WASHINGTON (IPS) - Ending a four-year diplomatic embargo on Damascus, the administration of United States President Barack Obama Tuesday confirmed that it is sending two high-level officials to Syria this week for “preliminary conversations,” presumably on improving relations.
The trip, which will be undertaken by Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Daniel Shapiro, a senior staffer on the National Security Council who also served as one of Obama’s top Middle East advisers during his presidential campaign, was announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Jerusalem.
“It is a worthwhile effort to go and begin preliminary conversations,” she told reporters after meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. “We have no way to predict what the future of our relations with Syria might be.”
The announcement of the trip drew praise, particularly from organizations and individuals here who were disappointed by former US President George W. Bush’s refusal to become involved in what they felt were promising Turkish-mediated peace talks between Damascus and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
“Syria plays a key role with respect to stability in the region and Israel’s security,” said Debra DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now (APN), a Jewish group that has long favored territorial concessions by Israel in exchange for peace with its neighbors.
“American engagement with Syria, both on bilateral US-Syria issues and in support of Israel-Syria negotiations, is critically important in determining whether the role Syria plays in the future will be positive or not,” she said.
But other experts here suggested that, while both Washington and Damascus have been positioning themselves for engagement since Obama’s election in November, finding common ground on key issues, including reviving the Israeli-Syrian peace track, may prove difficult, particularly if Washington presses President Bashar al-Assad hard to end his alliance with Iran and support for Hamas and Hizballah.
“The demand that Syria abandon its supporters and friends before entering into full dialogue with the US is no more likely to work under Obama than it did under [former President George W.] Bush,” wrote Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma on his much-read blog, Syria Comment, after the announcement.
Nonetheless, Landis hailed the decision as long overdue, noting that, even if engagement does not result in major changes in the strategic orientations of either Washington or Damascus, it can lead to “much greater stability in the region over the medium term” and “sustains hope among Arab leaders who had begun to despair after the Gaza war, the economic crisis, and the right’s [election] victory in Israel that the promise of change represented by Obama was not going to work out.”
Under Bush, relations between the US and Syria went from bad to worse. Damascus opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was subsequently accused by Washington of actively supporting the Sunni insurgency against the occupation.
In 2005, the US pulled its ambassador from Damascus to protest the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, and, one year later, a top White House official reportedly urged the Olmert government to extend its war against Hizballah into Syria. In 2007, Washington praised Israel’s bombing of what it alleged was a secret Syrian nuclear reactor and subsequently rejected Olmert’s pleas to join Turkey in mediating peace talks between his government and Damascus.
During his presidential campaign, Obama strongly criticized Bush’s refusal to engage Damascus and pledged on several occasions to reverse the policy, particularly with respect to US involvement in any renewed peace effort between Syria and Israel.
In recent weeks, the new administration made clear its intention to act on that pledge. In addition to permitting Boeing to repair two Syrian commercial airliners, it also backed a high-profile visit by a top ally, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, to Damascus.
Last Thursday, Feltman, who previously served as Washington’s ambassador in Beirut, met for two hours with Syrian ambassador Imad Moustapha, effectively ending what had been a multi-year boycott. On the eve of Tuesday’s announcement, Clinton exchanged words and shook hands with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem during the Gaza donor conference Monday in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt.
According to sources here, Assad will likely press the US delegation to return an ambassador to Damascus as soon as possible with the understanding that he will follow through swiftly on his promise to dispatch Syria’s first-ever ambassador to Beirut, despite his strong objections to a western-backed international tribunal investigating Hariri’s assassination which began its work in The Hague Sunday. Syria has denied any involvement in the killing.
The two countries have a great deal more to talk about, however, including greater cooperation in patrolling Syria’s border with Iraq and helping stabilize the situation in its eastern neighbor. Under Bush, the White House rejected appeals by its then-Iraq commander, Gen. David Petraeus, to travel to Damascus. Once Washington has an ambassador in place, Petraeus, now chief of the US Central Command, is likely to get his wish, according to Landis.
Syria is particularly eager to get back into Washington’s good graces in order, above all to help revive its economy which remains hard-hit by the imposition of US sanctions under the five-year-old Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SALSA), according to Bassam Haddad, a Syria expert at George Mason University here.
Assad will also no doubt press Washington’s envoys on Obama’s interest in the Israel-Syrian peace track which, if successful, could result in the return — albeit over a lengthy interim period — of the Golan Heights which were seized by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
Prospects for progress along that track have diminished since last month’s Israeli elections which are likely to result in the formation of a right-wing government headed by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who campaigned against the Golan’s return to Syria.
Nonetheless, Obama may be prepared to exert pressure on Netanyahu to bring him to the table. Obama’s Special Envoy on Arab-Israeli peace, former US Senator George Mitchell, met earlier this week in Ankara with senior Turkish officials who had mediated the Israeli-Syrian talks before joining Clinton who is herself scheduled to meet Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey Saturday. One of Mitchell’s former aides who may soon rejoin his staff, Frederic Hof, just published a detailed roadmap on “Mapping Peace Between Syria and Israel” this week for the US Institute of Peace.
In addition to gaining greater co-operation on Iraq, the new administration will likely urge Assad to exert pressure on Palestinian Hamas, whose leadership is based in Damascus, to implement a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and, if Arab efforts to form a new Palestinian government of national unity bear fruit, to accept some formula that would meet the Quartet’s demands that it forswear violence, accept previous agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and offer some form of recognition of Israel’s right to exist, according to Landis.
Ultimately, however, Washington hopes it can break the alliance between Syria and Iran in order to more effectively isolate Tehran in a much broader diplomatic effort to persuade it to freeze and roll back what the US believes is a nuclear-weapons program.
“What seems to be in the air is that there will be some kind of attempt to yank Syria out of Iran’s orbit in return for lifting the Syrian Accountability Act, pushing Israel harder on [returning] the Golan, and a guarantee that the international tribunal [in The Hague] will not harm Syria in a significant way,” said Haddad. “But my personal opinion is that Assad won’t break with Iran because it doesn’t believe that the US and the West is committed to the regime’s long-term stability, which is what it’s primarily concerned with.”
“Frankly, I think it’s going to be very difficult to get very far if US engagement is seen as an attempt to ‘flip’ Syria away from Iran because it fears that the US will again fail to deliver Israel, as it did under [former US President] Bill Clinton in 2000, and then Syria will be left without a deal and with no friends or regional leverage,” said Landis. “More promising would be an effort to engage both of them, rather than trying to split them.”
Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.
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