NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had visited Beirut yesterday, Ramallah and Jerusalem today. And tomorrow, she travels to Rome for a meeting to discuss the idea of an international force for southern Lebanon. Today, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel would control a strip of southern Lebanon until that international force arrives. And since there has been as yet no decision as to the size, composition, the rules of engagement, or the mandate of such a force, it could be sometime before such a handover.
In the meantime, intense fighting continues with new casualties on both sides of the Lebanese border. The secretary of state's itinerary does not include Damascus. The Bush administration withdrew the U.S. ambassador to Syria about a year ago as part of a broader effort to isolate a government that's long been listed as a state sponsor of terrorism. Syria is an ally of Iran, hosts the most radical wing of the Palestinian group Hamas, and has close ties to Hezbollah, which triggered this war by launching an attack into Israel and capturing two Israeli soldiers two weeks ago. And it continues to fire rockets into northern Israel.
Our main focus this hour is on Syria. Our guests include Syria's ambassador to the United States, and a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia. Later in the program, we few, we happy few: the Battle of Agincourt and King Henry V. But first, if you have questions about Syria's role in this crisis and its possible role in its resolution, our phone number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
We begin in Damascus with NPR's Deborah Amos, who's been in the Syrian capital since the conflict began two weeks ago.
Deborah, thanks very much for being with us.
DEBORAH AMOS reporting:
Good evening, Neal.
CONAN: At the beginning, you reported considerable anxiety there, fear that Syria might be caught up in the fighting. Has that changed?
AMOS: There is always that anxiety when Syria seized Israeli troops over the border in Lebanon. The army has been on full alert, embassy - excuse me, ministries are staffed 24 hours a day. The hospitals have geared up. And the minister of information warned that if Israel turned towards Syria, Syria would not stand idly by. As you know, the Syrians have a military agreement with the Iranians, and so this war could get wider if the Israelis hit Damascus.
However, the Israelis have said publicly and often that this war is not about Syria, and have made it very clear that they have no intention of hitting Damascus. So, yes, there is anxiety. But no, there is not an expectation that the war will break out here.
CONAN: In this country and in Israel, you hear Syria described as a country that is a critical ally of Hezbollah, which helps to provide it with money, with weapons, as a transit point for money and weapons to - from Iran, its ally, as you mentioned. What does Syria say about that?
AMOS: Well, I had an interview with the deputy foreign minister. And he said yes, we do arm Hezbollah. Or we did. He said that we stopped doing that when Syrian troops pulled out more than a year ago. And he also said that we don't really need to. Hezbollah has plenty of arms, plenty of arms to defend itself and Lebanon. Now, whether Syria continues to rearm Hezbollah as the Israelis charge, it's impossible to know. The Israeli did hit a truck on the way into Lebanon. It turned out it was a relief truck from the UAE.
But it is true that Syria has very close relations with Hezbollah. The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has a close personal relationship with the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. Western diplomats say the two meet often, they like each other. And Bashar, it is said, looks up to Hassan Nasrallah and shares his worldview.
CONAN: That world - well, let's talk for a minute about relationships between Syria and the United States. As we mentioned, there is no U.S. ambassador. There is an embassy in Damascus. Is there any conversation going on - we know not publicly - but back channels?
AMOS: Not that I know of. I think that these relations are very strained. I am told that they are extremely formal - that when the U.S. government has anything to say to the Syrians that is done through the embassy here, that two low-level - an American official and a Syrian official meet. The conversation goes my government wants you to know that. That message is conveyed somewhere in the bureaucracy of Syria. And the message comes back that says message heard. Thank you very much. That is about the extent of the contacts here.
However, European diplomats have stepped up their contacts. There's been a high-level German team here. There's been a call from the Italian prime minister. Many European ambassadors are saying we want to get this thing resolved. The Middle East is in our backyard, and so we are worried that we will pay for any of the outfall of what's going on in Lebanon.
CONAN: And in your conversation with the deputy foreign minister, did he explain what it is that Syria would like to see - would like to have come out from this as this conflict approaches a resolution?
AMOS: Well, obliquely, Neal, he said that they would like to open, or get out of their isolation with the United States. But more directly, he talked about a dialogue that would be full of respect and of mutual interest. What the deputy foreign minister was talking about is opening a channel of communications with Hezbollah. He said we can't pressure them. We can't dictate to them. But we can open a channel.
