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Syria-US Thaw Awaits Concrete Steps


Relations between the United States and Syria remain rocky after a series of recent developments, including the arrest of a Syrian man involved in terrorist activities in northern Iraq, coupled with U.S. accusations that Damascus is still not controlling its border.

U.S. President Barack Obama has been carefully seeking to improve ties with Syria, after several years of ostracizing Damascus by the Bush Administration and the world community.

Senator George Mitchell applied for Syrian visa, he may visit Damascus

Word that U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell may be visiting Damascus soon is raising speculation of a new U.S. push to jumpstart stalled peace talks on the Israeli-Syrian track.

Jordan's King Abdullah indicated several days ago the United States was "preparing a new Middle East peace initiative."

Syrian Ambassador to Washington Imad Mustapha revealed, last week, that Senator Mitchell had applied for a Syrian visa, although State Department spokesman Robert Wood indicated that such a trip is not necessarily imminent.

Acting Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman and National Security Council Senior Director Daniel Shapiro visited Damascus earlier this month. It was their second visit to the Syrian capital since President Obama vowed in January to engage with all Middle Eastern countries, including longtime foes Syria and Iran.

US-Syria relations deteriorated since invasion of Iraq

Ties between Washington and Damascus deteriorated after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al Hariri in 2005, which many blamed on Syria. Damascus has steadfastly denied the charges.

The Bush administration withdrew Ambassador Margaret Scobie in February 2005 following Mr. Hariri's assassination and no replacement has been named.

Professor Joshua Landis of Oklahoma University's Center for Middle East Studies, who authors the popular Syria Comment website, thinks the United States and Syria are frustrated:

"They have hit a wall. The Syrians were very upset about the way sanctions were renewed by the Obama Administration," he said. "I think that they understood that there was going to be a renewal of sanctions, because talks have only just begun. But there was no change in language, and no softening of tone, and they were upset. Now, the Americans obviously want to see a number of things. They want to see good-faith measures being taken by Syria and they want action on this Iraqi border."

Syria's main issue: the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Height

Professor Landis says Syria is waiting for concrete gestures from the United States before "unclenching its fists," as President Obama requested, back in January:

"Syria wants linkage: they want America to send back an ambassador, they want peace talks to go forward," added Landis. "So how do you proceed? That is the question. You know, Syria, of course, is very worried that America is going to ask it to take a lot of steps and it is not going to get very much in return. America is saying: "Trust us, you do these things and Obama is going to change the Middle East."

Paul Salem, who heads the Beirut-based Carnegie Center for Peace in the Middle East, says Syria's main ambition is the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights:

"The main issue for Syria has been restarting the peace track with Israel to regain the Golan Heights," he said. "What has clouded that process is statements by the Israeli government that they do not seem interested in restarting the peace track with Syria. But if there is no life on the Israeli side of the Israeli-Syrian track, then I think Syria will probably reconsider its overtures and the United States and Syria would have to figure out how to manage their relations, while Israel continues to occupy the Golan Heights."

Salem thinks that the United States is cautiously "biding its time and not rushing" to resume ties with Syria:

"The United States is not completely positive in its orientation towards Syria. It has a lot of misgivings and a lot of things it is not happy with," said Salem. "But I think President Obama understands that in order to make a real change in terms of Syria's regional policy will require some concessions from Israel."

Salem stresses that Syria's positions are connected to the issue of the Golan Heights. Everything else depends on it, he says, and " it is hard to get something for nothing."


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