February 4, 2004 Special Dispatch No. 656

Syrian Minister Buthayna Sha'ban: 'There Is No Opposition'

February 4, 2004
Syria | Special Dispatch No. 656

Following the return from her visit to the U.S., Syrian Minister of Expatriate Affairs Dr. Buthayna Sha'ban [1] gave an interview to journalist Ibrahim Hamidi. The following are excerpts from the interview: [2]

'Emigrants are Part of the State'

Question: "In the last three years, many [Syrian] emigrants [abroad] have renewed their political activity. However, recently measures have been taken against some of them, and warnings have been sent to them."

Sha'ban: "Just because an emigrant is an emigrant does not mean he is above the law. The state plays its part in the usual way, as it sees fit. The emigrant cannot be of the state and above the state at the same time. The emigrants are part of the state, and are not some mythical force that cannot do wrong."

Question: "Does the return of some opposition members to the country hint otherwise?"

Sha'ban: "They said they didn't want to enter Syria on an American tank. These words were appreciated, and this proves that the government welcomes all sons of the homeland if their national affiliation is the most important thing on their agenda. Syria wants to preserve its security, its people, and its future, and there is a government that determines strategies.

"In every country in the world, even in the U.S., the people hold an opinion, but the government is the one to decide and execute, and no government will permit anyone to plan and carry out a policy that will damage its state security, its economy, and its values. The government plans and carries out its policy, but it takes into account people's opinions and ideas in the framework of the laws determining political life in the country.

"Every person in the country, emigrant or citizen, has rights and obligations. Each matter will be examined individually in the framework of the law, and each person will be assessed according to his ability and his situation, his position, and his obligation to the laws and the regimes."

'There are No Exiles'

Question: "Will all 'voluntary exiles' be allowed to return to the country?"

Sha'ban: "There are no exiles. There are people against whom there are legal proceedings. I am not well-versed on the matter, but there are 15 million [sic] Syrians outside the country and it is difficult to generalize such situations to include everyone. Each case must be examined individually. There is a small minority that carried out punishable offenses against other citizens, such as happens all over the world. Belonging to the homeland and its interests is the most important thing. Syria, like every country in the world, acts, attempts, and makes efforts in all areas.

"There is a difference between trying to correct a negative phenomenon and exploiting it to serve someone who wants to harm your country. Harming Syria is forbidden, and cooperation with others with the aim of harming Syria on any pretext is completely unacceptable."

'There is No Opposition'

Question: "On the other hand, there are people who held a conference of the Syrian opposition in Washington, in coordination with the Washington Institute, which is a branch of the Jewish lobby in Washington."

Sha'ban: "Just because they held a conference does not mean they are a group. They told me in Washington that on the first day [of the conference] only one person showed up. That is, there is no opposition… Note that the Arab world is facing an attempt by some of its Arab sons to revile their homeland, and this includes Syria and other countries. Anyone who has sense in his head must object to this. Even cooperation with the media that broadcast Zionist propaganda and propaganda trying to harm the Arabs must be prohibited."

Question: "This is being connected to what happened in Iraq, and they are saying that the U.S. wants to repeat the American scenario in Syria."

Sha'ban: "… This is a Zionist idea that is trying to attract Arabs of weak character in order to topple the Arab truth. We as Arab media and as Arabs must stand against this stream. Speaking Arabic is no proof of proper affiliation. There are many people who are not Arabs but who stood absolutely alongside Arab justice, and there are Arabs who fell victim to the Zionist propaganda that works against Arab justice, Arab land, and the future of the [Arab] nation. We must be decisive on this matter."

Question: "In Washington you met with Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and with Eliot Abrams, head of the Middle East desk at the National Security Council."

Sha'ban: "The meeting was very positive. As a Syrian minister, when I travel to the U.S., I must inform the U.S. Embassy. I did not conduct an official visit, but [the Americans] told me that Burns wanted to meet with me, and I welcomed this. We talked about the need for continued dialogue and about the situation in the region and Syria's role. Burns was positive, and we agreed that the U.S. and Syria would think of a way that would make it possible to continue dialogue and cooperation in order to transform the Middle East into a better region for all."

