Damascus: on the road to peace?

Stephen Starr
5 August 2009

Momentum for a region-wide peace plan has been gaining ground since Barack Obama was sworn into office last January with Syria being singled-out as a central component to any successful endeavour. Once sidelined precisely because of the  support it provides to Hezbollah and Hamas, Syria is now being courted as the key to unlocking peace in a region that has been stifled by war and conflict for decades.

Stephen Starr is a freelance journalist based in Damascus.

He is deputy editor of the Syria Times and he has written for the Irish Examiner, Asia Times, Sunday Business Post and Middle East Times among others.The overtures that are being made to Syria as the Obama administration looks to build momentum for a middle east peace deal should hardly be seen as surprising. Syria's links to a host of unsavoury entities from Hamas to Iran, to its potential role in building a more stable Iraq, mean any end to the conflict runs through Damascus. Barack Obama sees Syria's value and position but what is at stake - the potential end to the world's most intractable conflict - inevitably means complex and slow progress.

Significant steps have been taken by both western countries and Syria since Barack Obama's address to Al-Arabiya television on January 26 when he vowed to improve America's image in the Muslim world. His Cairo speech on June 4 was seen as an attempt to stress efforts for a peace process but for Syria, the shuttling of waves of diplomatic missions to Damascus since February has been the reason for an increasing air of expectancy and attention on the Syrian capital.

The evolution of relations

Up until Israel's war on Gaza (see Carsten Wieland, "The Gaza war and the Syria-Israel front", February 5 2009 ), indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel had been ongoing, if somewhat fruitlessly: by then Barack Obama was waiting to take over as president and Israel itself was facing into parliamentary election campaign. With Obama promising to engage formerly unsavoury elements, Syria saw an opportunity to lay the foundations for better terms of engagement with Washington.

Small but symbolic efforts have been made to show the US and Syria want to improve ties: a language institute and community school attached to the American embassy that was closed following an American helicopter attack on a Syrian village near the Iraqi border last October have been reopened. From February Damascus became a must-visit city for volleys of Congressmen and women touring the region. Then in March two of the Obama administration's top middle east experts, Jeffrey Feltman and Dan Shapiro, visited Damascus essentially to test the waters for the follow-up visit of George Mitchell, Washington's chief Middle East envoy who did so on June 12.

Mitchell has now visited Damascus twice in under two months, the first time to "improve relations", the second to forward a message from the president that the White House intends to look at case-by-case sanctions against Syria "favorably as opposed to the prior administration's policy".

For Syria, establishing diplomatic relations with Lebanon late last year that included opening embassies in both capitals and the visit of a Lebanese president to Damascus for the first time marked the beginning of a rapid ascent in its international standing. Both before and after Lebanon's election in June, in which the Hizbollah-led opposition bloc failed to secure an expected majority of parliamentary seats, Syria was widely judged to have played little or no role in attempting to foment strife.

Syria has also (largely to solidify its own power following the car bombing in Damascus last September rather than for any external reason) tightened security along its border with Iraq, an issue Washington has repeatedly outlined as one of its top foreign policy concerns.

An announcement made by Feltman in late June outlined the White House's intention to return an ambassador to the Syrian capital for the first time in over four years stands as the most significant concession by an American government for almost a decade.  Following suit, Saudi Arabia has announced and named an ambassador to stand in for a former envoy who was removed from Damascus last year following accusations that Syria was involved in the assassination of Lebanese parliamentarian, Rafik Hariri.

Before peace, path leads to Damascus

Syria is central to any peace effort as a result of its relations with Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran, itself considered a chief concern to the United States and Israel.

Rumours have been circulating over the past 12 months that pressure has been mounting on Hamas affiliates in Damascus to tone down public broadcasts and eventually clear out of Syria, where the Palestinian group houses its political leadership. Should this be the case, the tag "state sponsor of terrorism" could be expected to be dropped, leading Syria to be treated as a legitimate actor and for sanctions to be waved away.

Syria's relationship with Hizbollah is perhaps the most substantial of the three and for that reason makes any attempt to push the Shiite group simultaneously easier and more difficult for Damascus. But whether or not Syria can move forward in peace efforts with Israel without a nod from Hizbollah (given the knotted situation regarding the territorial status of the Golan heights and Sheba Farms), is difficult to say.

However, it is also worth keeping in mind that unlike Hamas, Hizbollah's heightened political status makes it more constrained by diplomacy than in the past: now it has a political role to play. This could well be looked upon as favourable in the event of any peace effort or negotiations.

The international community's fixation with Iran's nuclear development and Israel's fear of what it sees as a potential existential threat has seen Tehran pushed to the top of international security concern. With that, Syria's political capital has rocketed. While Washington has vowed to open dialogue with Iran, it could also be seen as hedging its bets, trying to isolate  Iran's network of alliances; hence efforts to wrench Syria away (Iran helps Syria with millions of gallons of cheap gas every year in return for political support).

Away from the peace effort, and perhaps of equal concern to the United States' foreign policy endeavours, Syria's lengthy border with Iraq has long been a security concenr within Iraq. As such, with funding and troops being pulled out, Washington needs the cooperation of Iraq's neighbours in order to ensure the country's future stability. Syria is a crucial element of this plan because of the large volume of civilian traffic between both countries (around 1.2 million Iraqi refugees live in Syria).  Iran is an altogether less receptive neighbor.

