Syrian Hopes of Better US Ties Downplayed

Analysts say state-owned media has been spreading false hope about a sudden thaw in relations.

Syrian Hopes of Better US Ties Downplayed

Analysts say state-owned media has been spreading false hope about a sudden thaw in relations.

Tuesday, 24 February, 2009
The press has run much speculation about the future of Syrian-US relations following a visit to the country of a US senator, and the news that two other Washington officials are to come.



Earlier in the week, Senator Benjamin Cardin led a two-day fact-finding mission to Syria.



On February 21, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry will arrive in Damascus to meet with President Bashar al-Assad, and later in the month, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman will travel to the country.



Incorrect media reports circulated last week that international business consultant Frederic Hof had been tipped as the new US ambassador to Syria, a significant step since America withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in 2005, following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.



“I have maintained a lifelong habit of not accepting jobs I’ve not been offered, and this one will be no exception,” Hof, a member of the national advisory committee of US organisation the Middle East Policy Council, said in a statement released to Gulf News.



Assad told the UK Guardian this week that he hoped the US planned to send an ambassador soon.



There was also speculation earlier in the month that US trade sanctions against Syria would be lifting after the Obama administration reportedly gave rare authorisation for a US company to sell Damascus plane parts to repair Boeing 747s.



A source familiar with the deal told Reuters last week that US sanctions allowed the supply of spare parts under specific conditions.



“This was a purely technical decision taken by the US authorities after a long review. It does not represent any change in the sanctions regime,” said the source.



“The state-owned media has been spreading false hope about a sudden thaw in relations,” said a Damascus-based political analyst who preferred to remain anonymous.



“Aside from a few congressional visits, no concrete steps have been taken to suggest that substantial changes are in the works.”



The analyst said the Obama administration has adopted a wait-and-see approach and will not consider lifting sanctions against Syria without major concessions from its leaders – including a pledge that the regime will curb its relationship with Iran and with certain political groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah.



“Syria has isolated itself by its partnership [with] terrorism, by providing safe haven to terrorist organisations, its relations with Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad, and a troubled relationship with Iran,” said Cardin from Damascus, according to reports.



The senator’s comments suggest “nothing has changed in the minds of US leaders”, said the analyst.



“The US still views Syria with the same scepticism, but official Syrian statements contend that our relationship with the US is steadily improving.



“This just shows how eager the regime is to gain some political [support], especially with the Hariri tribunal on the horizon.”



The United Nations special tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination is set to begin on March 1. The former Lebanese prime minister, a vocal critic of Syria’s influence on Lebanese affairs, died in a suicide truck bombing.



The assassination sparked massive protests against Syria, and while Damascus has vehemently denied any involvement, the outcry forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops that had been in Lebanon for almost 30 years.



Meanwhile, Kerry told reporters in the southern Israeli border town of Sderot that the regime in Damascus must respect Lebanese elections, show a clearer willingness to move toward peace with Israel and cooperate with US policy in Iraq and Iran.



“Can the Syrian government really meet these demands? Will Iran allow one of its allies to be lured away? I don’t think so,” said the analyst.



“What can the US really offer in return? They don’t want to affect the Hariri tribunal and do not have much influence over the actions of the new hard-right coalition in Israel.”



Regardless of whether the regime agrees to these concessions, Syria won’t soon top the US list of foreign affairs priorities, according to a Damascus-based current affairs writer who asked to remain anonymous.



“Dealing with the tense situation in Gaza and the ongoing back and forth with the Iranians will be priorities for the Obama administration,” he said. “As much as Syria wishes otherwise, it is not the main power broker in the region.”



Moreover, full engagement won’t be achieved without the backing of congressional leaders and foreign affairs specialists in Washington.



“Just because the new US president wants to start a dialogue with Syria doesn’t mean it will happen the next day,” said the writer. “There are still many in Washington who think [former President George W] Bush was right to consider Damascus a rogue regime. They will not be easily persuaded to believe otherwise.”



US congressman Dan Burton, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, said in a statement that he was wary about renewing engagement with Syria.



“I think if members of congress are going to go there, they should express the strong views of the United States regarding terrorism, regarding Israel’s right to exist,” he said.



All of this is not to say that no progress will be made between the US and Syria.



“The renewed desire for engagement is important but specific steps – such as naming a new US ambassador and loosening sanctions – will be key,” said the analyst.
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