Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 November 2008
Issue No. 923
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ping-pong diplomacy

Will talk do more than bluster, asks Bassel Oudat from Damascus

A US delegation affiliated with President-elect Barack Obama visited Syria on 12 November and met with two figures close to the Syrian government. The US delegation, comprising intellectuals, academics, and politicians from several US states, aimed to find out more about the impact of Obama's election on the region, explore Arab reactions, and examine the future of US relations with the Syrian government.

Throughout his election campaign, Obama spoke of change. One thing the Syrians care most about is a change in the US foreign policy regarding their country. They told the delegation that eight years of attempts at isolation and intimidation by the Bush administration did little to improve ties between the two nations.

The meeting took place at the Arab Institute for International and Diplomatic Sciences in Beirut. Syrian media made no mention of the visit. The delegation is on a regional tour of six Middle East countries, including Lebanon and Jordan to gather information about Arab reaction to Obama's election and the prospects of peace and dialogue in the region. The US consul in Damascus briefed the delegation on Syrian reaction to US policies.

A Syrian source attending the meeting told Al-Ahram Weekly that Syria's former ambassador to Egypt Issa Darwish also briefed the American visitors on Syrian views of US policy. Darwish spoke at length about Syria's position on Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian resistance, explaining what he considered to be the best way of promoting ties with the new administration. Darwish discussed the possibility of the return of US oil companies to work in Syria and conveyed to the Americans the reaction of Damascus to the recent US attack on Al-Sokkariya near Abu Kamal.

Darwish, who said that he was not speaking on behalf of the Syrian government, told the Americans that the Bush administration acted provocatively and aggressively with Syria. Washington, he said, withdrew its ambassador from Damascus for no good reason, refused to hold dialogue, imposed sanctions on Syria, and tried to isolate it. At one point, the Bush administration made unacceptable conditions for resuming the dialogue with Damascus. For example, Washington asked Syria to cut off its relations with Iran, Palestinian organisations, and Hizbullah. Washington also wanted Syria to change its policy on Lebanon and approach its conflict with Israel in a different manner.

The Syrians told the US delegation that Damascus is interested in defusing tensions in the regions, is earnestly pursuing talks with Israel, and wants the Americans to sponsor and participate in these talks. Damascus holds no grudges towards the US administration and believes that the best way to sort out problems is through dialogue.

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said more than once that Syria and Israel cannot reach agreement without active US participation in the talks. During Al-Assad's visit to Paris in July, the Syrian president said that American sponsorship would be needed for the two sides to move into direct talks. Unfortunately, the US administration refused to sponsor the talks unless Syria complies with several conditions that Damascus found unacceptable.

Thanks to French mediation, Syria changed its regional policy towards Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. It has managed to improve its ties with Europe, and was generally under the impression that the changes it made in its regional policies had Washington's implicit approval. Syria hopes to resume talks with the US administration and cooperate with Washington in the same way it does with Paris. It supports the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq according to a clear timetable, the Syrians told the visiting delegation.

Speaking to members of the Arab interim parliament early this month, the Syrian president criticised the draft of the security agreement between Iraq and the US. In what is believed to be a veiled reference to the US attack on the Syrian village of Al-Sokkariya, Al-Assad said that the US-Iraqi agreement "would turn the Iraqi territories into a base for attacking neighbouring countries".

It is worth noting that a Syrian academic delegation visited the US a few months ago for talks with civil society groups, academics and political figures. The Syrian delegation outlined the Syrian position on regional issues, the peace process and US politics. One of the chief members of this delegation was Samir Al-Taqiy, who told the Weekly that "the delegation acted in a non-official function, offering academic views and political analysis." Al-Taqiy said that Damascus is hoping that the new administration would mediate future direct talks between Syria and Israel.

Syrian officials felt great relief at Obama's election victory. In their view, a Republican victory would have meant the continuation of the Bush policies of isolating and punishing Syria. The Bush administration showed no appreciation for the extensive changes Syria has introduced in its regional policy. Instead, Damascus found itself bullied by both Israel, which attacked Al-Kobar in December 2007, then by America, which recently bombed Al-Sokkariya.

Darwish told the US delegation that Syria has been trying for several years to mend fences with Washington, which withdrew its ambassador from Syria three years ago, right after Al-Hariri's assassination. It also pressured its European allies to slam sanctions on Syria and brushed off Syrian gestures of goodwill.

Those who attended the talks told the Weekly that the US delegation "listened carefully" to the Syrian point of view and showed "understanding" of Syrian needs. The Syrians are hopeful that the visit would influence Obama's future Middle East policy and pave the way for rapprochement. Recalling the ping-pong diplomacy that brought the US and China closer decades ago, Syrian interlocutors voiced the hope that Syrian-US relations would soon be on the mend.

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