by KEVIN TAYLOR, JOHN VLAHOVICH and DOUG NADVORNICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & "I & lt;/span & t is no secret that Syrian-American relations have been quite strained," writes Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador to the United States in April's Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. That can happen when U.S. officials brand your country as one of the "Axis of Evil" nations.

Moustapha says that even though the two nations differ over policy in the Middle East, it is time for America to stop ignoring Syria and to come to the table willing to talk about a range of issues, including the future of Iraq.

Last week, Moustapha spoke to the Spokane chapter of the World Affairs Council. He also spoke with The Inlander's Kevin Taylor and Doug Nadvornick and with John Vlahovich from Spokane Public Radio.

You've written about Syria's work to reach out to the people here to improve the relationship between the two countries. How has that worked in Washington, D.C. (where Moustapha is based) and outside of D.C.?

Ambassador Moustapha: I have to be honest with you that, with the Bush Administration, we have been mostly a failure, but with the U.S. Congress, I can claim mostly success. We have worked very hard with senators and congressmen, telling them that Syria is not an enemy country. We desire to improve relations with you. It is in our national interest to have a good working relationship with the United States. It was not easy at the beginning, but two gentlemen have helped me quite a lot: [James] Baker [and Lee] Hamilton, with their recommendations that the United States should seriously engage with Syria. That's when things started to change. More senators and congressmen are now advocating engagement with Syria.

What is your sense of the recent Annapolis peace conference?

I would describe the conference as something positive. It has given an opportunity for all world leaders to re-emphasize their commitment to working toward a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Everybody, including the Israelis, recognized that the Palestinian nation deserves a sovereign state. There was an atmosphere of goodwill. Now, the bad thing is, one week prior to the conference Israel confiscated an additional 1,100 acres of Palestinian territory. Immediately after the conference, the United States, the world's unique superpower, went to the United Nations Security Council and submitted a draft resolution that will make the recommendations of the Annapolis conference a United Nations Security Council resolution, legally binding to all parties. And Israel vetoed it and the U.S. immediately withdrew it. In a way, this is a public humiliation. And then, immediately after that, Israel has again started building illegal settlements. On one hand, they talk peace and they recognize the Palestinians. On the other hand, they keep on grabbing more and more of their territory.

What do you make of the fact that the U.S. refuses to include Hamas and Hezbollah in serious discussions, even though the two groups have popular support in the region?

The United States has a problem here. For the past five years, the United States has officially adopted the Bush Doctrine to only support the Arab nations that officially elect governments. So when the Palestinian people elected Hamas with an overwhelming majority in the Parliament, they had to change the Bush Doctrine to say we'll only support the democratically-elected governments that we like. The U.S. imposed sanctions on the Palestinian people to add layers and layers of deprivation on top of what they are already suffering. Let me tell you something else: Hezbollah is a major part and parcel of the Lebanese fabric. It has ministers in the Lebanese cabinet and in the Lebanese Parliament. This is not a fringe group. Nobody in the entire Arab world would compare Hezbollah to al-Qaeda, whereas the United States puts them both in the same basket.

A large number of Iraqi refugees have come to Syria since the invasion. Is this proving to be a major hardship on Syria to accommodate all of these refugees?

Definitely. It is a major burden. It's overwhelming our infrastructure, our social services, our schooling system. Today in Syria we have 1.5 million Iraqi refugees. Syria is a country of 18.5 million people. This is equivalent to the United States suddenly having 30 million refugees flock to the U.S.A.

Do you see any successes with the so-called "surge," stabilizing the country and letting the refugees return home?

We believe the U.S. is obsessed with a military solution in Iraq. They are only concerned with how many troops we can send. But the United States is not interested in rebuilding the political process in Iraq. It's a very dangerous game. When you go and you arm tribal chieftains, you give them money and U.S. arms, you are actually encouraging more and more fragmentation, helping these tribes become more and more independent. These tribes will not feel any loyalty to a secular modern Iraqi state.

What about the Syrians and the Jordanians and the Saudis? Do they have any influence to improve the situation within Iraq?

Let me speak about Syria. Time and again, we have told the American administration Syria is capable of and is willing to play a positive role in Iraq. We enjoy good relations with all the Iraqi factions across the sectarian and political divide. However, the problem is how can we help in starting a political process in Iraq when the United States doesn't allow any other country to deal with issues there. So it would be futile for us to bring the sides to Damascus to talk with each other if the United States will not set forth with this process and actually play a pivotal role in this process.

What do you think will happen if the U.S. withdraws its troops right away?

The U.S. should end its occupation of Iraq, but it should not do this abruptly and suddenly without starting a genuine political process there. We are critical of the U.S. because it is only interested in the military aspects of the Iraqi conflict and absolutely ignoring the possibilities for a national reconciliation, which means if, at one time, the United States decides to leave Iraq, it leaves Iraq in a very difficult situation. The U.S. should change its policies and should start involving everybody in Iraq -- all the factions without a single exception -- instead of dividing the Iraqis into the bad guys and the good guys, talking to certain Iraqis and refusing to talk to others. Second, engage all neighboring counties of Iraq. Allow them to have a say in supporting the political process.

John Vlahovich is the news director for Spokane Public Radio.

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