Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 March 2009
Issue No. 939
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Reassuring signs

Can the Americans sort out their differences with Damascus, asks Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeoffrey Feltman and Daniel Shapiro, head of the Middle East Division of the National Security Council, met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim in Damascus a few days ago. Before coming to Damascus, the two Americans asked to meet "top" Syrian officials. They ended up conferring with Al-Muallim and presidential advisor Bothaina Shaaban.

For Damascus, the visit offers a measure of reassurance after years of diplomatic hiatus. Several congressional delegations came to Damascus last month and were personally received by President Al-Assad.

High level contacts between the Syrians and the Americans have been either nonexistent or adversarial since the assassination of Lebanon's prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri in 2005. The mere fact that Feltman and Shapiro managed to hold talks without much muscle flexing was somewhat of an improvement. Still, Damascus said it had no intention of changing its "principled stands".

Commenting on the Damascus talks, US Ambassador to Beirut Michele Sison said that the Americans made no specific demands, but listened to what the Syrians had to say on matters such as Iraq, Lebanon and Hamas.

Speaking to reporters in Beirut, Feltman said that the talks covered Lebanon, Israel, Iran, Hamas, Iraq, and what the Americans consider to be Syria's attempts to develop a nuclear programme.

Concerning Israel, Syrian officials reiterated that they wanted direct negotiations under US sponsorship. The Americans said that Syria would need to change its foreign policy first, adding that the quest for peace in the region should move simultaneously on more than one track.

As for Iraq, the Syrians said that they tightened control of its borders to prevent the infiltration of fighters into Iraq and were exchanging intelligence with the international community on that matter. The Americans suspect that Syria is still supporting Iraqi resistance groups.

The Syrians are unwilling to ditch Hizbullah. Damascus wants UN Security Council Resolution 1701 to be applied to all militia in Lebanon without exception. The Syrians promised to send an ambassador to Beirut and draw their common borders, but they don't seem in a hurry to do so. The Americans accused Syria of facilitating the arming of Hizbullah across its borders and of blocking the implementation of Resolution 1701, which bans the deployment of Palestinian weapons outside the camps.

Syria intends to remain close to Iran in politics, the economy and security. The Syrians argued that the West, not Syria, should change its policies towards Iran. The Americans noted that Iran is pushing its agenda through the region with Syrian help.

The Syrians said they had no intention of distancing themselves from Hamas, Al-Jihad, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, all of which are branded as terrorist by the US.

The Americans voiced concern that Syria was trying to produce nuclear weapons with the help of North Korea and Iran -- a claim Syria has consistently denied.

Can the Americans sort out their differences with Damascus? For the time being, this seems rather unlikely. The Obama administration is not in a position to reverse sanctions or rescind the Syria Accountability act without congressional approval. And there is no sign that the Americans would at any point abandon their backing of the international court looking into Al-Hariri's assassination. As for America's sworn enemies -- Hizbullah, Hamas and Iran -- there is no sign that Damascus can be persuaded to give them up as close allies.

So what's the point of talks? For now at least, Washington believes that it has some carrots that may entice Damascus to rethink its policy. Washington is not against sponsoring talks with Israel, for one thing. And if the Syrians start acting differently, the sanctions and even the Syria Accountability Act can be reversed. Damascus seems to want to stay on the good side of the US, and Washington is interested in knowing how far the Syrians are ready to go to mend the current rift.

European diplomats believe that the US overtures to Syria are merely tactical. Meanwhile, US sources do not rule out a gradual progress in bilateral relations. The US state department says that further meetings will be held with the Syrians to assess the situation.

One thing must have worried the Syrians though. Both Shapiro and Feltman are known for their close ties with the Israel lobby. Shapiro, who drafted the Syria Accountability Act in 2003, was Obama's emissary to Jewish groups during the recent presidential elections. Feltman was ambassador to Israel during the 2006 Lebanon war and treated the (pro-Syrian) Lebanese opposition parties with certain disdain. But for now, talks -- any talks -- seem to be a step forward.

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