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A Thaw in U.S.-Syrian Relations?

Inter Press Service

Four months ago, the Barack Obama administration announced that it would appoint an ambassador to Syria, ending a four-year freeze on diplomatic relations between the two countries.

That announcement came as a part of a larger foreign policy rhetoric that emphasised dialogue with both friend and foe. But what real impact has this new approach had?

There have been measurable steps taken to unthaw a Syrian-U.S. relationship that has been decidedly chilly since early 2005 and the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Since the Obama administration moved into White House in January, there have been six high-level meetings between Syrian officials and the executive branch, including a visit to Washington by Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad in September, the highest-ranking Syrian official to visit the city in more than five years.

While the fact that the ambassador to Damascus is yet to be named might be troubling at first glance, the still vacant post may be more a result of bureaucratic haggling than anything else.

“The progress towards an ambassador is still on,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the widely-read blog, Syria Comment.

Landis noted that Imad Moustapha, Syria’s ambassador to the United States, went to the State Department at the end of last week and communicated that things were positive.

“Talking with the U.S. today is night and day between Bush and today,” Landis reported the ambassador as saying.

Yet despite the outward attempts at mutual rapprochement, deep undercurrents threaten the progress of this fledgling relationship.

Michael Hudson, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and an expert on the Syrian political scene, pointed to several factors that might have stalled any new progress. Not least among these are renewed allegations by the Iraqi government that Syria has at least indirectly supported bombings and violence in Iraq, Hudson said.

Indeed, Syria’s role in Iraq and allegations that its border serves as a refuge for ex-Baathist fighters in Iraq has been a point of contention and one of negotiation between the U.S. and Syria for a while, dating back to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice‘s 2007 meetings with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, which were strictly limited to Syria’s role in the neighbouring country.

Beyond Syria’s influence in Iraq, Landis described deep-seeded “structural problems” that hinder the U.S.-Syrian relationship. At the top of this list is the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The 1,200 square kilometre strip of land bordered by Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan is strategically important because of its location, but also because it is a major water source in the arid region. Syria wants the territory back and many analysts and international resolutions have called for Israel’s withdrawal from the region as a part of peace talks between the two countries.

But Israel has balked at any such suggestion. “Netanyahu rejects this Syrian requirement as a precondition, even though several previous Israeli prime ministers, beginning with Rabin, did just that,” Theodore Kattouf told the Center for American Progress in an interview with its Middle East Progress blog in mid-October.

Kattouf is a former ambassador to Syria and the current president and CEO of AMIDEAST.

Landis added to this point, telling IPS that for Israel, “There’s no pressure to give up anything. I mean, why would Israel give up the Golan? For what? For Syria, [in Israel’s view] a two-bit country? No way.”

However, Landis’s description of the power balance between Israel and Syria takes on new meaning when tempered by his acknowledgement that the United States has very little leverage in Syria.

“Syria’s not going to do anything for America. Why? Because Syria has come to the conclusion that President Obama cannot reverse sanctions,” he said. “The one short-term thing that Syria wants, short of the Golan Heights, is to have sanctions reversed.”

The U.S. sanctions against Syria are the purview of Congress and were renewed earlier this fall with the support of the Obama administration. And indeed there is little domestic or international support for ending the sanctions regime, especially as Syria continues to facilitate the movement of arms, equipment and money to Hizbollah and Hamas.

The lack of U.S. influence in Syria has been further compounded by Syria’s growing alliances in the Middle East. President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime has refused to pull back from the country’s longtime relationship with Iran, even while there has been a softening of rhetoric between Syria and anti-Iran governments like the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Yet the rapprochement between Syria and Saudi Arabia has proceeded with King Abdullah’s first visit to Damascus as head of state taking place last month.

Ties between Syria and Turkey have also been improving this year, ending years of mistrust between the neighbouring states that was based largely on Turkey’s allegations that Syria was supporting the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The new relationship includes economic and military cooperation measures.

With Syria pulling out of its regional isolation, “There may be a certain kind of irritation here in Washington that Syrians are developing and cultivating regional and local allies and thus gaining a certain leverage that they might not have had before,” Hudson told IPS.

As the U.S. relationship with Syria continues to evolve, it seems that the structural problems between Damascus and Washington have larger implications for U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Syria sits at the epicentre of United States interests and investment in the region, and previous U.S. policies of seeking to change Syria’s behaviour through isolation have effectively failed.

Yet as new ways forward are pursued, Landis points out that the U.S. Congress’s often unconditional support of Israel has left little negotiating room for the Obama State Department. “That means whatever it means for Lebanon and Iraq and other things,” Landis said. “All these issues aren’t going to be resolved, and they’re going to continue to grind away.”

Some plans have been put forward that attempt progress in the U.S-Syrian relationship while skirting the bulk of the issues.

Kattouf suggested in his interview with Middle East Progress that the U.S. not stand in the way of Syria’s anticipated application to the World Trade Organisation, support the EU’s association agreement should Syria decide to sign it, and provide additional resources for Syria to sustain the more than one million refugees that have sought haven there.

Similarly, the International Crisis Group in a February report suggested a recalibration of sanctions on the basis of clear policy objectives.

However, these steps are incremental along the path toward a real relationship between the United States and Syria, and it remains to be seen if, or how, the Obama administration will pursue that goal.

Ellen Massey writes for the Inter Press Service and has been a contributor to PRA’s Right Web (https://rightweb.irc-online.org/).

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