And I think that the Syrians see this as an opportunity to become a player again, to open contacts with Europe and the United States somehow, some way. Because in their view, you can't settle what has happened next door without them. And I think what they are thinking about is a much more regional solution. What they would like to see is the Golan Heights - land Israel has occupied since 1967 - back on the table. Those negotiations were frozen a few years ago, and the Syrians are hoping to open that track again.
CONAN: All right. NPR's Deborah Amos. Thank you very much for being with us.
AMOS: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And Deborah Amos speaking with us from Damascus, Syria, where she's been these past two weeks as fighting has been raging across the border in Lebanon.
Joining us here in Studio Three A is Syria's Ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha. And thanks very much for taking the time to be with us today. We appreciate it.
Ambassador IMAD MOUSTAPHA (Syrian Ambassador to the United States): Good afternoon to you. Thank you.
CONAN: We heard Deborah Amos describe the kinds of relationships that U.S. diplomats in Syria have there. Has the U.S. government been in touch with you here in Washington?
Amb. MOUSTAPHA: No, absolutely not.
CONAN: No conversations whatsoever? No back channels. No…
Amb. MOUSTAPHA: No conversation whatsoever. Back channels, I don't know. I get lots of visitors at the embassy. Many of them give ideas or advice. They tell me that they have connections with the administration. They discuss issues with me, but I never ask of them whether they really have their own back channels or not. As a policy, we have an open embassy to whoever wants to visit and discuss. So there might be, but not to my knowledge.
CONAN: Let me ask you. One thing that has been coming closer into focus in these past few days is this idea of an international force for southern Lebanon. Is this something - this would be on your border. Is this something that Syria would favor?
Amb. MOUSTAPHA: Well, this depends on too many factors. This is a complicated issue, and I think can be oversimplified. First, what would be the role of that international force? Is it fulfilling the Israeli policies in Lebanon, or is it stopping the ongoing Israeli aggression on Lebanon? Because right now, Israel is killing civilians in Lebanon, and they're destroying the infrastructure of Lebanon.
This is on one hand. On the other hand, what would be its mandate and what would be the reaction of the Lebanese parties towards it? Because Lebanon consists of too many different parties and factions, and there needs to be a consensus before anything happens.
If this force would go to Lebanon despite the will and approval of some Lebanese parties, then it will only further escalate the situation in the region towards more and more conflict. So, this is, you know, a hypothetical.
CONAN: Mm hmm.
Amb. MOUSTAPHA: It depends on what are they thinking of and who are they discussing it with? Right now they are not discussing it with all players. They are discussing it with certain parties and the U.S. government, at least the cabinet - the government of Mr. Senora has said that they oppose this, because what they want right now is an immediate ceasefire because of the human tragedy that is taking place in Lebanon.
CONAN: As you know, Secretary of State Rice has said there is no point to a ceasefire if it does not change the conditions that started this conflict, and could restart it a week or two weeks or two months from now.
Amb. MOUSTAPHA: Well, if Secretary Rice is comfortable with the ongoing massacre that's happening right now in Lebanon, this is her business. Right now, Lebanon is pleading with the world community - please help us. Israel is totally destroying our country. Our civilians are suffering tremendously. Somebody should say enough is enough. Actually, Secretary Rice is not only against a ceasefire, but the United States is expediting the dispatch of laser-directed bombs to Israel so that Israel can use more and more sophisticated weapons in attacking Lebanon and destroying the infrastructure that is already almost completely destroyed in Lebanon.
CONAN: Would Syria - if Israel was willing to agree to a cease-fire - would Syria intervene with Hezbollah to ask them to open a channel to them to see if they would stop lobbing missiles into Haifa?
Amb. MOUSTAPHA: Definitely. Actually, Syria does not even need to do this. The moment Hezbollah took those two Israeli military soldiers as prisoners, Hezbollah immediately offered a prompt ceasefire and an immediate starter for a negotiation process leading to releasing on one hand the two Israeli soldiers - military soldiers captured by Israel - and on the other hand, the more than 9,500 Arab prisoners illegally held captive by the Israelis - all of them civilians. Many of them are women and minor children.
CONAN: As you know, many of them also - not all of them - but many of them have blood on their hands. They are people…
Amb. MOUSTAPHA: If you are talking about blood, well, the Israeli hands are immersed in Lebanese blood and in Palestinian blood. But, you know, each party will try to label the other party that it is the aggressor and it is - but statistics say that Israel has killed by far many more Arabs than the Arabs have done to the Israelis.
