This week, two high-level U.S. congressional delegations are setting out for Syria to meet with President Bashar Al Assad. The trips are seen as a precursor for engagement with Syria, but the extent of possible diplomatic deal-making is still in question.
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) is spending this week touring the Middle East and is scheduled to stop in Damascus for talks with Assad, his third such visit. House Foreign Relations Chairman Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) is expected to travel there later this month.
If, indeed, the congressional trips are a harbinger of President Barack Obama's desire to restore diplomacy with Syria, that would represent a sharp break with former President George W. Bush's policy of isolating Damascus. Obama campaigned on and has, since his inauguration, declared his intention to talk to U.S. adversaries to try to resolve differences.
The top foreign affairs legislators in the Senate and the House of Representatives—both Democrats—are traveling on their own. Both have said that they are not representing the administration, but both congressmen are allies of Obama, and would likely not make such a trip if the administration disapproved.
"Obama is preparing for serious engagement with Syria," said Oklahoma University professor Joshua Landis, who also writes the popular Syria Comment blog. "Obviously, Syria is trying to come in from the cold, but it's not easy."
Indeed, an initial thaw may have gotten underway early into the Obama administration, when the United States sent spare parts to Syria to repair two grounded Boeing passenger planes. The move was assailed by many critics of rapprochement, but the Obama team insisted that it was not an end to sanctions—it was simply a way to ensure public safety.
The meetings between Assad and Kerry this week, though unlikely to bring about substantive change in and of themselves, are widely seen as the opening salvo of a diplomatic offensive. Down the road, the thaw may result in a U.S. ambassador being dispatched to Damascus. Bush withdrew his top diplomat there after Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated almost exactly four years ago, allegedly with Syrian complicity.
But while an initial effort to reach out to Assad may result in diplomatic relations being restored, it is unclear how far those reestablished ties will go in resolving the innumerable differences between Washington and Damascus.
"These visits represent a new environment, but don't themselves constitute a warming of the relationship," said David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).
"The problem still remains and the fundamental issue in our bilateral relationship remains the same," Schenker told IPS. "You may have visits and discussions, but until you have a real Syrian commitment to change its policies on Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon, you're not going to have the kind of opening people are looking for."
Indeed, Syria has been accused of supporting Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and allowing free movement of insurgents across its border into Iraq.
The porous border with Iraq has been a problem for U.S. military operations. Last fall, a militant allegedly facilitated the transportation of insurgents into Iraq. In response to the threat, the United States used several helicopters, striking miles into Syria, l helicopters in order to kill the accused militant. The incident created an uproar, but it quickly subsided.
Among outstanding U.S. concerns is Lebanon, where Syria had troops for nearly 30 years, until its withdrawal of the last 15,000 men in 2005.
"The Lebanese lobby [in the U.S.] is up in arms," Landis said about the potential thaw between Washington and Damascus. "Their stance is, 'Okay, engage Syria. But make sure you have a laundry list of demands, all having to do with Lebanese sovereignty.'"
An emerging obstacle to U.S.-Syrian rapprochement may come from Syria's neighbor to the southwest, Israel, which had, until its assault on Gaza in December and January, been in peace talks with Syria mediated by Turkey.
Just ahead of the Israeli elections last week, Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu, a leading contender to form a government and become prime minister, said that he would be unwilling to achieve peace with Syria by giving up Israeli control of the Golan Heights, occupied since the Six-Day War of 1967.
Reacquisition of the Golan is considered a top priority for the Syrians in any peace talks.
"There are people who say that [Netanyahu] doesn't mean what he says and that he's the best choice for making peace with Syria," said Landis. "He says he is happy to talk to Syrians, but not about land. And he says he is going to build settlements."
But Landis suggests the remote possibility that, just as Menachem Begin negotiated peace with Egypt by giving away the Sinai Peninsula, thereby deflecting criticism of the occupation of the West Bank, Netanyahu may be willing to cede the Golan to keep attention off Israel's internal Palestinian problems.
Schenker of WINEP agrees: "A government run by Netanyahu, which is to the right, may be predisposed to talking to Syria rather than the Palestinians."
But Schenker pointed to a poll indicating that Israelis were more likely to give up part of East Jerusalem than the Golan. Noting that the border with Syria is already "Israel's quietest," Schenker said that Damascus was unlikely to deliver the type of offer that would allow Netanyahu to make a large concession with the Golan.
"In order to get peace between Israel and Syria, there would need to be a strategic realignment," he said, citing specifically the Israeli desire that Syria move away from Iran, crack down on its border with Iraq, and give up support for Hamas and Hezbollah.
He said that was unlikely because if it made those concessions, Syria would then have "the foreign policy impact in the Middle East of Yemen. That's not how they view themselves—as a third-rate Middle East player."
But the biggest obstacle of all may not be a negotiating party or player, but rather the precarious global economic climate.
The upheaval is taking an immediate toll on the Obama administration, forcing the president to focus his initial energies on ending the crisis and getting the country's financial vital signs back to a healthy level. Foreign policy, as many have noted, is likely to suffer from a lack of attention.
"It raises the question of, 'Can you get anything done?'" said Landis. "How much capital can you spend on [Syria] when you need every farthing you have to spend at home?"
"If Obama is going to carry out a revolution in the Middle East, God bless him. He's got a lot of revolutions to carry out," he added.
Ali Gharib writes for the Inter Press Service and for PRA’s Right Web (www.rightweb.irc-online.org).
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