‘I hope the US will make peace, not war’

One could call him the «Arab Gromyko.» Farouk Al-Sharaa became foreign minister of Syria in March of 1984, when Ronald Reagan was in the White House and Konstantin Chernenko in the Kremlin. In the 21 years since, he has experienced the major upheavals that have marked the planet’s history, particularly in the Middle East, and has handled extremely difficult diplomatic crises, as Syria’s face and voice on the international scene. Last week, Al-Sharaa came to Greece to meet with President Karolos Papoulias, Foreign Minister Petros Molyviatis, the leaders of the political parties and Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis. This interview with Kathimerini is his first in the foreign media since the Lebanon crisis that led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops. The interview took place on the eve of Sunday’s first round of elections in Lebanon. Al-Sharaa expressed his government’s readiness to hold a constructive dialogue with Washington, saying that the next few months were crucial for Iraq, its neighbors and the US, noting that «whoever plays with fire burns his fingers.» Syria decided recently to halt any kind of military and intelligence cooperation with the United States. Could you explain to us the reasons that led to this decision? Voices in the American administration are numerous in form and content. Some say that Syria does not cooperate to prevent insurgents from crossing the border to Iraq, some others say Syria cooperates but to the minimum extent, and that this is not enough. Some state that Syria cooperates when it suits its interests and stops when it does not. No single American official within the Bush administration has ever told us, «Come, let’s discuss through dialogue how to find common ground for productive cooperation between Syria and Iraq.» Security needs efforts from us all, and joint security requires a reasonable political atmosphere and a suitable social environment to enable all Iraqis to participate in the political process without excluding anyone. The coming months are crucial and decisive in Iraq for those who have a realistic vision. Danger is looming over Iraq, its neighbors and those who occupy it and have the upper hand. The US government complains that Damascus is not doing enough to halt the flow of men and money to the Iraqi resistance. What is your response? Those accusations are groundless. Syria has done all it can to control its border with Iraq and even proposed a security protocol on border control to the Iraqi side. Syria is still waiting for a response, although it is easy to accuse others, especially when you are in trouble because of your own actions. The Americans have come to our region from 10,000 kilometers away. They become our neighbors, and they accuse us unfairly of disturbing them. The withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon under strong international pressure was interpreted in some Western capitals as a sign of political weakness and diplomatic isolation. Are there any seeds of truth in such an interpretation? As you know, the presence of the Syrian forces in Lebanon was, first of all, in response to the request of the Lebanese government and people and was endorsed by the League of Arab States, aimed at putting an end to the civil war and all its consequences. The Taif Accord came as a result of the efforts exerted by Syria and other brotherly Arab countries with the Lebanese political parties and factions to reach a common reconciliation. The Lebanese resistance succeeded in liberating most of the south of Lebanon. Syria started redeployment of its forces in Lebanon and reduced them by more than 60 percent and that was before Resolution 1559 was adopted. When 1559 was adopted, Syria accelerated the logistic operations of redeployment as a sign of Syria’s respect for international legitimacy. Although Syria felt a kind of bitterness resulting from French-American behavior as a double standard, now Syria is waiting for the implementation of resolutions calling Israel to withdraw from all territories occupied by force. Is it possible that an anti-Syrian, pro-Western government could emerge from Lebanon’s legislative elections? What kind of Syrian reaction should we expect in this – theoretical – case? For sure, Syria respects the will of the Lebanese people and whoever will be elected to the council. Don’t forget that most of the opposition leaders in Lebanon, if not all, call for maintaining a special relationship with Syria. «Spreading democracy in the broader Middle East» seems to be a top priority for the second term of George W. Bush’s government. Do you think that Syria could become the next target of US political or even military interventionism? We do hope that democracy in international affairs will prepare a situation in the Middle East, something which does not seem to be happening due to the double standards practiced by some countries. I don’t know what is in the mind of the American administration but what I hope is that the administration would exert efforts to make peace and not war and assist in implementing international legitimacy to achieve a just, comprehensive and durable peace in the Middle East, because building democracy cannot be realistic under occupation. The US «counter-terrorist» campaign seems to be backfiring, fomenting anti-Western hatred in the Arab-Muslim world and violent fundamentalist tendencies. Syria has suffered much in the past from Islamic fundamentalism. Could this kind of threat re-emerge in your society because of the extreme complications in Iraq, Palestine or Afghanistan? You are right. Syria has suffered a lot from terrorism in the past at a time others were giving it support. Syria did its duty to maintain law and order, to combat terrorism and protect its citizens, and inform the international community of the danger of terrorism. I hope that those who lead that campaign would realize that those who play with fire will burn their fingers. How does your government appreciate the efforts of the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to unify the Palestinian involvement on the basis of political, non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation? Do you think that there are better chances today for a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian issue and for the return of the Golan Heights to Syria? Syria always helped the Palestinians to unify their position. President Mahmoud Abbas visited Syria before he was elected president, and we did extend our support and urged all representatives of the Palestinian factions to support him in entering into dialogue, which has taken place in Cairo. We do support the ongoing political process in Palestine to achieve a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East. We do hope that the international community will exert more effort to implement Security Council resolutions and other resolutions pertaining to the issue aimed at achieving a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East.