I'm not saying that this is right. I'm just reminding the people of facts. The facts is every single human life is a sacred life. But on the other hand, these are not morally equal parties. You have on one hand the occupier, on the other hand the occupied. On one hand the oppressor, on one hand the oppressed. On one hand the underdog, and on one hand the arrogant, regional superpower that tries to impose on its neighbors its policies of occupation, annexation, and building more and more settlements.
CONAN: Ambassador, stay with us. We have to take a short break, and when we come back we'll have some of your calls. Our number again is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail, email@example.com. I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Israeli air strikes continue to pound parts of Lebanon today as Hezbollah rocket attacks continue to target Israeli cities and villages. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected in Rome tomorrow for a meeting with other senior diplomats to help find a solution to the ongoing violence.
Today, our focus is on Lebanon's neighbor, Syria, and the role of that country in the current crisis and its possible role in a resolution. Our guest is Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha. And, of course, you're invited to join us - 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's begin with Sam. Sam's calling us from Miami.
SAM (Caller): Yeah, thank you Neal.
CONAN: Go ahead.
SAM: Mr. Ambassador, I have two questions for you. The first one is Israel - not Israel, but Syria and Lebanon have treaties that if one country's attacked, the other one will come to its defense. So, is Syria planning to help Lebanon in this time? Also, is Syria planning on keeping its political prisoners - Lebanese political prisoners?
CONAN: Mr. Ambassador?
Amb. MOUSTAPHA: Well, of course Syria had many treaties with Lebanon before, and most of them were economic, educational, financial - including a defense treaty. The events that took place last year brought all those treaties to a freezing point. And Syria has negotiated - has suggested a complete negotiations of all treaties with Lebanon because of the dramatic changes that took place in Lebanon last year.
However, having said this, Syria is providing Lebanon with everything it can offer right now. Everything within our capacity, and probably even beyond our means. We have totally opened our borders for the influx of Lebanese refugees. More than 170,000 Lebanese refugees have crossed the borders into Syria in the past 10 days. We are providing Lebanon with electricity around the clock without any charge right now because all electricity plants have been bombarded by Israel. Humanitarian organizations in Syria are working around the clock trying to offer the Lebanese refugees whatever they can do - medical supplies, blood donations - everything within our capacity. We have opened - even the Damascus airport is being used now by the Lebanese National Airlines - the Middle East Airlines - as the central hub for the Lebanese airlines. They are using it for all their flights coming inward or departing outwards.
SAM: But what about the defense treaty?
Amb. MOUSTAPHA: I think I have said this very clearly. Having said this, we cannot send our troops without an official request of the Lebanese government. Lebanon has not issued such a request. I don't think that they are contemplating such a request.
Right now, Hezbollah - which is the Lebanese national resistance - is capably fighting against the Israelis and dealing them very heavy blows. And Hezbollah has said time and again that they are capable of defeating the Israeli occupation in Lebanon, and they will do this.
CONAN: Sam, thanks very much for the call.
SAM: Thank you.
CONAN: The current context of a lot of the conversations about the situation in Lebanon is U.N. Security Counsel Resolution 1559, which as you know, calls for the disarming of all militias in Lebanon, including Hezbollah. Is this a reasonable way to approach a resolution to this conflict?
Amb. MOUSTAPHA: Look, I am the representative of Syria. As far as Syria is concerned, we immediately implemented the part that concerns Syria of 1559.
However, having said this, we have a very unfair world in which we live in. In the past 30 years, the same United Nations Security Counsel has issued a stockpile of resolutions demanding that Israel immediately withdraws from all the Arab-occupied territories: the Palestinian West Bank in Gaza, the Syrian Golan, the Shebaa farms also in Lebanon, and at that time there was a - a huge part of Lebanon was occupied. Israel never complied, and today Israel suddenly has discovered that the 1559 serves some of its own interests, which is disarming the resistance against Israel, and they think that they want to implement this.
Having said this, it's none of our business. We are totally outside Lebanon, and we do not think that Syria has anything to do with 1559. This is on one hand. On the other hand, what Israel really wants is for all the resistance to its occupation to be totally disarmed. The Palestinians should be disarmed, the Lebanese should be disarmed. Why not also the Syrians should be disarmed so that they can continue their policy of more and more occupation, more and more annexation of our lands, bringing more and more settlers from elsewhere - from outside Israel - and building new settlements for them, and a new cycle of occupation, aggression, occupation, annexation? This is totally unfair.
