Syrian Ambassador Responds To Deadly Crackdown

Imad Moustapha, Ambassador of Syria to the United States
Michele Kelemen, diplomatic correspondent, NPR

Protests against Syrian President Bashir al-Assad have rocked Syria for months. The United Nations reports that more than 2,000 people have died, many in the city of Homs. Imad Moustapha, the Syrian Ambassador to the United States, continues to show support for the Assad regime.

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NEAL CONAN, host: In Syria, activists say at least nine people were killed today in the city of Homs, a place some now call the capital of the revolution. The often lethal pattern of protests and crackdown began last spring, and the U.N. reports more than 2,000 people have been killed over that time. The United States and some European governments have called for President Bashar al-Assad to step down, and the leadership in Damascus grows ever more isolated. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister of Syria's neighbor and formerly close ally, Turkey, has denounced what he calls savagery.

In a moment, Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, will join us. If you have questions for the Syrian ambassador, 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Ambassador Imad Moustapha joins us here today in Studio 3A. And thanks very much for coming in.

IMAD MOUSTAPHA: Thank you.

CONAN: Also with us is Michele Kelemen, NPR diplomatic correspondent. Michele, nice to have you back with us.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Nice to be here.

CONAN: And, Mr. Ambassador, your government has been waging war against its own people for more than six months now. Can you tell us when that's going to stop?

MOUSTAPHA: Well, absolutely, this is a false premise because it's totally untrue. What is happening in Syria is that extreme fundamentalist Muslims are waging a war of insurgency. They have committed atrocities and extreme violence, and it's the duty of any government in the whole world, including that of the United States, towards its citizens, peaceful citizens to protect them. The war in Syria is a war between the Syrian army and the Syrian police and militant, heavily armed insurgents who have committed atrocities and continue to commit atrocities right now as we talk, particularly in Homs.

CONAN: These are not the accounts that we get from what sources are available. One problem we have is that independent sources, reporters are not allowed into Syria to cover this for themselves. Would Syria allow reporters in to see these events?

MOUSTAPHA: Actually, we did allow reporters time and again into Syria, including some of NPR. Brazilian, Indian, Southern African, Russian and Chinese reporters are there, and they do report from Syria a totally different, absolutely different story from the story that is reported here, usually in the United States and the American media. It's extraordinary how facts are distorted. Let me tell you this. Are there political demands in Syria? Of course, there are. What does the Syrian government think of them? We believe they are legitimate.

How did we address them? We agreed to a total, a comprehensive political - a poll of the Syrian political system. Who are those guys who are carrying arms and committing crimes and atrocities and attacking both civilians and government officials? They are people that have no political agendas whatsoever related to democracy or freedom or reforms. They have their own extremist, benighted, medieval ideology, and this is the sort of ideology they are trying to impose on Syria.

CONAN: Michele Kelemen, we've invited you to help us out with some questions, too. Michele?

KELEMEN: Well, I do want to hear a little bit about what your job is like here, because over the summer, the State Department called you into the State Department amid reports that the embassy, that your staff was spying on Syrian dissidents, harassing dissidents. What did you tell the State Department about that?

MOUSTAPHA: Of course, when they invited me to this meeting, I challenged them. I told them if you have a single shred of evidence that this has happened, please provide it to me, give me a single incident in which this has happened. And, of course, they did not provide a single shred of evidence or a simple story or anything to substantiate those preposterous ridiculous allegations. Let me tell you this. We have 600,000 Syrians expatriates living here in the United States. My embassy is a very small embassy. I have four diplomats. Do you expect four diplomats plus the ambassador to threaten and to spy on 600,000 Syrians across the United States, from California to New Jersey? This - I think is preposterous and ridiculous. This is on one hand.

On the other hand, it has been totally the other way around. Whenever there was a demonstration in front of my embassy, whether it was opposition or loyalists, because the Syrian community here, as it is in Syria, is divided. Many people are very loyal to the government, many are opposed. Most of those who are opposed carry Islamic agendas with them, yet I have been very respectful. I met with them in my office. I offered them coffee and water. We have conducted a very civilized dialogue. And I can give you their names and you can contact them to verify my story, and those are opposition.

And I have sent multiple messages to the Syrian community here in the United States, reminding that even when we disagree politically, we do need to remember that we all belong Syria, to one country, and we should always transcend our political differences and remember that what unites us is far more than what drives us apart.