'Neo-Conservatives Believe the U.S. Must Solve All Problems by Means of Arms'

Question: "The U.S. State Department asked to meet with you and the White House appointed the new ambassador to Damascus on the same day the Syria Accountability Act was passed."

Sha'ban: "The only explanation is the dispute within the American administration, between the diplomatic political stream that wants to continue the dialogue with Syria and the other stream of the neo-conservatives, that believes that the U.S. has the military strength and must solve all problems by means of arms. This stream supports Sharon and acts in Israel's interests in the region, while in Israel loud voices arise against Sharon's policy, and soldiers and officers rebel and refuse to serve in the Palestinian lands.

"This indicates the mistake of the neo-conservatives who support Sharon's policy, which has a negative effect on Israel and on the U.S. I do not see where Congress' or the administration's interest is in the Syria Accountability Act. Syria's way is one of dialogue, political cooperation, and adherence to international legitimacy and the Security Council resolutions. There is worldwide concern about this neo-conservative stream. I noticed the concern among the Americans themselves, in the research centers and universities…"

The Arabs 'Must Cling to the Right of Resistance'

Question: "They say that Syria still has not adjusted to the post-9/11 world."

Sha'ban: "Syria was one of the first countries to condemn what happened on 9/11. President Al-Assad was among the first to express sorrow for the victims. But after 9/11, the Zionists hastened to link the terror events in the U.S. to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and depicted all those fighting the occupation and the settlements as terrorists. The result was slapping a charge of terror on all Arabs and Muslims.

"The Arab world and the Muslim world did not hasten to distinguish between the two matters, and invested no political, conceptual, and informational effort to differentiate between what is happening in Palestine and what is happening in the U.S. and in the other venues of terror. The Arabs will not wage a battle with arms, tanks, and airplanes. The Arabs must separate terror from the Arab-Israeli conflict, with regard to the media, as well as verbally and politically, and must cling to the right of resistance …"

'There are No Two Sides'

Question: "They say that the language of the media is a modern language, while the language of [Arab politics] is fossilized and inflexible and doesn't know how to address the world."

Sha'ban: "That's not true. This [the media language] is not a modern language. When you say that the Palestinians and the Israelis must both act, it damages Arab justice and Palestinian justice. There are no two sides. There is [only] the Israeli side that occupies land, and the Palestinian side whose land is occupied. Therefore, it is inconceivable for a top Arab official or for an Arab television channel to talk of two sides.

"When I spoke in this ['fossilized'] language [in the U.S.], I was warmly applauded. Therefore what they are saying in the Arab media is untrue, and the language we employ is not fossilized; it is a language that adheres to justice and insists on maintaining dialogue…

"When you struggle to defend your land you are not an aggressor, but trying to ward off aggression. But some of the Arab media want to fall into the trap of terminology hostile to Arab justice."

Question: "How would you describe Syria-U.S. relations?"

Sha'ban: "There is a call to dialogue from both sides. The Arab reality is shaky. If only the Arabs would see themselves as others see them – as a single bloc – they would not weaken one by one. The solution lies not only in Syria's hand, but also in the Arabs' hand, [if] they begin to see themselves as a single entity and speak with the world as a single entity."

Question: "Is Syria concerned?"

Sha'ban: "Concern does not indicate fear. There is positive concern. Every country must look to its interests and its future. But there is no concern in the negative sense."

Question: "After Libya, Iran, and Iraq, does Syria feel in the spotlight?"

Sha'ban: "Absolutely. Syria is now acting out of concern for the region. Syria cannot be calm when the entire region is in danger. Therefore, it is trying to play an active role, both by means of its relations with the U.N. and by means of its relations with the Arabs and with Europe. Syria is active in the international, regional, and Arab arenas, out of the view that more activity is necessary for the region, and the Arabs must reshuffle their cards and act seriously. But we are optimistic."

[1] For more on Buthayna Sha'ban, see: Syrian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Glorifies Martyrs and Martyrdom, 'Syrian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Glorifies Martyrs and Martyrdom,' September 10, 2003, and Syrian Government and Media on the War in Iraq, 'Syrian Government and Media on the War in Iraq,' April 21, 2003.

[2] Al-Hayat (London), January 7, 2004.

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