Obama takes a Syrian gamble

Por • 6 ene, 2011 • Sección: Portada

Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS – United States President Barack Obama’s move on December 31, bypassing the senate while vacationing in Hawaii to name ambassadors to Syria, Turkey and Azerbaijan, wasn’t revolutionary, but it was certainly important.

Other appointments were made, such as deputy attorney general, and holidaying US leaders have made such plays before. This shouldn’t be seen as a gesture of goodwill or benevolence towards the three countries.

After all, each is vital to US interests: Azerbaijan for its gas reserves, Turkey for its crucial role in the region and its strategicposition in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Syria, because the road to peace in the Middle East runs through Damascus.

Although they appreciate the gesture, none of these countries see it as something they should celebrate. Proper diplomatic representation is normal and expected between two states. It was one thing when Franklin Roosevelt upgraded the US delegation to Damascus in 1942 to a full-fledge embassy – though that indeed was celebrated as recognition of Syria’s sovereignty despite the French occupation – It’s something completely different when Obama just restores the ambassador.

Last Wednesday, the White House announced that Obama would make «recess appointments», including making Robert Ford, an experienced career diplomat, ambassador to Damascus; Matthew Bryza to Azerbaijan and Francis Frank Ricciardone to Turkey.

Republicans had previously drowned Obama’s efforts at sending Ford to Syria, where there has been no ambassador since February 2005. Although his party is now a minority in the House of Representatives, Obama felt undaunted in the maneuver, which has already sparked off loud protests from Republicans who claim that it «sends the wrong message» to Syria.

The US president thinks otherwise, however, and appears convinced that the appointment serves US interests in the Middle East, not those of Syria. Damascus did not recall its ambassador to the US even during the difficult years of the George W Bush administration. Even when US Special Forces carried out an assault on Syrian territory in 2008, killing Syrian civilians while claiming to chase a member of al-Qaeda, Syria only responded by closing down the American school in Damascus.

It seems that as far as the Syrians are concerned, dialogue rather than bravado is the way forward for Syrian-US relations. America needs a senior diplomat at its embassy in Damascus to carry out dialogue on a number of issues: the situation in Iraq, counter-terrorism, the peace process, and bilateral Syrian-US relations. It needs Syria’s influence with Hamas if any deal is to be hammered out between the Palestinians and Israelis. It needs Syria help stabilize Iraq, along with Saudi Arabia and Iran, as the US prepares to withdraw what remains of its 50,000 troops from the war-torn nation.

And it needs Syria to talk to Iran, given that Syria has the ear of top Iranian officials. In 2006, the Baker-Hamilton report basically told the Bush White House that for Iraq to rise from the ashes, the US had to talk to either Syria or Iran. Continuing to not talk to both would spell out disaster for the US. Given that talking to both was too difficult for the US, Washington needed to engage with at least Tehran or Damascus to see results in Iraq. Syria was the logical choice: it had no history of anti-Americanism, there was an operating US Embassy in Damascus, and it had proven to be a sound negotiator who had delivered results over 30 years of engagement.

Obama seems to realize the grave mistake his predecessor made when recalling ambassador Margaret Scooby from Damascus in 2005. That withdrawal was hasty, coming shortly after the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri. Although many accused Syria of the murder, there was not a shred of evidence supporting such an argument and investigations had not even started. Several consecutive United Nations investigations proved that Syria had nothing to do with the murder, and last September Prime Minister Saad Hariri – Rafik’s son – admitted that Syria had nothing to do with his father’s assassination.

Meaning, when the Special Tribunal for Lebanon issues its indictments this year, the argument that the US used to recall its ambassador seems to have been disproved. The US did not withdraw its ambassador protesting Syria’s relationship with Hamas or Hezbollah, nor did it withdraw her over Syria’s reactions to the 2003 war on Iraq. It withdrew her because it accused Syria of killing Rafik Hariri.

Obama is a realist who realizes that if he wants to achieve substantial results in the Middle East, he needs to go through proper channels. Regardless of whether he agrees with Syria or not, he needs a top diplomat in Damascus to channel his views to the Syrian government. Even at the height of the Cold War, for example, the US Embassy never closed in Moscow.

When Ford arrives in Damascus later this January, he will find issues piled on his desk. Peace in the Middle East is one top priority – the Syrians want to know why the US has repeatedly failed at pressuring Israel into changing course vis-a-vis settlements in the West Bank, and the continued siege of Gaza. He needs to understand that Syria curtly refuses any peace talks that do not restore the occupied Golan Heights to Syria, in full, based on the June 4, 1967, borders and UN Security Council resolutions.

Another fundamental that Ford needs to understand is that Syria’s relationship with Hezbollah is strategic and not up for negotiations. Finally, the US diplomat will need to rebuild trust between his country and Syria, both government and public alike. The eight years of Bush damaged America’s image in the eyes of ordinary Arabs – in many cases, beyond repair.

The Syrians must make it clear to Ford that sanctions are unproductive and need to be eliminated. If Obama cannot lift them, then at least, they must be reduced. All they do is harm bilateral relations and threaten the lives of ordinary Syrians, whether in terms of restrictions on upgrading Syria’s air fleet or importation of medical equipment. They harm investment, academia, and people-to-people relations.

When done with his «to-do-list», Ford might wish to take a long walk in the streets of Damascus, with no bodyguards, to see that streets of the Syrian capital are safer perhaps, than downtown Manhattan. Before landing in Syria he might wish to call up his predecessor Christopher Ross, who remembers only too well his famous jogs in Damascus, where he felt safe enough to exercise with no security by his side.

With time he will appreciate friendliness of the Syrian people, the secularism of Syria’s government, and the remarkable co-existence between Syrians of all religions. Only then will he realize, perhaps, how wrong the US was to withdraw its top diplomat in Damascus six years ago.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

Link: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/MA05Ak02.html

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