Throughout history of mankind, whenever there was an occupation, there has been a resistance. Of course, the occupier would describe the resistance as terrorists. If you'll remember, South Africa used to describe Nelson Mandela as a terrorist. This has happened throughout the history of mankind. The British used to describe George Washington as a terrorist.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in. And this is Claire(ph). Claire calling us from Ipswich in Massachusetts.
CLAIRE (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.
CLAIRE: I have to say, Mr. Ambassador, I really appreciate you taking the time to share with American citizens your view, and I think that you're very articulate. And my question to you would be what do you - how do you plan - I'm American, but I do have friends who are Syrian. And from what I understand -and friends that are all throughout the Middle East. And from what I understand, the main problem is, as you just described, which is - the groundswell of support in the Middle East - for the terrorists really - there's always going to be extremists. But the problem that we're facing from America and from the world is the groundswell of support throughout the Middle East of the extremist factions. And from what I understand, the reason for that groundswell of support from very, you know, basic families who are just like families in - you know, very similar to families in American just trying to survive - and the groundswell of support from these people is coming from the occupation that you're talking about, and…
CONAN: Claire, could you get to the question, please?
CLAIRE: Well, my question is how are you going to get that message out to Americans, because what's happening right now is Americans do not understand that underlying reason for the groundswell of support that Israel…
CONAN: Let's get a response from the ambassador.
Amb. MOUSTAPHA: Thank you. I've got your message, and I fully support it. Actually, thank you for giving me the opportunity to address this to the American public opinion.
Here in the United States, the very powerful Israeli lobby organization, APAC, with all its friends and allies have managed to change the whole paradigm - the whole discussion about the Middle East into too many things while they have succeeded in totally ignoring the big elephant in the room, which is occupation. The whole troubles of the Middle East are caused by the ongoing Israeli occupation of our territories, and by the Israelis preventing the Palestinians from having their own independent, sovereign and free state.
Time and again, we have invited - at least Syria - officially, at least more than 10 times in the past three years - has invited Israel to reengage in a peace process leading towards a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East based on the fair principle of land for peace. Give us back our occupied territories - the Shebaa farms, the Syrian Golan, and the occupied West Bank in Gaza - and get in return comprehensive peace, total normalization of relations and let us live in peace with you. Let our children live in peace with you.
Israel has totally, categorically and flatly rejected the Syrian proposals for one simple reason: they don't want a peace treaty because they don't want to give us back our occupied territories. Actually, they want to occupy more of and more of our territories and to build more and more settlements in our territories as if our people do not count at all.
Right now, while I'm talking to you, in Syria today we have more than 170,000 Lebanese refugees - sorry, more than 200,000 Lebanese refugees, more than 170,000 Iraqi refugees. We also have half a million Palestinian refugees. And furthermore, we have 250,000 Syrian refugees expelled from their own Golan, dreaming of the day they can go back to their villages and their houses in the Golan.
All this is happening, but it is being totally ignored in the United States. Here in Washington, D.C., you can discuss everything about the Middle East -woman status, democracies and good governments, corruption, terrorism, Islam, extremes - you can talk about anything. But there is only one taboo that no one in the American political establishment will discuss, which is occupation. This is the forbidden word that is never, ever mentioned by any American official.
CONAN: Ambassador Moustapha, thank you so much for being with us. We appreciate your time today.
Mr. MOUSTAPHA: Thank you.
CONAN: Imad Moustapha is Syria's ambassador to the United States, and he was with us here in Studio Three A.
Joining us now to talk a little bit about the culture and history of Syria is Nadim Shehadi, a fellow in the Middle East program at Chatham House, a London-based research center. And it's good of you to spend time with us today.
Dr. NADIM SHEHADI (Fellow, Middle East program, Chatham House): Hello. Thank you.
CONAN: The president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, is a member of a minority Muslim sect called Alawites. Tell us a little bit about this group and how it rose to power in Damascus.
Dr. SHEHADI: Well, the Alawites are a minority sect in Syria, but Syria is like most countries in the Middle East, full of minorities. We've seen this in Iraq. We've seen this in Lebanon. And so the diversity of the population is something that is a normal state of affairs in this area. And the Alawites were the persecuted minority who were, because of their poverty, infiltrated the army and the Bath party and gained influence through these two institutions and finally managed to take over a lot of the state institutions and the presidency as well.
But they're manner of control is quite inclusive in the sense that they manage to recruit a lot of other minorities and play them against each other sometimes. But the high posts are in the hands of a very closely-knit Alawite network, and under a very authoritarian regime controlled by security services - several competing security services, which sometimes very brutally suppresses opposition and any political dissent.
