did take place on Sept. 6 but have not provided further details. Vaguely sourced reports, including accounts of a Syrian-North Korean nuclear program that have yet to be substantiated, are seeping into the media. What do the Syrians have to say about it? NEWSWEEK’s Jeffrey Bartholet sat down with Syria’s ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, to get his version of events.
NEWSWEEK: We’re told the [Israeli] target was in a place called Dayr az Zawr.
Imad Moustapha: No, Dayr az Zawr is a major city; it was not targeted. The Israeli planes threw their ammunition close to Dayr az Zawr, but outside Dayr az Zawr, and then they made a U-turn and threw their reserve fuel tanks. And because they were flying above the Syria-Turkish border, they threw those on the Turkish side of the border. Nothing was damaged.
What were they bombing?
They didn’t bomb anything. Once they were spotted by our defense systems and we started attacking them, they threw their ammunition because this makes them lighter. And they threw their additional fuel tanks, which were not empty by the way, and they made a U-turn and they left. You’ve got to understand, they were flying in the extreme northern part of Syria, on the Syrian-Turkish border.
How many bombs fell and what did they fall on?
They didn’t hit anything. They just fell on wasteland.
So no casualties?
No physical damage to structures?
No. Just on the ground. And Turkey protested about the two fuel tanks that fell on the Turkish side.
There have been reports, unsubstantiated at present, that what was targeted was some kind of nuclear North Korean-Syrian cooperation project.
Those reports are absolutely, totally, fundamentally ridiculous and untrue. There are no nuclear North Korean-Syrian facilities whatsoever in Syria … We know the game. [After the fall of Baghdad] some were claiming that Saddam’s WMDs were being smuggled to Syria. This is not a new story. Every now and then we hear about nuclear materials being transferred to Syria.
What is the relationship between North Korea and Syria right now? It was noticed that North Korea immediately issued a strong and public denunciation of the Israeli attack, which seemed a bit unusual, given that North Korea is thousands of miles away.
People here can be very selective. The Lebanese government made such an announcement, Turkey made such an announcement, Indonesia made such an announcement. North Korea has very few friends around the world, and we have friendly relations with North Korea.
Do you have trade relations?
Very little actual relations … [The relationship] is real. We’re not denying it. There’s nothing to hide.
Also a trade in missiles, in the past anyway. Scuds.
I’m not privy to military details. I leave that to military experts to discuss. What I am saying is the following: There is nothing sinister. To talk about a Syrian-North Korean nuclear plant is really, really sad, because it reminds me of the sort of stories that used to be fabricated here in the United States before the Iraq war, about Iraq’s WMDs and such things. You would think America has learned its lesson, that it won’t buy such stories anymore. And then you are astonished when you see mainstream [media] outlets publishing such stories. Such short-term memory for the American media.
There was an International Atomic Energy Commission inspection of Syria in 2003 that gave it a clean—
We cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Commission.
There was another unsubstantiated report that the target was a joint Iranian-Syrian missile plant.
And there was a third report that that was a convoy taking arms to Hizbullah. All are ridiculous. In northeastern Syria they’d spot a convoy taking arms to Hizbullah?
The reason some in the media have been speculating, I think, is because Israeli censors are enforcing a strict clampdown and people who know something have suggested that this raid was a big deal, that something was targeted and that what was targeted was hit.
Israel usually is very boastful, very arrogant. Usually when they do something they boast about how spectacular their operation was, how successful they were. This time it’s only linkages here and there by people who claim this and that. Having said this, I’m not belittling the gravity of the Israeli provocation. It has changed dramatically the situation between us. They were sending us messages the last three months that they don’t want to further escalate tensions between Syria and Israel, they do not have plans of hostile intent for Syria. They were saying this publicly, on the record. Then they send their jet fighters into Syrian sovereign airspace. I think this is a very serious provocation.
On that point, Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa told an Italian newspaper that Damascus will retaliate.
Let us be honest with each other. Every action in the world creates a reaction. So for anyone to imagine that Syria will look at what happened and say, ‘Well, let’s just let things pass by’ is unrealistic. But this doesn’t mean that Syria will immediately retaliate in kind, exactly the same way. We have our own national priorities … Syria has been very, very clear about its desire to end the conflict in the Middle East through negotiations and the peaceful approach, based on the land-for-peace principle. We are committed to this. Having said this, until this happens we are in a state of war with Israel. And there are different ways to retaliate. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the same [method].
