After months of delay, the administration of President Barack Obama is taking major steps engage the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as part of a broader regional strategy designed in major part to isolate Iran, escalate the fight against al-Qaeda and other radical Sunni groups, and encourage peace talks with Israel.
Wednesday’s meeting in Damascus between Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns and Assad marked the highest-ranking official exchange between the two countries since former Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled there almost six years ago.
And the long-awaited nomination of a new U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert S. Ford, announced by the White House late Tuesday, confirmed the effective end to a diplomatic boycott by Washington that began with the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri which former President George W. Bush blamed on Damascus.
While Ford must still be confirmed in his new post by the U.S. Senate, the fact of his nomination, Burns said after his meeting with Assad, "is a clear sign, after five years without an American ambassador in Damascus, of America’s readiness to improve relations, and to cooperate in the pursuit of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace between Arab and Israelis with progress on all tracks of the peace process and in the pursuit of regional peace and stability."
Burns also announced that the State Department’s top counterterrorism official, Amb. Daniel Benjamin, would stay on in Damascus for additional discussions with top Syrian officials presumably focused on fully restoring intelligence and related cooperation that was halted under Bush.
Limited cooperation, especially relating to Syrian help in preventing its border with Iraq from serving as an infiltration and supply route for Sunni or Ba’athist fighters, has resumed over the past year, largely at the initiative of the chief of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, who had been barred by the previous administration from visiting Damascus.
But Washington now hopes to expand that cooperation both with respect to Iraq and to the larger region as well, given the Assad regime’s long experience in combating Sunni extremism.
Most analysts, as well as the Syrian government itself, had expected that the latest steps toward normalizing ties would have taken place much earlier in Obama’s tenure, particularly given his criticism of Bush’s refusal to engage diplomatically with Washington’s perceived foes in the region during his election campaign. Indeed, the administration first officially announced its intention to return an ambassador to Damascus last June.
But resistance from hawkish elements of the so-called "Israel Lobby" here; concerns that a premature rapprochement could strengthen Syria’s allies in Lebanon; as well as the administration’s early focus on re-launching a credible peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, delayed action, although Obama’s special envoy for Arab-Israeli peace, former Sen. George Mitchell, has traveled to Damascus three times since last June.
In fact, Burns’s emphasis on the Arab-Israeli peace track in his remarks Wednesday suggested that Washington is putting a high priority on getting a Syrian-Israeli negotiating process underway, particularly in light of the prolonged impasse on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
The prospect of reviving what some have called the "Syria First" option may help persuade Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to drop his demand that Israel freeze all settlement activity on the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem as a precondition for Israeli-Palestinian talks, according to some analysts here.
But the fact that the moves of the last two days come amid a major diplomatic campaign directed against Iran suggests that Washington’s top priority is to test the degree to which Damascus may be willing to loosen its alliance with Tehran in the interests of improving ties with Washington which, among other things, is also seen as critical to Syria’s hopes of recovering the Golan Heights from Israel.
In addition to Syria itself, Burns and his delegation visited with Lebanon’s President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Beirut earlier this week and are now traveling to Turkey and Azerbaijan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with top officials in Qatar and Saudi Arabia earlier this week, while her deputy, James Steinberg, is due in Israel early next week.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo and top Israeli military officials in Tel Aviv over the weekend and is scheduled to travel to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this week. He told McClatchy Newspapers that Iran was at the top of his agenda.
It is in this context that "the timing of the (Ford’s) appointment, together with the visit of William Burns to Damascus, is part of a tactical push to show Tehran how isolated they really are," Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), told Politico.com Wednesday.
How open Assad will be to Washington’s more earnest courtship — particularly if it requires them to turn on their long-time ally in Iran — remains far from clear, particularly given his earlier expectations of a much faster normalization process, including the easing of economic sanctions that remain in effect.
The Syria Accountability Act, approved by Congress in 2004, imposes a number of harsh economic sanctions against Syria, including a ban on the sale of U.S. goods to Damascus. Its terms, however, can be waived if the president finds that such a sale was necessary for national security, an authority that Obama has yet to use despite appeals by Boeing Co. to permit it to sell spare parts and technology for Syria’s aging commercial airliner fleet.
Indeed, in a recent interview with the New Yorker’s legendary investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, Assad expressed great skepticism that about the administration’s ability to accommodate even minimal Syrian requirements.
"Maybe I am optimistic about about Obama, but that does not mean that I am optimistic about other (U.S.) institutions that play negative or paralyzing role(s)…," he said, noting the role of Congress, where pro-Israel forces are especially strong, in particular.
"(T)he whole atmosphere is not positive towards the president in general," he said. "And that is why I think his envoys cannot succeed."
He also rejected Washington’s current strategy of seeking greater international support for economic sanctions on Iran to persuade it to curb its nuclear program.
"Imposing sanctions (on Iran) is a problem because they will not stop the program and they will accelerate it if you are suspicious," he told Hersh. "They can make problems to the Americans more than the other way around," he added.
Moreover, Assad is considered to be in a much stronger position both internally and internationally than even a year ago when Obama took office.
Syria’s economy is attracting record foreign investment due to the implementation of a sweeping reform program On the diplomatic front, it has fully normalized ties with France and other European nations and has regained considerable influence in Lebanon since the so-called Cedar Revolution that followed Hariri’s assassination and forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country.
(Inter Press Service)