KELEMEN: One person from the embassy did leave. I wonder if there have been others, you know. Because we learned a lot at the beginning of the conflict in Libya many diplomats defected from Moammar Gadhafi. Why not - why has that not been the case in Syria?

MOUSTAPHA: Yet another story to be added to the plethora of untrue stories. Nobody from the embassy left, not a single diplomat. The guy you are referring to, my assistant and my friend, Ahmed Salkini, was not a diplomat. He's a local employee. He is a personal friend of mine. I cherish my relationship with him. He moved to another job. Now, here is a big surprise too. I personally helped him obtain the other job, because he's a very young man. And as it is the case with every young person, he needs to promote his professional career, and he moved to a better-paying job with a Syrian person, by the way, who is also a friend of mine.

CONAN: We're talking with Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador to the United States. Also with us, Michele Kelemen, NPR diplomatic correspondent. Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. 800-989-8255, email: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Hazim(ph), Hazim with us from Philadelphia.

HAZIM: Yes. I have a question for the ambassador. My brother, Dr. Sakher Hallak, he came to visit the United States. He was a very highly educated physician. He came here to attend a meeting. After he went back to Syria, he file - he had filed a petition to allow physician to treat the injured in the demonstrations, then he was kidnapped and killed. And I was wondering, he is a secular high-profile physician. He's not an armed gang. Why would they do that if he claims they're killing armed gangs?

CONAN: Hazim, you say he was kidnapped and killed by the government?

HAZIM: Yes, by the Mukhabarat.

CONAN: The secret police? Go ahead, please.

HAZIM: Yes.

MOUSTAPHA: Look, this is unfortunate. And I don't want to spend my time discrediting people's stories as silly stories. Your brother is a highly respected doctor from Aleppo. Not a single demonstration took place in Aleppo. He has never involved himself in politics. He is highly respected, and there is no proof whatsoever that the government has even harassed him, not to say kidnapped and killed him. This is an absolutely false accusation, and you can add it to the plethora of false accusations. The fact that he was murdered in Aleppo has nothing to do whatsoever with the insurgency in Syria.

HAZIM: That's (unintelligible) that you guys are having, that this was all what you say. You deny everything. We have, actually, pictures from colonel. We got it secretly of him, you know. We have also information also you guys kidnapping. You told his wife he was released the next day. You told his wife he was released the next day or Thursday. His friends went and visited him over there. It's been investigated by Amnesty International. And you come - you have the - to say that now he is - was not kidnapped and killed by you?

CONAN: Hazim, I can't speak for...

MOUSTAPHA: I think this is a very good example and a very good evidence of what's happening about Syria. People call news agencies here in the West and other human rights organizations, and they give them blatantly either exaggerated or totally absolutely untrue stories. Here is an example. A group of terrorists will attack a military barrack, a fire exchange will ensue. Three, four military people will be killed. Six, seven insurgents will be killed. People like the gentleman will immediately call Amnesty International and say, today, 11 people were killed in Syria.

Look, in Syria, every single demonstration, without a single exception - and this is my challenge - started from a mosque. Not a single demonstration started from a university, not a single demonstration front started from a professional syndicate or group or union, not a single demonstration started from major cities like Damascus and Aleppo. Those are the leaders of the insurgency in Syria.

You are what you call the leaders for freedom and democracy in Syria. This is a radio station. I know you cannot see the pictures, but I welcome you, I welcome everyone to Google these pictures. These are the guys who are calling for what they call a revolution for freedom and democracy in Syria. You are repeating exactly what you did in Afghanistan when you supported mujahedeen, and you used to call them freedom fighters, and then you'll discover what sort of people you are dealing with.

CONAN: We're talking - Hazim, thank you for the phone call. We're sorry for...

HAZIM: Can I ask one more question?

CONAN: I'm afraid we have to give somebody else a chance, but we're sorry for the loss of your brother.

HAZIM: Bye.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the phone call. This is a tweet we got from Chucky(ph) in Idaho. Is the military only to defend the Assad regime? Is it time for Syrian elections for a new leadership and direction?

MOUSTAPHA: Absolutely not. The military is defending the Syrian civil society against, as I have said, extremists who are extremely violent. By the way, they do not only kill, they don't only shoot after - they shoot and they kill, and I can provide you with hundreds of videotapes of what they are very proud of what they have done. They mutilate the bodies. They cleave the bodies...

CONAN: And.