Can you give me a couple of examples?
I’m not a military expert. But anyone who has studied the situation in the Middle East will understand. They want to occupy our territories, and they will pay a price for this.
Tell me about the diplomatic efforts that surrounded this. Did U.S. officials contact you; did you contact U.S. officials?
No, not at all. The United States continues to provide blanket support for Israel, no matter what Israel does. In a way, they have expressed tacit approval. But we have launched an official complaint to the United Nations Security Council. We have informed the Arab League, the Europeans, Russia, China … and we have publicly said that we reserve our right to retaliate in a way we choose.
Have you filed any complaint with Washington?
It would be a waste of time. I don’t think Washington today has a mindset that would allow it to understand how such grave actions can lead to further deterioration in the Middle East.
What is the situation with U.S.-Syrian relations at this point? There was a lot of intelligence cooperation, then there was a long cold spell, and then there seemed to be a little bit of an opening in the winter and spring this year.
Time and again, we have told the United States that we believe in cooperation. We can address the issues, find common ground, brainstorm for creative solutions. But in a way, there is no dialogue today between Syria and the United States. We are not happy about this. We believe we need good relations with the United States. No resolution of the [Arab-Israeli conflict] can take place without the direct, strong involvement of the United States. Having said this, we have a problem in Iraq. It is in our own national interest to help stabilize the situation in Iraq. It’s such a dangerous situation. And we are overrun with over 1.5 million Iraqi refugees. The stakes are very high. Time and again we have told the United States that it is better to stop this propaganda war with us and sit with us and see how we can help toward stabilizing the situation.
The other problem between Syria and the United States is Lebanon.
Are you sure it’s a problem between us and the United States? I think it’s a problem over what Israel wants in the Middle East.
One problem is that many opponents of Syrian policy in Lebanon have been assassinated. [Former prime minister] Rafik Hariri and—
Do you think Rafik Hariri was an opponent of Syria in Lebanon? He was the prime minister of Lebanon when we were in Lebanon. All the people who badmouth us today used to be close allies of the so-called “evil occupation of Syria in Lebanon.” That is preposterous.
There have been a number of people who have been assassinated, including journalists.
Look, listen, these assassinations are terrible crimes. There is a United Nations commission that is investigating this crime … These are serious, grave issues. Of course we say “No, we didn’t do this.” Try to understand. When an assassination takes place, within a minute we are accused of it. Tremendous political damage is inflicted on us. And yet in an extremely stupid way we are supposed to have assassinated one person after another? … Why? Something is illogical about this. Let the U.N. investigation decide who killed these guys.
During the recent tensions, was there a moment when the Syrian government considered military retaliation [against Israel], firing missiles or—
We have not forfeited our right to retaliate. But as I have said, we don’t necessarily have to retaliate in the same way that Israel has attacked. I don’t know exactly the nature of this retaliation. It can happen in various ways, sometimes in asymmetrical ways. What I’m trying to say is the following: We live in a state of war with Israel. This is not the first act of hostility between Syria and Israel … The problem is that sometimes a foolish action can provoke terrible consequences.
There was diplomacy [before the attack], when Israel was sending what were described as “calming” signals. There was tension, then a calming period, then this happened. Can you describe that period prior to the attack?
I can tell you that Israel was creating an atmosphere of brinksmanship in the region. There were unprecedentedly large maneuvers in the occupied Syrian Golan. And of course the Syrians took note of this and were in a high state of preparedness. And then the Israelis, and personally [Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert, sent personal public messages—both publicly and to European officials—in which he said Syria shouldn’t be concerned, Israel doesn’t intend to provoke Syria or attack Syria … Having noted this, Syria is not a gullible country. As long as there is no peace agreement, we have to always be prepared.
Is it possible that Syria will decide that it’s in its national interests not to respond?
That would not serve our national interests. That would be detrimental to our national interests, because it would encourage Israel to repeat the same intrusions and operations. As I have said, every reaction creates a reaction. If Israel calculates that they can do what they want, they’re making a big mistake, just as they made a mistake last summer [in 2006, by waging war against Hizbullah in Lebanon].
So if the headline on this interview was “Syria Will Retaliate,” that would not be inaccurate?
What I have said is that this is a long-term war. States have different approaches to things. What I’m trying to say is that Israel will not be permitted to do whatever it does without paying a price for it.
So Israel will pay a price.
It will. And there will always be a price for everything.