Osama Al-Sharif
Arab News
February 25, 2009 - 1:00am

In a brazen departure from the policies of the Bush administration, Washington is rapidly warming up to Syria, a country that for years was stigmatized, isolated and threatened. Congressional delegations have been landing in Damascus and meeting President Bashar Assad; early signs suggest that a quick thaw in relations is about to happen soon.

The highest-ranking US official to visit the Syrian capital recently was Democratic Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, and a close associate of President Barack Obama. His assessment after meeting President Assad was that there is an opportunity for “real cooperation” between Washington and Damascus. Ironically, the new approach toward Syria began to take shape during the Bush era when a bipartisan committee presented recommendations to the administration on Iraq. The Iraq Study Group delivered what was later known as the Baker-Hamilton report in December 2006 in which it called on the government to initiate direct dialogue with both Syria and Iran, in addition to setting up a timetable for a phased withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

While the Bush administration made some overtures toward Iran and began to consider redeployment of troops from Iraq, it refused to budge on the Syria issue. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Damascus in April of 2007, following the Democratic overrun of both Houses of Congress, was criticized by the White House. But her break with official policy then underlined the different attitude that a future Democratic president would adopt in dealing with the Syrian regime. The recent US emphasis on Syria is strategic and not tactical. It is the one country in the region that is being viewed as key to overcoming many of the challenges that US diplomacy faces in the Middle East today. It has emerged as the common denominator in relations to issues involving Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Israel and the future of the peace process.

While America’s attitude toward Syria had shifted under the Bush administration from direct confrontation to a more subtle approach, it nevertheless remained suspicious and hostile. It reached a dangerous juncture with the Congress’ passing of the Syria Accountability Act in December 2003, whose aim was to sever Syria’s ties to terrorism and end its decades-old presence in Lebanon, in addition to stopping its alleged development of weapons of mass destruction.

That bill was viewed as a precursor to building a front in Washington led by neoconservatives who were promoting regime change in Damascus, along the lines of what happened in Iraq.

Syria was able to withstand the initial shockwaves of these aggressive policies. Washington was becoming increasingly frustrated with Syria’s covert support of anti-US elements in Iraq. By that time, the Tehran-Damascus axis was growing stronger, and as the US got bogged down in Iraq, its perception of Syria’s role got worse.

The assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 and the ensuing civil unrest was a watershed in US-Syrian relations. Washington withdrew its ambassador from Damascus to protest Syria’s alleged involvement in the murder of Hariri and supported an independent UN commission that was set up to find and punish his killers.

Syria denied any involvement in Hariri’s death and viewed the commission as a US plot to implicate it. But its international isolation increased and relations with some key moderate Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, began to worsen as well because of its overt support of Hezbollah, which was blocking Lebanese reconciliation, and radical Palestinian factions, including Hamas. Its special ties with Iran have always worried the Americans, but in recent years the Israelis, along with the moderate Arab camp, began to view that alliance as a menace to regional stability.

In the aftermath of Israel’s failed war against Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, and Hamas’ overthrow of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in Gaza the following year, Syria’s strategic assets in regional politics were bolstered. The Arab world was increasingly divided between moderates and hard-liners, and Damascus was undoubtedly leading the latter party. But Syria’s political calculations remain exclusively self-serving. In spite of backing Palestinian rejectionists and nurturing a special relationship with Iran, it embraced a low-key Turkish-led mediation effort last year to set up indirect peace negotiations with Israel. The talks faltered and were eventually abandoned, at least for now, in the wake of Israel’s war on Gaza earlier this year.

The Europeans were quicker to open up to Syria. French President Nicolas Sarkozy flew to Damascus last year and later invited President Assad to Paris to attend the Mediterranean summit. In the final months of the Bush presidency US forces launched a cross-border attack, from Iraq, against a small Syrian village allegedly to hunt down insurgents. Syria claimed the victims were civilians.

The Obama administration appears to be ready to a corner, and the Syrians are eager to do business. That would be a huge diplomatic breakthrough for a country that was once, and technically still is, on America’s list of states sponsoring terrorism. Syria holds the key to a number of issues, but it also risks turning friends into foes if it is seen as selling out on its declared principles.

The US hopes to distance Syria from Iran, use it to apply pressure on Hamas and even convince it to abandon Hezbollah. That is the American objective. The Syrians have one main goal in mind, Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Anything else is transitory.


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