December 15, 2009 | NOW Lebanon

Imad Mustapha: the Ambassador No One Wants

The Washington rumor mill is in high gear again amid reports that the State Department, after a lengthy delay, has finally sent the White House its recommendation for the new American ambassador to Syria. The previous ambassador was withdrawn in 2005 in the wake of the assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

While this kind of speculation has been rife throughout the past year, another, juicier, rumor is also making the rounds in the American capital: that once the US envoy gets assigned, the much-disliked Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustapha, will be sent home.

Many names have circulated as to who the Obama administration's choice might be. The latest, in a list that has included such candidates as Fredric Hof and Daniel Kurtzer, are Jacob Walles, who just finished his service as consul general in Jerusalem, and Nabeel Khoury, currently director of the Office of Analysis for Near East and South Asia at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. In fact, Walles'name has been floating around for several months, though he has privately denied the story. Sources in Washington have also expressed skepticism about the accuracy of the Khoury pick. No one yet knows for sure who the ambassador might be, or when exactly he or she will be approved, confirmed and assigned. It will be done, but it's simply not a high priority.

Several sources in Washington who deal closely with Syria do agree, however, that once that process is finalized, Mustapha will be replaced.

Syria's ambassador was shunned by the Bush administration and the State Department after 2005, and there was even a debate within the administration over his expulsion. Mustapha felt reenergized, or thought he would be, after the election of President Barack Obama, when he began predicting a sea change in US policy toward Syria. Yet his swaggering, indecorous statements, as well as his leaks of disinformation, created a toxic aversion to him in the hallways of the State Department and Congress. Well-informed sources relate how officials at Foggy Bottom declared openly that Mustapha had “zero credibility in this building.”

A good example can be found in the way Mustapha spun an Obama administration decision to loosen restrictions on certain exports to Syria, a process allowed under the sanctions regime Washington has imposed on the country. Following US Special Envoy George Mitchell's trip to Syria last July, Mustapha leaked to American and Syrian media that the US had “lifted” sanctions – at best a dishonest exaggeration.

Just hours after Mitchell's departure, Mustapha made a remarkable statement to Syrian television: “We are focusing with President Obama's administration on using the president's executive authority to suspend the execution of the important articles in the sanctions law.” He added, “They told us that they're working gradually to freeze the articles of the sanctions [regime] one by one until the law is emptied of its meaning.”

Mustapha's claims were fantastical in suggesting that Obama would override Congress and American legislation on behalf of the Assad regime. They were also embarrassing to the administration. The ambassador even told Al-Watan, a newspaper owned by President Bashar Assad's cousin, Rami Makhlouf (a target of the US Treasury Department), that “President Obama was personally overseeing US-Syria relations.” Similarly, he persistently leaked the fiction about an Obama visit to Damascus or a summit with Assad. Among other empty acts was his assertion that a US ambassador would be in Syria by October.

This deeply unprofessional, indeed obnoxious, conduct did not amuse American officials. Mustapha's claims on sanctions caused several members of Congress to demand an explanation from the State Department. Reportedly, Mitchell revealed the minutes of his meeting with Assad to confirm that Mustapha was fabricating stories. 

There was a good reason for Mustapha's focus on sanctions. He had so heightened Syrian expectations of a drastic turnaround in US policy once Obama entered office that he had to justify his optimism even as the rosy picture he drew didn't materialize. Indeed, sanctions have been tightened under Obama, and the president even renewed Executive Order 13441 targeting another cousin of Bashar Assad, Hafez Makhlouf.

So severe was Mustapha's incompetence that he failed to properly explain the sanctions regime to his own president. According to a report in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai quoting Washington sources, Mitchell had to spend an hour and a half of his meeting with Assad just explaining the sanctions.

Stories began surfacing that Mustapha's standing in Damascus was shaky, with Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem allegedly pushing for his replacement. The exasperated State Department, according to sources with direct knowledge of the matter, decided to conduct “all meaningful diplomatic communication [with Syria] through Mouallem.” It was in that context that Mouallem's deputy, Faysal Mekdad, was invited for talks in Washington some months ago. He too had the sanctions explained to him, which essentially became the only item on his agenda.

According to another report in Al-Rai, Mekdad was told by officials at the State Department to “go to the Hill” if he wanted movement on sanctions. In other words, he had to settle matters with Congress, which Mustapha had very clumsily accused earlier of being under the thumb of the “Zionist lobby.”

If the allegations about Mustpaha's departure are true, it would be quite an irony that this should happen during Barack Obama's term, not George W. Bush's. Who knew Mustapha would end up being the first casualty of US-Syrian “engagement”? One thing is for sure: no one will miss him.

Tony Badran is a research fellow with the Center for Terrorism Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.