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

Syrians Hold Breath for New US Policies

US Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton said this week that Barack Obama’s administration planned to implement a new policy of direct engagement with Syria.

“I believe that engaging directly with Syria increases the possibility of making progress in changing Syrian behaviour,” Clinton noted in a written statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In the statement, given in response to a question posed by the top Republican on the committee, she said the United States would take an active role in the Israel-Syria peace negotiations if the two sides requested it to do so.

The Bush administration refused to assist the Syrian-Israeli talks which took place indirectly last year with Turkey as mediator. The talks are currently frozen, and Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad has indicated that direct talks must wait for a new administration in the White House.

“We should engage directly to help Israel and Syria succeed in their peace efforts, [an intervention] which both parties have indicated could help advance the talks,” Clinton said in the statement.

She cautioned that engagement with Damascus would only come if certain conditions were met, and a resumption in diplomatic ties would depend on Syrian government compliance with “core demands”, such as curbing its relationship with Iran and groups like the Lebanese Hezbollah.

A Damascus-based political analyst who asked to remain anonymous said the Syrian regime would bring its own interests to the table – for instance its desire to limit the the consequences of being linked to the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

“Syria wants to gain more influence in the region and hopes this will lead to a influential relationship with the United States,” said the analyst. “They will be willing to make some concessions because their ultimate goal is to strike a deal that makes the upcoming Hariri tribunal disappear.”

Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian scholar at the United States Institute of Peace, welcomed the new administration’s shift in policy.

“The Obama administration’s foreign policy will be based on achieving interests through negotiation,” he said.

Political observers in Syria are still adopting a wait-and-see approach.

“The whole region, including Syria, is anxiously awaiting the incoming administration,” said the Damascus-based analyst. “In truth, nobody really knows for sure how Obama will act on Middle East issues. Military action may be less likely, but that doesn’t mean we know that all of his political choices will be positive.”

Opposition leaders, meanwhile, worry that increased US engagement with the regime could harm their push for democratic reforms and make it more difficult for them to bring international attention to their cause.

“The best way for America to support democratic reform in our country is to try to stand up for justice everywhere and show that democracy in not just for some,” said an opposition activist who asked to remain anonymous. “America cannot continue to turn a blind eye to Israeli crimes against Palestine, or continue to support dictatorships in some countries while calling for the overthrow of similar regimes in others.”

(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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