CONAN: As you've already described, the current president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, is the son of Hafez al-Assad, who ruled the country for many years. Is it fair to describe him as a dictator at this point?
Dr. SHEHADI: Yes. I mean, he's not an elected president. He's somebody who inherited his post. They had to change the constitution because he was under age. And when he came in, there were a lot of - there was a lot of optimism about him being young and having studied in the West and having been sort of exposed to Western ideas and wanting to reform Syria.
And he has achieved quite a lot of reforms there. I mean, in the sense that Syria is a much different place now than it was, say, in 1997, '98 when it was more like a East European-style of Stalinist country where you needed a license to have a fax machine or a typewriter. And there was no freedom speech and only the official media was accepted, and the rest closed.
But, I mean, in this day and age, it's so difficult to exercise that sort of control. And Bashar al-Assad was trying to open up. But then his policy of opening up was very short lived. And barely 12 months later - sort of 15 months later, in fact - he reversed that and put a lot of the people in jail that had taken advantage of the freedom of speech. And since then, especially in the last six months, he's also put in a lot - there's also been a crackdown on opposition and on intellectuals that are also in jail.
CONAN: We're talking today about Syria and its role in the conflict and the possible resolution to that conflict in the Middle East. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let me ask you, Nadim Shehadi - just a few months ago, the focus was not on the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, it was the eviction of Syria from Lebanon. It's forces - after almost a 30-year occupation - were forced to withdraw by Lebanese rallies across the country, the election of an anti-Syrian parliament, and allegations that Syria was involved in the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. Has that all gone away now that this new conflict has overtaken these events?
Dr. SHEHADI: Well, this new conflict has certainly detracted attention from two major issues. One of them is the Iranian nuclear issue, and the other one is the investigation on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and the setting up of an international court to judge those who were - be found accused of participating in this.
And Syria was, of course, top of the list in terms of being suspected of participation. And many Syrian opposition - some of them who were officials at the time - have expressed this in the media now that they're outside the country, of course.
And the setting up of an international court would have to rely on the participation of a Lebanese government to - in this international court. And if the current events make it impossible for a Lebanese government to reform, to regroup itself or causes a political crisis or brings forth a government that is more loyal to Syria - as it is also possible if there is a deal with Syria again at the expense of Lebanon, then Syria will be off the hook for its alleged role, and also for the murder of several journalists and politicians in the last year.
CONAN: Syria officials say today that they've withdrawn all of their intelligence agents from Lebanon. We just have a few seconds left. Do you believe them?
Dr. SHEHADI: Syria still maintains a lot of influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah and through some Palestinian groups that it also arms, and through certain politicians that are loyal to it - and as well through some intelligence of presence, which is different - they've only dismantled their huge occupying intelligence centers, but they still have - but it's a level playing field. I don't think there's an intelligence-free zone anywhere in the world.
CONAN: Nadim Shehadi, thank you very much for being with us. Nadim Shehadi, a fellow in the Middle East program at Chatham House in London.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News.
President Bush met today with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to discuss the deteriorating security situation in Baghdad. After the meeting, the president said more American troops and Iraqi security personnel will be deployed in Baghdad in the coming weeks.
And the death toll from a scorching heat wave continues to rise in California, as the state faced its 10th straight day of 100+ degree temperatures. Local authorities are investigating at least 34 possible heat-related deaths, most in California's Central Valley, where temperatures soared above 110 degrees in recent days.
Details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, one of the proposed solutions to the Middle East crisis is an international military force for southern Lebanon. We'll look at what such a force might look like, what it would do, where it would go and under what mandate it would operate. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
In a few minutes, a new history of Agincourt on King Henry V. But let's continue our conversation about Syria and its role in the conflict, and its possible role in a resolution. Joining us now is Richard Murphy, a former ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia. He also served as secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs in the Reagan administration.
Ambassador Murphy is with us from our bureau in New York. And it's very good of you to be with us today.
Ambassador RICHARD MURPHY (Former Ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia): It's a pleasure, Neal. Thank you.
CONAN: As you listen to the Syrian ambassador speak with us - I know you've read other accounts of their foreign ministry's position and what the president has been saying. This all sounds reasonable if you accept what they say about their lack of influence with Hezbollah and their lack of control over it.
Amb. MURPHY: Well, they're not without influence, obviously, over Hezbollah. Do they have full control? I think that's an open question. Hezbollah has been in the field now for almost a generation, has become very well armed, and it's at least possible that this latest raid that they pulled off with the - seizing the two Israeli soldiers was a self-starter.