What's at stake

The Obama administration has shown over the past number of months that it intends to carry on from the initial rhetoric of his campaign which focused around the idea of "mutual respect and mutual interest"  when dealing with Muslim countries.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has stymied a succession of American administrations for decades and the end of the war would be desirable for a host of reasons. Islamic militants would have less reason to see the United States as a negative force in the region and so the threat of attack on home territory would be reduced. With the threat against Israel lessened or eradicated, the aid with which Washington supports Israel would be greatly reduced. Furthermore, with the end of war, the economies of Syria, Lebanon and a Palestinian state could flourish driving up human development and education levels.

In a sense, America has a lot to lose should a breakdown in a middle east peace plan unfold. Barack Obama continues to carry a weight of expectancy like no other American president in recent history, and a failure to secure peace would cast a shadow over  his administration's entire foreign policy. His popularity and election win were carried on the idea that he represented change and that America would once again be respected across the world. A failure to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict would entrench the idea, especially among the Muslim world, that the US cannot come through on its promises.

But the long term consequences of a failed peace will be even  more damaging to Syria.

Bit-part attempts to reform Syria's economy have been ongoing for the past five or so years but have had little tangible impact so far. For example, drought in several of its top producing regions have savaged Syria's agricultural sector, the largest earner of revenue for the government (24% in 2007). These issues, plus an expected explosion of young people on to the labour market over the next several years (for example, each year around 4,000 law graduates leave Damascus University with scant prospect of gainful employment) mean the economy is likely to come under increasing pressure. Syria's deputy prime minister for economic affairs, Abdullah Dardari, last October, he made it clear that the Syrian economy faces enormous challenges that must be corrected in the next few years: Trade with the west, membership to the WTO and encouraging tourists are actually essential in order to support a country facing major economic difficulties. Additionally, support and ties from the West in the form of counter-terrorism expertise will be essential in keeping back Islamists - a threat made clear by last September's bombing which killed at least 17 people.

Peace in the middle east is hugely important to the United States and Syria but both sides are adopting different public positions. America is talking up a  vision "where Palestinians and Israelis live side by side in dignity, in security and in peace" and  the "historic opportunity that faces us". Conversely, Syria is refusing to step out as editorials in state-run newspapers continue to emphasis the Zionist threat.

But Damascus is playing coy. Set against the background of Syria's elevated international reputation, the return of the Golan heights (which has not been extensively settled with Israeli communities and thus makes a withdrawal significantly easier than a similar effort in the West Bank) would be held as the greatest victory in the country's modern history.

Confusing signals making Damascus weary

For months however, conflicting signals are contriving to inhibit Syria from making the concessions needed to kick-start peace talks.

In February it was announced the US would look to ease sanctions against Syria including allowing $50,000 raised by Syrian expatriates to be wired to a children's cancer charity in Syria and allowing American companies sell essential aircraft parts to Syria's national carrier. However, despite very public statements, the parts have still not been cleared by the state department.

Then in May, Obama announced that the Syria Accountability Act would be renewed for another year because "the actions of the government of Syria in supporting terrorism, maintaining its then-existing occupation of Lebanon, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining U.S. and international efforts with respect to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq" continued. Strangely, just two days before this announcement Feltman and Shapiro again travelled to Damascus and met foreign minister Walid Mouallem to convey "the commitment of President Obama to continue the work for peace on all tracks, including the Syrian track".

More recently, the second announcement on the possibility of easing sanctions was shortly followed by news that a separate set of penalties related to Syria's interest in Lebanon were to be continued because "the actions of certain persons continue to contribute to political and economic instability in Lebanon and the region".

Potential remains

The time for direct negotiations between Syria and Israel may not be at hand just yet with Israel trying to digest America's stance over settlements but there is an air of expectancy - possibly justified - around a revived peace deal. One Israeli journalist appearing on Al Jazeera English said just days after Likud's victory in the Israeli elections that he believed Benjamin Netanyahu was already looking to send officials to Damascus to re-open back channels and it is worth noting despite the rhetoric, when prime minister in 1997 Netanyahu held a series of informal talks with Syria. Moreover, on July 29 Israeli television carried reports that construction of a 900-unit settlement in Arab east Jerusalem was to be stopped.

With Palestinian factions still at odds with each other and with pressure coming down from the White House, direct negotiations with Damascus may be the first port of call for Israel. And Syria, in spite of the conflicting messages being relayed from Washington, can boast of its unique position to be able to negotiate at any time.

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper in February, Bashar Assad made clear his admiration for Obama while acknowledging the power the United States brings to any negotiation attempt. He littered the interview with comments that were in the early stages of the detente, unquestionably meant to set the tone for future rapprochement. Despite the slightly comical nature of Assad's informal invitation for Barack Obama to visit Syria delivered through an interview with a British news channel, Washington cannot afford to ignore the unique role Syria has to play in a middle east peace push. And, despite the confusing signals emanating from Washington and a wavering momentum, Syria will be ready to talk.

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