Syrian Foreign Minister Eager to Work with Obama

Former U.S. senator George Mitchell is due to arrive in Syria’s capital, Damascus, Friday on his first visit there since being named Pres. Barack Obama’s special envoy for Arab-Israeli peace.

In an exclusive interview with IPS in Damascus on Jun. 4, Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Moualem, made clear that Mitchell will receive a warm welcome.

"What we’ve heard about Mitchell’s work on Northern Ireland and on the … Palestinian issue is encouraging to us. We are very ready to work with him," he said.

"We approve of Barack Obama a lot. The man put a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace back on the agenda. He also intends to pull out of Iraq completely. We are ready to help with that — but we need our conditions in the matter addressed, too."

Syria’s relations with the United States have been fraught with tension for many years now. In the late 1970s the State Department placed Syria on a list of "state sponsors of terrorism", where it remains until today.

Then in 2003, as a wave of U.S. triumphalism briefly swept much of Washington after the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. Congress passed the Syrian Accountability and Restoration of Lebanese Sovereignty Act (SARLSA), which imposed additional economic sanctions on Syria. The pro-Israel lobby had pushed hard for that legislation.

One high-ranking official in the George W. Bush White House recently commented that throughout most of Bush’s eight years in office, the U.S. was in "a state of quasi-war" with Syria.

Pres. Obama’s decision to send Mitchell to Damascus indicates that that situation is now changing. But considerable work remains if relations between the two countries are to be put on an even keel.

On May 31, Moualem and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a phone conversation that left Moualem — who was Syria’s ambassador to Washington when Bill Clinton was president — generally encouraged.

"I think Hillary Clinton is a good and effective secretary of state," he said. "We agreed on a Road Map to normalize U.S.-Syrian relations in all fields… We agreed we have a mutual, shared vision that centers around these three points: to stabilize Iraq; to work for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East; and to cooperate on combating terrorism."

The fact that he mentioned the two countries’ shared concerns in Iraq before the Arab-Israeli peace process was intriguing, and tracked with what a number of other well-connected individuals in Syria have recently been saying.

Both the Obama administration and the Syrian government have expressed a strong desire to see the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki succeed in stabilizing his country. Maliki, like many other members of the current power elite in Iraq, has long ties with Syria.

The two countries share a long and hard-to-control border. A re-eruption of the kind of chaotic civil strife that traumatized Iraq in 2006 would pose a considerable challenge to Syria.

In 2006, well over a million Iraqi citizens fled that strife to become refugees in Syria, which welcomed them as warmly as it could. Most of those refugees are still there, placing a heavy burden on Syria’s economy. Renewed strife in Iraq could affect Syria in many ways — all of them bad.

The Obama administration’s primary interest in avoiding a political breakdown in Iraq stems from its desire that the exit of U.S. troops from that country — scheduled to be completed by the end of 2011 — proceeds without mishap.

Moualem and other well-placed Syrians expressed their desire to help make that happen. But he indicated it would be hard for Syria to cooperate fully if its own interests continued to be ignored as completely as they were by the Bush administration.

Moualem commented, "It’s very strange that you condemn me as a ‘terrorist’ at the same time as you call on me to help you combat terrorism in Iraq and elsewhere. It doesn’t make sense."

Regarding peacemaking with Israel — the main focus of Mitchell’s mission — Moualem said he thought the best approach would be to resume a peacemaking effort that was pursued by Syria’s northern neighbor Turkey last year.

Moualem’s own involvement in peace diplomacy with Israel goes back many years. In 1994-96 he headed a Syrian negotiating team that came close to completing a final peace agreement — before Israel withdrew its negotiators, in March 1996.

Most recently, between May and December last year, Syrian and Israeli diplomats held "proximity talks" in Turkey. The two teams stayed in separate hotels in Istanbul, while Turkish officials passed messages between them.

Moualem closely monitored those talks from his office in Damascus. In late December, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert joined his country’s team in Istanbul, and Moualem was on standby to travel there too, at short notice, once Syria’s representatives received confirmation that Israel was ready to withdraw completely from all the Syrian land that Israel occupied in 1967.

That has always been a baseline Syrian requirement, in return for which Damascus is prepared to conclude extensive economic and mutual-security arrangements with Israel.

In December, Olmert failed to produce the vital commitment to full withdrawal. A day later, his government invaded Gaza.

Officials in both Syria and Turkey felt they had been misused as part of an elaborate Israeli "strategic deception" project.

Moualem nevertheless told IPS, "We were very happy with the Turkish role… We think that was a good approach: to start with the indirect talks in that way. And then, if we had gotten over the preliminaries with the Turks, the plan was to hand the task of completing the peace agreement over to the Americans."

"The best way would be to try to repeat this approach now. If this should succeed, the success would belong to Barack Obama — and if we fail, the failure would be ours alone," he said.

Later, he added, "The most important thing is that there should be a political decision for peace. It is not important to us whether the government [in Israel] is Likud or Labor."

Regarding the sanctions the U.S. still wields against Syria, Moualem and other Syrian officials expressed some apparent understanding that it might be hard for Obama to take steps like repealing the SARLSA that would need the agreement of the U.S. Congress, which is heavily influenced by the pro-Israel lobby. But he noted there were several steps the administration could take on its own to ease the sanctions Syria is still suffering from.

One step would be to send a U.S. ambassador to Syria. Pres. Bush withdrew his ambassador from Damascus in February 2005, after the killing of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. (Many people blamed the killing on Syria, though no solid evidence of that has been found.)

But if Moualem and other Syrian officials might be glad to see a U.S. ambassador back in Damascus, they are not about to beg openly for this to happen. "Having a U.S. ambassador in Damascus is in Washington’s own interest," presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban stressed. "Americans should want to have their own eyes and ears here. It’s a normal state of affairs."

Another step Obama could take to improve relations would be to ease up on the way his Commerce or Treasury Departments apply the sanctions, in practice. Moualem told IPS, "I am very eager to see a real improvement in our relations with Washington. But nothing has happened yet."

Regarding Syria’s longstanding good relations with Iran, Moualem asked, "Can the relationship we have with Iran help us to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, or, will solving the Arab-Israeli conflict actually help to reduce the importance of Iran in regional affairs? These are important questions to discuss."

He added, "Why would the U.S. want to persist in trying to mobilize an Arab-Israeli coalition against Iran? We are talking about peace in the whole region."

He stressed that Iran "has never opposed any of our peace moves since 1991."

For 29 years, starting in 1976, Syria maintained a large troop presence in Lebanon, which had originally been encouraged by Washington. But in 2005, after Hariri’s killing, Syria withdrew those troops completely. Earlier this year it exchanged ambassadors with Lebanon.

When IPS talked with Moualem, the latest elections in Lebanon were still three days away. Asked his expectations of them he said, "I hope … the Lebanese people choose people who will represent their interests well. And I wish the Lebanese people well."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at