Square one for the US and Syria?

Relations were knocked back when a seemingly innocuous statement snow-balled into a something of much greater consequence last spring. In April the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, set off alarm bells by claiming – without evidence – that Syria was shipping SCUD missiles to Hezbollah.
Stephen Starr
14 December 2010

In August last year I wrote that while differences on several issues had yet to be encountered, much potential existed for the expansion of relations between the United States and Syria.Today, almost 16 months on, America’s plan to engage Syria appears to have failed.

In July 2009, amid warming rhetoric from both sides, reports emerged that Barack Obama’s White House intended to look favourably on case-by-case sanctions against Syria “as opposed to the prior administration's policy". According to the New York Times this was “another notable instance of the Obama administration opening the door to Syria on what it calls a basis of mutual interest and respect.”

Syria had welcomed the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January 2009 and people up and down the country looked forward to a new page in American-Syrian relations. Editorials were written in local magazines inviting the president to Syria and welcoming the arrival of a new ambassador, a post left empty since 2005.

Last February Damascus was readying the American ambassador’s residence for the arrival of Robert Ford following his confirmation as ambassador to Syria. This was to signal the beginning of a real change in relations, a change that would, very possibly eventually lead to peace with Israel and the return of the Golan Heights.

Some, however, were a little more sceptical at the time. During the wave of international bonhomie that greeted the new president in spring 2009, one taxi driver in downtown Damascus told me that nothing would change simply because America’s interests in Israel are much greater than in Syria. “He [Obama] will be the same as all the others,” he said. At the time I lamented his scepticism.

The power of rumours

Relations were knocked back when a seemingly innocuous statement snow-balled into a something of much greater consequence last spring. In April the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, set off alarm bells by claiming – without evidence – that Syria was shipping SCUD missiles to Hezbollah.

US secretary of defence Robert Gates and shortly after, secretary of state Hillary Clinton joined in, the latter saying at an AIPAC conference later the same month: "We have spoken out forcefully about the grave dangers of Syria's transfer of weapons to Hezbollah. We do not accept such provocative and destabilising behaviour – nor should the international community.”

Syrian officials retorted by asking for proof to the claims.

The following month Barack Obama renewed the Syria Accountability Act – a sanctions tool introduced by the George W Bush administration in 2003. At the time, a White House statement said that: “While the Syrian government has made some progress in suppressing networks of foreign fighters bound for Iraq, its actions and policies ... continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States.”

Many in Damascus were left scratching their heads.

For Syria the timing of the claim was most unfortunate. As a result of the SCUD episode, members of the US Senate have upheld a decision on agreeing to the appointment of Robert Ford as ambassador to Damascus, with little indication that any movement on the issue is forthcoming.

Justice or politics ?

Furthermore, the findings of the United Nation’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) are sure to affect US-Syrian relations in one way or another. Should Syrian officials be indicted, Damascus will rail against the Tribunal and its sponsors (chiefly the US and France). Should Hezbollah be blamed – as has been mooted – Damascus will see itself wrongly portrayed as the primary actor or proclaimed ‘fall guy’ in destabilising Lebanon.

In any case, Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, has made up with Damascus, declaring in September how, “At one stage, we accused Syria” and that “that was a political accusation, and that political accusation is over”.  Having effectively legitimised Syrian interests in Lebanon, he will have to condemn any results the Tribunal may uncover, results that are expected to be released in the coming weeks.

The Tribunal itself is today regarded by most in the region as a relic of the 2005 political landscape. It holds a far smaller space in the politics of the Levant in 2010. As such, given its revamped political muscle in Lebanon, Syria can throw off the chains of the Tribunal with ease, creating a headache for the US and its justification for renewing the Syria Accountability Act because of interference in Lebanon.

At the very least, all have recognised (if not approved) Syria’s important role in Lebanese politics: because of this small country’s fractured and unstable political system, it needs input from Saudi Arabia and Damascus, even while interest from the latter is generally received with suspicion in the US (and in parts of Lebanon itself). Saad Hariri realises this and as such has travelled to Damascus several times since his historic first visit to the Syrian capital last December.

America’s fault?

Earlier this month a diplomatic spat threatened to further damage ties between the two countries.

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, said in an interview that only “modest steps” had been taken in improving the US-Syrian relationship and that, “There is a cost to the potential in our bilateral relationship to what Syria's friends are doing in Lebanon.

“Our interests in a comprehensive peace doesn't mean that we are going to start trading our other interests in Iraq or Lebanon in order to get Damascus to like us better,” he told the Washington Post earlier this month.

An unnamed Syrian official reacted with venom to what was perceived in Damascus as neo-imperialism, saying: “Yes, Syria is concerned in the stability and security of Lebanon because this is a vital issue for the security and stability of Syria ... We don't need Mr. Feltman's advice, because Syria exercises its independent decision making to serve the interests of its people and the stability and security of the region.”

Nor is Washington alone in sending out confusing signals.

In October, Syrian President Bashar Assad, launched a tirade against America via the Al Hayat newspaper saying: “Is Afghanistan stable? Is Somalia stable? Did they bring stability to Lebanon in 1983?” when referring to the US.

However, more recently Assad changed his tone, and is quoted as lauding Obama’s ‘peace efforts for the region’ following the visit of John Kerry to Damascus in November.

This back and forth rhetoric illustrates an ongoing gap in expectations that needs to be addressed. Washington wants Syria to stop funding and supporting Hezbollah but what is in it for Damascus? Washington wants it to move away from Iran but why would Syria do this? Has the US and Europe offered to press Israel on beginning talks over the status of the occupied Golan Heights? With over 400,000 Palestinian refugees in camps around Syria it has good reason to want to see an agreement regarding a Palestinian state.

One may ask what can Syria do, but the United States is in the position of power in this relationship and many in the halls of Syrian bureaucracy will be happy for the country to continue its downward economic spiral whilst it maintains the political status quo.

Obama has, arguably, done little to promote a peace agenda in the region. An arms ‘deal’ with Israel for 20 F-35 fighter jets in return for a 90-day settlement moratorium sounds awfully like pandering to a spoilt child. More importantly for Washington’s Syria plan, this is the news being fed into millions of homes across the country through Al Jazeera and other broadcasters. For them, their old fears have been raised, placing Obama next on a long list of American presidents for Syrians to dislike.

Away from the diplomatic front, however, there have been some genuine changes in the US-Syria relationship.

Economic trade between the two states has grown significantly this year. When Russia closed down its grain export market last summer because of fires, the US stepped in vouching to supply 10,000 tonnes of wheat to Syria, which is currently in the throes of a four-year drought.

The English-language magazine Syria Today reported in June that: “The trade volume for the first three months of 2010 is 83 percent higher than the average January-March trade volume record”. Airplane parts (consisting of American technology bound by the Syria Accountability Act) for Syria’s dated national carrier have been given the go-ahead to be shipped to Syria.

But these hardly significant adjustments are not what either side had in mind as being central to a new departure in relations. In order to properly engage Syria, the US must be prepared to have something to offer. If not, the tail-chasing that has characterised the past 18 months is likely to continue.

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