Syria Looks to Better US Ties

Washington decision to name an ambassador seen as positive but some are cautious.

Syria Looks to Better US Ties

Washington decision to name an ambassador seen as positive but some are cautious.

Thursday, 2 July, 2009
Syrian analysts and officials have welcomed the United States’ decision to send an ambassador to Damascus after a four-year break but said that Syria was still waiting for Washington to play a stronger role in establishing peace in the region.

On June 24, media reports quoted officials in Washington as saying that the new US administration had decided to send an ambassador to Damascus.

The officials said that the move reflected recognition by the new US administration “of the important role Syria plays” in bringing peace and stability to the Middle East.

Washington withdrew ambassador Margaret Scobey from Damascus in February 2005 as an expression of “profound outrage” over the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, a crime that was widely blamed on the Syrians. Damascus has denied any involvement in the killing.

Since then, the US kept its embassy open but headed by a chargé d’affaires. The Syrian ambassador in Washington stayed in his post.

Washington has not yet given the name of the new ambassador nor the date of his or her appointment.

The US assistant secretary for diplomatic security, Eric Boswell, visited Damascus in April to examine the possibility of opening a new embassy, according to Syria’s official news agency, SANA.

Observers view the recent rapprochement between the US and Syria as a “reward” for Syria’s improved attitudes in the region, mainly the exchange of diplomatic representation with Lebanon and boosting security along its border with Iraq.

Syria’s presidential and media advisor, Butaina Shaaban, declared in TV interviews that the US decision was “positive” but said that Damascus would not make any official statement about it at present.

Meanwhile, the Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustafa, told US media that the step was a small improvement. However, he cautioned that it was early to talk about radical changes in contacts between the two countries.

The US move comes at a time when the Iranian regime – Syria’s strongest strategic ally – seems to be shaky and one Damascus-based political analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Washington was trying to weaken that alliance.

He said that the US has also tried to persuade its allies in the region, mainly Saudi Arabia, to be reconciled with the Syrians in order to pull Damascus away from Tehran’s sphere of influence.

There were already signs of divergence between Iran and Syria on some regional issues, he said, and the Iranians were not content that Syria had cooperated with Saudi Arabia on Lebanon and put pressure on its Lebanese allies to compromise with their foes.

But the analyst said that the Syrians realised that “the price of breaking their alliance with Iran would be very costly”.

“What the US has offered to the Syrians is not enough to take that risk,” he added.

Before considering giving up its ties with the Islamic republic, Damascus expects a full commitment by the US to the peace process with the Israelis and eventually the return of the Golan Heights – a strategic patch of land occupied by Israel since 1967, the analyst said.

George Hajouj, a Damascus-based political analyst, told IWPR that Damascus had a clear vision of what role the US should play after the appointment of the new ambassador.

Damascus wants the US to pave the way for a fair settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict based on the “land for peace” principle and Washington is aware of that, Hajouj said.

“What is unknown up to now is the US vision and role in the region during the next phase,” he added.

In the past few months, several US officials visited Damascus including George Mitchell, the special US envoy to the Middle East, who is expected to lead the American efforts to seek peace in the region.

Some Syrian media reports said that the new ambassador would be working on a new US plan for peace between Israel and Syria developed by Mitchell’s team. The plan reportedly would turn the Golan Heights into a demilitarised nature reserve controlled by both Syria and Israel. In return, Damascus would break away from Iran and cut its ties with anti-Israeli militant groups.

Some hope that the appointment of a new ambassador will also boost stagnant economic relations between the two countries.

Ossama al-Qadi, an economics expert based in Damascus, told IWPR that the US should follow the European strategy of establishing economic, scientific and financial agreements with Syria to have a more tangible presence on the ground.

Helping Syrians get jobs and assisting Syria in building an infrastructure suitable for a modern economy would create trust, said Qadi.

The Syrian ambassador in London, Sami al-Khaimi, told the Lebanese TV channel LBC recently that he hoped the new US diplomat would be able to bring US investors to Syria.

Khaimi said Damascus also hoped the US would help with the “billions of dollars” that it costs to deal with a large number of Iraqi refugees in the country.

Despite the recent overtures, Washington decided last month to extend economic sanctions against Syria for another year, which was seen as a setback for the Syrians.

The measures, imposed in 2004, prohibit US exports to Syria except for food and medicine.

Some Syrians are not optimistic that the improvement in relations between Syria and the US will bring real change to the region.

“It does not seem that the US is willing to build peace in the region,” said Nour al-Khatib, a 26 year-old saleswoman living in Damascus.

“Tensions will continue in the region … as long as the US employs double standards in the region.”

Eyad Jarrous, 27, a Damascus-based engineer, said that the Syrians were weary of the “no-peace but no-war situation” with the Americans.

“We don’t want our government to continue oppressing us economically under the pretext of needing to finance the army,” he added.
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