Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Obama Era Offers New Start for Damascus

Syrians welcomed the inauguration of United States president Barack Obama this week, despite lingering anger over America’s tacit approval of Israel’s 22-day military operation in the Gaza Strip.

President Bashar al-Assad sent a cable to Washington on January 21 congratulating Obama and expressing hope for “a constructive dialogue with the United States based on common interests and mutual respect”.

A local political analyst who asked to remain anonymous said the authorities would welcome a chance to escape their current diplomatic isolation.

“Syrian leaders greeted the inauguration with big smile,” he said. “The cable that Assad sent to Obama shows the regime is looking for a new start with this administration. From the tone of Obama’s inauguration speech, it seems the American president feels the same way.”

During his inauguration speech on January 20, Obama spoke directly to the Muslim world, saying ,“We seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” The phrase was well received by Syrians in Damascus.

On Iraq, Obama pledged that the US would begin leaving the country to its people “responsibly”.

Both statements touched on key issues of concern to the Arab world, according to the analyst.

IWPR spoke to a number of Syrians who expressed relief that President George Bush had left office and were optimistic about the policies and world view of his successor.

“I can’t believe Bush isn’t going to be part of our lives any more,” said a university student in Damascus. “There have probably been worse American presidents, but Bush has to be near the top of the list.”

An opposition writer based in Damascus said he was adopting a wait-and-see approach to the new administration.

“There was an undertone of peace in Obama’s speech, which is a good sign for the rest of the world, but the most important thing to him will definitely be impressing his own people,” said the writer. “I was nervous that the Obama administration would take third-world countries and opposition groups for granted, but he made a point of addressing those fighting for democratic reform in his speech, and that shows his integrity and compassion.”

He said these comments, in particular, resonated with him and other opposition activists in Syria.

“We in Syria know what injustice means, and we know what the struggle for freedom, equality and democracy means,” he said. “It was a moment of victory for all of those people in the whole world who fight for these principles. Obama told them that there is hope, that our sacrifices are not in vain and that we too would achieve our dreams.”

A minority of those to whom IWPR remained angry at the United States for its tacit approval of Israel’s recent Gaza offensive. They said, the new administration will be no better than the last until it speaks up for the people of Gaza.

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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