MOUSTAPHA: ...in the most horrible, criminal way. And yet, it is the duty of the Syrian army, as it is the duty of the U.S. Army, to uphold law and order in any Syrian country, in any town, I mean, and in any city.

CONAN: We're talking with Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador to the United States. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Michele?

KELEMEN: Well, I was wondering. We talk about that they're terrorists, but how do you explain then the many children that have been killed in this conflict and the - just the high number of people, 2,200 according to the United Nations?

MOUSTAPHA: Well, of course, casualties have fallen. Many of them are innocent casualties and the state does recognize that there should be accountability for any fallen person. One of the first massacres that took place was against a Syrian army colonel who was driving his two kids and his nephew to a school. They were ambushed and all four were massacred, and their bodies were dismembered. What I'm trying to tell you is it is very ugly, what is happening, but the reality is so distorted.

Now, let me move to the - back to your question, because I think this is an important question. What's going on on the political scene in Syria? As I have said in the beginning, let me give you some details right now. The Syrian government has announced a major political uphold and reform of the political scene in Syria, something unprecedented in the old Arab world. Syria has always enjoyed freedom for women and freedom for religious groups in Syria. This is why the Christian community in Syria fully supports the president of Syria and also most of the minorities, as well as the intellectuals and the liberal Sunnis in Syria. I am not denying the fact that, also, a large sector of religious people oppose the government in Syria. I'm recognizing this fact.

But we have announced a new multi-party law. We have announced a new freedom of media law. We have announced elections that will take place, free elections, multipartite elections that will take place next February. And we will continue to move on, but we will never allow those extremist groups to take over Syria. Syria is not Kabul. Syria is not Kandahar.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Michael and Michael with us from Cape Coral in Florida.

MICHAEL: Yes. Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to ask the ambassador, given the events that have taken place in Egypt as well as in Libya, how would he explain the alienation of Syria within the Muslim world? And at what point in the revolt will he consider seeking political asylum in the United States?

MOUSTAPHA: I'm a very proud Syrian. The only place I will live in and I would like my children to live in is Syria. I hope you know a little bit more about my country, our civilization and our history and our cultural heritage before you would decide that I should leave my country that I'm very proud of. This is as far as the second part of your question is concerned.

As far as the first part of your question, Syria is a very proud secular place. As I have said, those Arab countries that criticize us, they don't even allow women to drive cars. They don't have constitutions. They don't have political parties. They don't have the cultural diversity that Syria enjoys, and yet they believe that they can lecture us. So it's not about whether Syria is alienated or not with other Islamic countries. The question is that the overwhelming majority of the Syrian people do not want for Syria to fall under the prey of extremists, the violent fundamentalist groups. We will not allow this, and Syria will keep on moving forward.

Yes, we have not done a good job. I can easily recognize this on political reforms in the past, but we have committed ourselves to absolute - absolutely transparent elections. Let the elections decide who should rule Syria. Neither the armed groups nor the other alienated, as you described the Muslim nations.

CONAN: We just have a minute or so left with you. It's not just the Islamic countries. There are - Turkey, a secular country, yes, an Islamist party in command, but not exactly Iran by any stretch of the imagination, a multi-party state. Turkey, Syria's most important neighbor, it's most important economic trading partner, and the prime minister is denouncing what he calls savagery in your country.

MOUSTAPHA: Well, you have described the political scene in Turkey. And let me tell you this fact. Only two days ago, the - a large parliamentarian group from Turkey, from the opposition party, the People's Party, came and visited Syria. They are siding with Syria and they are being very critical for the Erdogan party for his interference in Syrian affairs, so even the Turks are divided vis-a-vis Syria.

Let me be honest and frank with you. Of course, we are being severely criticized by the - by a rainbow of Islamic parties and groups. But, once again, I won't believe those groups are the ones who should tell Syria how to move forward. It's the Syrian people.

KELEMEN: But this is also the human - the U.N. Human Rights Council, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, may people coming forward now and saying...

MOUSTAPHA: I agree with you. I agree with you. There is an incredibly campaign against Syria, but we do have friends. Brazil, South Africa, India, Russia and China are standing fast with Syria. They understand the sort of pressures we are facing because of our positions.

CONAN: And I'm afraid we're going to have to end it there. But Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it.

MOUSTAPHA: You're welcome.

CONAN: Ambassador Imad Moustapha of Syria joined us here in Studio 3A, along with NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Thank you all for your tweets and your phone calls. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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