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Obama Victory Raises Syrian Hopes

Syrian analysts have expressed hope that their country’s strained relationship with the United States could improve under president-elect Barack Obama, but they do not expect to see dramatic shifts in Washington’s Middle East policies.

Like many other countries around the world, Syria backed Obama over Republican candidate John McCain, who took a harder line on countries like Syria and Iran.

The official SANA news agency quoted Syrian information minister Mohsen Bilal as expressing hope that Obama would "change US foreign policy from a policy of war and siege to one of diplomacy and dialogue".

He made the comments during a trip to Cuba on November 5, the day after the US election.

Repairing the relationship will be a formidable task. The Bush administration’s policy was to isolate Damascus and impose economic sanctions on it. Washington has repeatedly accused the Syrians of backing terrorism by supporting groups like the Palestinian Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and by allowing foreign militants to infiltrate Iraq through its border.

The US also holds Syria responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005.

A recent US air strike inside Syria raised tensions to a new high. US sources, speaking anonymously, said the attack in late October targeted al-Qaeda figures operating close to Syria’s border with Iraq, while officials in Damascus said eight civilians were killed.

In response, Syria ordered the American school and cultural centre in Damascus to shut down. AP news agency reported on November 3 that the school had closed its doors. Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem warned of more "painful" measures if the US failed to explain the raid adequately.

Analysts and commentators in Syria said they hoped an Obama administration would learn from its predecessor’s mistakes.

Mohammed al-Rabio, a journalist who lives in Syria and writes for the Qatari newspaper Al-Arab, said that while the US has long called on Syria to break its ties with Iran as well as with Hamas and Hezbollah, it has offered little in return.

Syrian leaders, said al-Rabio, “only get the stick from the Americans. They need the carrot and the stick.”

The Obama administration “needs to realise that Syria plays a pivotal role in the region”, and should “compromise and turn a blind eye to some Syrian mistakes”, he said.

One such compromise, he added, might be on the proposed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which – if approved – would lead to legal action against the Syrian government in respect of the Hariri assassination.

Fadhil al-Rubaii, an Iraqi political analyst who lives in Damascus and writes for the Saudi paper Al-Jazeera, praised Obama as a “rational and realistic” figure who had “more than once called for dialogue with Iran and Syria”.

Omar Kosh, a Syrian political analyst and journalist who lives in Damascus and writes for the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir, argued that the US would need at least 15 years to rebuild its credibility in the region. It must do so, he said, by attempting to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.

The Bush administration has been unable to advance the Palestinian peace process, and has refused to assist the Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations, which took place indirectly earlier this year with Turkey as mediator. The talks are currently frozen, and Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad has indicated that direct talks between Syria and Israel must wait for a new administration in the White House. Analysts say Damascus will want Washington to facilitate the peace process.

Kosh was sceptical that Obama’s election victory would mean substantive changes for Syria or for the Middle East generally, not least because “the new American president will inherit a legacy that could lead to huge mistakes”.

Still, among some ordinary Syrians there is hope that better days could lie ahead.

“Perhaps Obama will be the key to solving many of the Middle East’s problems,” said Mohammed Khalaf, an engineer in Damascus.

(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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