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Obama and Syria:
A Change of Course

By Mohamed El-Khawas
Guyana Journal, February 2010


From the outset, President Obama tried to signal a new day in American foreign policy. It would be different from Bush's policy, which was driven by neo-conservatism and its preference for using force over diplomacy. To the peoples and governments of the Middle East, Bush had been considered hostile, and made the U.S. unpopular across the region. For this reason, Obama committed himself to improve the U.S. image by advocating a new way forward with Muslim and Arab countries based on mutual interest and respect. His emphasis on diplomacy and constructive engagement raised hopes that the new president will improve relationships and pay attention to the nagging problems in the region. Obama made a good first impression by granting his first interview with foreign television to an Arab satellite channel. He also fulfilled his promise to visit a Muslim country (Turkey) during his first 100 days in office. Furthermore, he went to Cairo and delivered a major policy speech describing his plans to increase Washington's engagement in the Muslim world.

President Obama also has moved to mend fences with some U.S. friends in the Middle East-especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt-that had strained relations with his predecessor since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although he has promised to deal with U.S. foes as well, normalizing relations with Syria was problematic because the two governments had a clash of interests and utilized different strategies to promote their conflicting agendas. The Syrian government is Iran's closest ally in the region and it supports Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which the Bush administration had viewed as terrorist organizations. Another problem was Syria's opposition to the U.S. occupation of Iraq and its actions to allow foreign fighters to cross its border to join the anti-U.S. insurgency there.

Like other news presidents Obama ordered a review of American foreign policy to help him decide whether to keep his predecessor's sanctions on Syria, which had been imposed in 2004 because of Syria's failure to stop the infiltration of foreign fighters into Iraq. He also had to determine whether to continue a freeze on relations with Damascus, which had been imposed in 2005, following the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in which Syrian officials were suspected of involvement. In February 2005, Bush had withdrawn Ambassador Margaret Scobey from Damascus and for the next five years, the U.S. had no ambassador there even though Syria kept its own ambassador in Washington.

The new administration decided that, because Bush's policy did not produce positive results in eight years, it was time to change direction and to try a new approach. Obama chose to cautiously reach out to Syria, recognizing that it is strategically located along the borders of Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel-three nations that are vital to U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East.

Syria is a key regional player that cannot be left out in Obama's push to reach a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Obama also recognized that no peace deal can be reached with Israel without Hamas' participation. Syria can help to bring Hamas to the table for talks, based on its long-term support for the group and its protection of its leader Khaled Meshal, who had been targeted for assassination by Israel's intelligence Mossad. Syria also seeks the return of the Golan Heights, which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war. It has had intermittent peace talks with Israel over the past few years. With Turkey mediating, Syria and Israel had four rounds of indirect talks last year, although they were halted with the outbreak of the Gaza war in December 2008. Syria's President Bashar al-Assad told the Guardian in February 2009, "If you want comprehensive peace in the Middle East you cannot achieve it without Syria." He added, "We are a player in the region. If you want to talk about peace you cannot advance [it] without us." Syria is willing to resume indirect talks to discuss Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights. This will not happen soon because Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu is unwilling to return all of this territory. If there is any hope to break the impasse, the U.S. has to play the role of an honest broker and a peacemaker.

Another reason for Obama's move to engage Syria is related to the precarious position in which the U.S. has found itself in Iraq. In early 2009, the Obama administration expressed "concerns about what Syria is doing in Iraq [and] its support for terrorist groups," as State Department spokesman Robert Wood said. Since March 2009, Jeffrey Feltman, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, and Daniel Shapiro, the National Security Council official, had visited Damascus twice and, following Obama's new strategy, started a dialogue with President al-Assad over serious issues that concerned both countries. In June, Feltman informed the Syrian Ambassador in Washington, Imad Moustapha, of Obama's decision to send an American Ambassador to Damascus.

At the end of July 2009, Obama extended sanctions against Syria for another because, in his view, some Syrian actions continued to destabilize Lebanon, which constituted “an extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security. He acknowledged, however, that the relationship between Damascus and Beirut had improved during his six months in office, leading to establishing diplomatic relations and exchanging of ambassadors for the first time in over 60 years. For example, in December 2009, Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri went to the Syrian capital and discussed ways to increase cooperation between the two governments.

The Obama administration is aware that Syria is important to stabilizing Iraq. On August 17, 2009, U.S. Gen. Ray Odierno told reporters in Baghdad that the "bilateral discussions with them [Syrians] are important." He reported that foreign fighters were still crossing the border to Iraq but the number "has decreased significantly." Since fall 2009, Syria has done a better job guarding its border and stopping foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq. Its cooperation has resulted in a reduction of violence, making it possible for the U.S. to turn security responsibility over to the Iraqi army and for Obama to begin withdrawal of American forces.

This development led the U.S. to ease trade sanctions against Syria. Another sign of thawing in the relationship between the two countries was the arrival in September of a senior Syrian official, Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal al-Mekdad, in Washington for talks. In February 2010, Obama moved to restore full diplomatic relations and to return a U.S. ambassador to the Syrian capital after five years of absence. The appointment of Robert Ford, a career diplomat who has worked in Algeria and Iraq and is fluent in Arabic as U.S. ambassador, marked an end to Syria being a pariah state. Of course, Ford will have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate and accepted by the Syrian government. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that his appointment “represents President Obama's commitment to use engagement to advance U.S. interests by improving communication with the Syrian government and people.” During the same month, Undersecretary of State William Burns went to Damascus and met with President al-Assad. He reported that they talked candidly and identified “the areas of common ground on which we can build.”

In fourteen months, U.S.-Syrian relations have come full circle, changing from a relationship of foes to one of friends, restoring diplomatic ties and willing to cooperate with one another to solve Middle Eastern problems. With Obama on a collision course with Iran over its nuclear program, it is fair to expect Washington to try to woo Damascus away from Tehran. Much will depend on whether Obama is able to get Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria. Martin Indyk, a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and currently the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, has argued that this step will be “part of a broader strategy for peace” in the region “that includes countering Iran's influence.” He added that “Syria is a strategic linchpin for dealing with Iran and the Palestinian issue. Don't forget, everything in the Middle East is connected, as Obama once said.”

Washington, D.C.
February 22, 2010

Dr. Mohamed El-Khawas is a professor in the Department of Urban Affairs, Social Sciences, and Social Work at the University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C.

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