I know that there was a meeting in Damascus involving Iranians and Hezbollah just before the raid. But I don't think we have proof at this point in time whether it was directed to make that raid or whether it looked what was going on with Hamas in Gaza and decided this was a good moment for it to move.
CONAN: As you look at this relationship with Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah - and particularly Iran and Syria, is Syria the junior partner here?
Amb. MURPHY: Yes. As the junior partner, it's got its own field of action. But, you know, Neal, one of our stated goals has been - would be desirable to, I think, peel off Syria from Iran or to wean Syria from Iran. It's a fine goal, but to be realistic, we have to do some work on our own policy if we're going to reach that goal.
We've had no ambassador there for the past 15 months. The White House has presented a cold shoulder to Syria, and I think the president himself or Secretary Rice said just the other day, Syria knows what it has to do. Just stop Hezbollah. Well, things aren't going to work like that. Nice if they would, perhaps, but the fact remains Iran has been a good friend and good supporter for Syria against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, recently pledging support if Israel and/or the U.S. were to attack.
So the question is what are we prepared to give Syria to make it worth its while to even think of loosening its ties with Iran?
CONAN: And what might we be prepared to give? What would your advice be if you were asked?
Amb. MURPHY: I have been frankly puzzled that the request coming from Syria -from Bashar Al-Assad, since his father's death - to resume the negotiations on the, peace negotiations with Israel - have gone unheeded by Washington. The Sharon government dismissed those overtures, dismissed them saying well, you know, Bashar's too weak to be worth talking to. That's the same thing he said about Mahmoud Abbas, and it's led some to say well, the Israeli leadership hasn't been that much interested in looking for a negotiating partner.
But Bashar told me in Damascus in December ‘03 - I remember the meeting because it was the same day he met with a New York Times Reporter, so I'm not revealing any secrets. But he had been asking for peace talks to resume with Israel, which would lead - among other things - to full return, their long-standing demand of the Golan occupied back in ‘67, but would deal with the Palestinian issues, the remaining Lebanese issues. And remember, Syria did support the Arab summit position back - which was the year before that in Beirut, when the summit called for a full return of territories occupied and fair settlement of the refugee situation. And in return for that, they were offering normal relations with the whole Arab world.
CONAN: Now let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Roger. Roger's calling us from San Francisco.
ROGER (Caller): Yes, thank you.
CONAN: Go ahead.
ROGER: Yes. I've been to Israel four times, and I've been up in the Golan. I noticed when I was up at the tip of the Golan, there's a ski lodge up there. And it didn't look to me - and there's wineries down in the south of Golan.
It appears to me that Israel does not want to give this land up. They want to use this land for their own purposes. You know, it's absolutely necessary, if you want peace in that area, to talk to the people involved. Our adventures in not talking to Syria is an incredible mistake.
You know, I contribute all this trouble that we're presently seeing in the Middle East to two factors. One is the election of Likud back in the year 2000 or so, and also to the election of our own neo-con Republican people in Washington who have a kind of a - let's shoot now and we'll talk next. It's an adolescent view of the world.
We're not going to have any peace unless we talk and negotiate and give the land back and let the Palestinians have a state - a real state, not an imprisoned state where they can't go out and it can't communicate with other countries in their region. Then we'll start having peace there, and the Israelis will live better and the Islamic nations will have a better situation.
CONAN: Ambassador Murphy, what do you think?
Amb. MURPHY: Well I take the point and I sympathize with it. I think the only point where your caller overstated was where he said that Israel doesn't want to return territories. Israel has been in negotiations over those territories in the past. The former prime minister, Ehud Barak, did put on the table a position that would've removed Israeli occupation from the Golan Heights and down to near the border of Galilee, but it wasn't the full return which Jihaf(ph) al-Assad, the late president, had been demanding for 30 years. So that broke up the talks.
So some Israelis are ready, for instance, specifically to return the Golan Heights. They were settled by the Labor Party originally, and there are any number of Israelis up on those heights who have given interviews in past years saying if the cost of peace is the return of this land, we will pay it. We will leave. So it's - in Israeli politics, it's never totally black and white.
CONAN: Roger, thanks very much.
ROGER: Thank you.
CONAN: Ambassador Murphy, we appreciate your time today. We know we kept you waiting. Thank you very much for it.
Amb. MURPHY: Thank you.
CONAN: Richard Murphy, former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia, speaking with us from our bureau in New York. When we come back, a new history of the Battle of Agincourt.