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Signs Show Possible Thaw in US-Syrian Relations

The new Obama administration appears to be taking tentative steps towards resuming dialogue with Syria, while the key step of sending a new U.S. ambassador to Damascus for the first time in three years remains up in the air. A visit by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry and a high-level American delegation to Syria, this week, is renewing speculation of a rapprochement.

The politics of rapprochement with Syria, after several years of frosty relations between Washington and Damascus, appear to be as complicated and tentative as Syria's famous national dance, the dabkeh. The footwork is intricate, there are steps forward and steps back and everyone is moving in different directions.

In an apparent step forward, Senator John Kerry - who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - is visiting Damascus, this week, along with a high-ranking Congressional delegation, amid expectations on the Syrian side of resuming normal ties with Washington, three years after the Bush Administration withdrew its ambassador from Damascus.

The United States has authorized the sale of spare parts for two aging Syrian Boeing 747's, in addition to allowing the transfer of funds from the United States to a Syrian charity. Speculation has also been rife in the U.S. media of a new American ambassador being nominated for the Syria post in the coming weeks.

Marwan Kabalan, who teaches politics at the University of Damascus, thinks that relations between the new Obama Administration and Syria are improving, but that it is still unclear to what extent:

He says that he thinks Senator Kerry's visit to Damascus - his second in recent years - signifies a major improvement in relations with the United States, because Kerry belongs to the Democratic Party, which holds the White House and both houses of Congress.

Professor Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma, who runs the well-known Syria Comment website thinks that there is an attitude of optimism in Damascus which reveals a sea-change in relations in recent weeks:

"The Syrian attitude towards Obama's presidency is quite hopeful. They're hoping for the best and, of course, they're preparing for the worst, because Syria has had a lot of bad experiences with the United States and relations are always tough," said Landis.

In Syria, one key political and foreign policy goal of the government, as expressed by President Bashar al-Assad, is the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights plateau, whose summit is clearly visible in Damascus, only 40 miles away.

He says the Israeli prime minister has said, repeatedly, that he wants peace . But, Mr. Assad says the word "peace" is linked to the word "land," which he says means returning the entire Golan Heights.

However, Paul Salem, who heads the Beirut-based Carnegie Center for Peace in the Middle East, thinks that a new hardline Israeli government could be a set-back for both peace in the Middle East and Syrian relations with the United States.

"There has been a lot of stock put in Israeli-Syrian peace talks and, before the Israeli election, a lot of the talk was waiting for that to be the cornerstone of U.S. engagement with Syria and with Israel," said Salem. "I think that the Israeli elections have dampened that aspect of the relationship and I think the U.S. now will have to look for ways to move forward with Syria, even if Israel is not ready to take a land-for-peace deal over the Golan."

Salem has no doubt that the new Obama administration wants to improve relations with Syria and he believes that Damascus has been shifting its policies, in recent months, to match U.S. expectations of it:

"There is no doubt that the Obama administration wants to very much engage with Syria, wants Syria to further change its behavior, but very clear that the Obama Administration is interested in improving relations with Syria and wanting Syria to play a more positive role in the region," he said.

Joshua Landis concurs with Paul Salem that Syria has made major strides towards accommodating some long-standing U.S. demands of Syria, recently, but the professor believes that the United States is still looking for more changes in Syrian policies that irritate Washington.

"There are a number of important things that the U.S. wants from Syria. First of all, it wants Lebanese sovereignty and elections in Lebanon are coming up. So, Syria hasn't appointed its ambassador, yet. All this going on now is a bunch of confidence-building measures, because nobody trusts the other," he said.

An age-old saying among Middle East analysts is that Syria will make peace "if the price is right." Landis believes that the Syrian economy is badly in need of money, and removing American sanctions is part of Syria's many demands of the United States for improving relations, and ultimately achieving peace with Israel:

"Economically, they need to get out of a very difficult situation. Now, of course, they haven't been battered as much as many places. But, Syria has a very weak economy to begin with, so it doesn't take very much to put it in serious trouble," he said.

Landis argues that Washington has sent mixed signals to Damascus and that President Obama has been non-committal in lifting the many Bush-era economic sanctions imposed on Damascus since 2004.

He says Senator Kerry's visit and the sale of spare parts for two Syrian planes are being touted as exceptions, not the rule. Worst of all for Syria, he underlines, is the re-appointment of Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey, who he says is responsible for applying economic sanctions on Syria and other so-called "rogue states."

He says that is being viewed in Damascus as a clear "shot across Syria's bow."