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SYRIA: U.S. opens up to Damascus

February 18, 2009 |  8:17 am

BasharalassadDamascus has long been accused of waiting out the Bush administration in hopes of getting a better diplomatic atmosphere under a new American presidency. And indeed, since President Obama took over from Bush in January, the tide seems to be turning favorably for Syria.

Two delegations from the U.S. Congress have already visited Syria. Later this week, Sen. John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is expected in Damascus.

The U.S. is certainly sending positive messages to the country treated by the previous administration as an associate member of the “axis of evil,” along with such U.S. rivals as Iran and North Korea.

Obama has offered to engage in dialogue with Iran and Syria, breaking from the ways of Bush, who imposed economic sanctions on Damascus accusing it of fostering terrorism in Iraq, Israel and Lebanon.

But beyond goodwill gestures, it remains to be seen how the U.S. plans to approach the Syrians on the ground. One first step could well be the re-establishment of diplomatic ties at a higher level between the two states.

Today, a U.S. congressional delegation headed by Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus.

According to the official Syrian News Agency, SANA, the two parties discussed peace in the Middle East and "combating terrorism."

In an interview published Tuesday in the British Guardian daily, Assad said that he expected the U.S. to send a full-fledged ambassador to Damascus soon.

He said that there was “no substitute” for Washington as “the main arbiter” in the Middle East peace process:

An ambassador is important. … Sending these delegations is important. This number of congressmen coming to Syria is a good gesture. It shows that this administration wants to see dialogue with Syria. What we have heard from them -- Obama, Clinton and others -- is positive. … We are still in the period of gestures and signals. There is nothing real yet.

Under Bush, the U.S. withdrew its ambassador from Syria after Damascus was accused of complicity in a massive car bomb in Beirut that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.

Western powers hope that by supporting peace talks between Damascus and Israel and offering economic and political incentives, Syria will drift away from its regional alliances with Iran and non-state groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

European Union diplomat Benita Ferrero-Waldner told the Arabic satellite news channel Al Arabiya recently that Damascus had expressed its readiness to resume indirect peace talks with Israelis. 

But peace prospects are slim.

For one thing, Syria and Israel's Turkish-mediated indirect peace negotiation fell apart after the Israeli offensive over Gaza in January.

And with the rise of the right in Israel after the latest general elections, Israelis have hardened their stance regarding the withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967, in return for peace.

Meanwhile, Damascus appears unready to give up or even downgrade its strategic alliance with Iran. So far, the Syrians have succeeded in expressing their willingness to negotiate with the West on critical issues without jeopardizing ties with the Islamic Republic.

A new report by the international think-tank International Crisis Group  recommended that Washington carry a “prudent, progressive approach [to Syria] that first rebuilds ties and restores confidence.”

The report advises the Obama administration on a series of steps to build more fruitful relations with the Syrians:

Articulate early on clear guiding principles, including renewed peace negotiations, support for withdrawal from the Golan, acknowledgment of positive Syrian gestures and no compromise on the international tribunal for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri or Lebanon's sovereignty.

The U.S. seems to be softening its economic embargo on Damascus. On Sunday, the Syrian ambassador to Washington said that that the U.S. Treasury Department had allowed the transfer of $500,000 to a Syrian charity.

Imad Mustafa told reporters in Damascus that the money to the Children with Cancer Support Assn. was raised by Syrians living in the U.S. There was no immediate comment from the Treasury Department.

-- Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photo: Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons