Ending a four-year diplomatic embargo on Damascus,
the administration of U.S. 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 Mideast
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
The announcement of the trip drew praise, particularly from organizations
and individuals who were disappointed by former 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 President 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 U.S.-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
But other experts 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
"The demand that Syria abandon its supporters and friends before entering
into full dialogue with the U.S. 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 U.S. and Syria went from bad to worse. Damascus
opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was subsequently accused by Washington
of actively supporting the Sunni insurgency against the occupation.
In 2005, the U.S. pulled its ambassador from Damascus to protest the assassination
of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and, one year later, a top
White House official reportedly urged the Olmert government to extend its war
against Hezbollah 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
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 U.S. 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, Assad will likely press the U.S. 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 U.S.
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 U.S. 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.
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 Binyamin 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 Sen.
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 U.S. Institute of Peace.
In addition to gaining greater cooperation 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 cease-fire 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 U.S. believes is a nuclear-weapons
"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 U.S. and the West is committed
to the regime's long-term stability, which is what it's primarily concerned
"Frankly, I think it's going to be very difficult to get very far if
U.S. engagement is seen as an attempt to 'flip' Syria away from Iran because
it fears that the U.S. will again fail to deliver Israel, as it did under 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."
(Inter Press Service)