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Interview with Ambassador Richard Murphy - 2003-04-23

VOA's David Borgida speaks with Richard Murphy, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria about the increasing tensions with the U.S.

Earlier today I spoke with former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Richard Murphy—now with the council on foreign relations in New York. We talked about the U.S. Syria relationship, Washington accusing Damascus of harboring fleeing Iraqi leaders and weapons of mass destruction–Damascus denying all this. And I asked the ambassador to characterize the state of affairs.

I don't think controversy is too strong a word. There was an uproar over the last few weeks, starting with the statements -- I think it was actually Secretary Powell -- on Syria acting as a sanctuary for political refugees coming out of the regime in Baghdad. Then the comments about Syria's chemical weapons program. So, it has been a pretty agitated set of exchanges between Damascus and Washington.

What kind of leverage does Washington have to get Damascus to play with the Bush administration?

The leverage is limited, and it depends on how ready Syria is to, first of all, close its borders to leadership types coming out of Baghdad -- it says it has -- not to harbor those who came into Syria. And on that will depend a lot of the quality of the future relationship.

President Bush seems, at least in the last few days, encouraged by what he calls progress.

Yes, he said originally he expected cooperation, and it does seem that he is encouraged. So, there have been some talks going on in diplomatic channels, which none of us are directly aware of. On the chemical program, Syria denies it has one. The CIA produced a report to the Congress saying there were chemicals weapons, there had been a program, and it has been in fact talked about for some 15 years in the past. That's something to be further discussed. And closing the border to those who want to transit Syria or [to those who] are of Syrian origin from going into Iraq to take up positions against our forces, our people in Iraq.

How do you see the weeks and months ahead in terms of the democratization and rebuilding of Iraq, is it going to be painful and difficult, as it often is for fledgling democracies following an ordeal like this, or do you expect it to be perhaps less painful than many people think?

I expect it to be difficult. There has been 30 long, miserable years of repression under the Saddam Hussein regime. The traditions of democracy -- and I don't mean American style democracy but of representative government -- are not there. And even before Saddam Hussein there was strong-armed government under some military predecessors. And before that it was a monarchy, which had more freedom of expression but still it wasn't a situation of flourishing, multi-party, pluralistic representation. So, it's going to take some time.

The best we can do is make it possible for this to emerge. We can't impose, we can't select, a new government in Iraq. And we're going to have to put up with some very awkward moments, some of which we are seeing in our daily television today, of comments, “we're glad you came, now move out, we'll take over,” from various factions, who will very likely be at each other's throats if we were to leave today.

Thank you, Ambassador.