Inauguration exclusive: the audacity of hoping for a better U.S. policy toward Syria

LGD Note: I reported this piece back in October and wrote it in November for a class at Columbia, with the intention of publishing it on a foreign affairs-concerned website. At the time, the handful of advocates for a better U.S. policy toward Syria were sounding optimistic. Then came the U.S. attack on the village of Sukkariyyeh in eastern Syria, which brought relations between the two countries to an all-time low. It also complicated my story in a way that I couldn’t untangle during midterms. I offer the piece here with the caveat that all comments were obtained back in October before the attack, and long before the Gaza war. But I think there is some interesting food from thought here that is relevant despite all the things that happened since I reported it. What kind of change will Obama bring to our policy with this overly maligned country?


November 15, 2008

American voters aren’t the only ones celebrating the election of a new president this month. In Syria, which is still reeling from the October 26 attack by U.S. commandos on the village of Sukkariyyeh, people are hoping the new presidency will mean a different American approach to their country.

The incident brought American-Syrian relations to an all-time low. Washington said that the incursion into Syrian territory killed a top insurgent smuggler. Damascus, however, said the raid had killed eight civilians, including women and children. But even as Syrian officials condemned the attack as “murder” and closed down the American School in Damascus, they were expressing optimism about the possibilities for Obama’s presidency.

As the countdown begins to Obama’s presidency, Middle East experts are hoping that a new president will usher in a thaw in U.S.-Syrian relations. A handful of pro-Syria lobbyists are trying to till the ground for what they hope will be a major change in Washington’s approach to Syria. The Abu Kamal attack, such advocates hope, marks the final chapter in eight years of historically poor relations with Syria. The problems started when the United States clashed with Syria over the invasion of Iraq (Syria supported U.S. action in the first Gulf War), and in the years since has accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to stream into the occupied country. In 2005, after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in Lebanon, George W. Bush recalled the U.S. ambassador to Syria, and the State Department all but blamed Syria for the killing. No new ambassador has been appointed.

“No matter who comes in January, there’s likely to be a warming of ties,” said George Ajjan in October by phone from Lebanon, where he was traveling to try to raise awareness about the likely change in U.S. policy. A businessman of Syrian descent who ran for U.S. Congress in New Jersey in 2004 on a Republican ticket, Ajjan has nevertheless been a fierce critic of the “neocon” policy of isolating Syria.

An International Trend, an American Absence

The sense of impending improvements in relations is based partly on the fact that, while the Bush administration has remained staunchly hostile to Damascus, the international community has been warming up to it. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatarmet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at a summit in Damascus in September. Russia has been investing in Syrian ports. And this month, David Miliband, the British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs met with Syrian officials to re-establish high level intelligence sharing between the two countries.

Even long-time adversaries of Syria are showing openness to Damascus. Three years after throngs of Lebanese celebrated the withdrawal of Syrian troops from their country in 2005 – the Syrians had been there for 15 years after helping to end the Lebanese Civil War – the two neighbors are planning on opening a Syrian embassy in Beirut.

Most remarkably, Syrian and Israeli leaders have made historic overtures for peace in the last year. The two countries have been locked in dispute almost uninterruptedly since the Jewish state was established in 1948, and Israel’s occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights since 1967 has made the suggestion of peace talks a nonstarter. But in the last year, the long-time enemies have worked indirectly under Turkish auspices to explore the possibilities for a resolution. Leaders on both sides – including outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak – have made statements in support of trading the Golan for Peace.

Yet even with all these movements toward engagement with Syria, the United States has remained at a staunch distance from the country. Middle East experts say the only thing stopping an American engagement with Syria are the remaining ideologues in the Bush administration.

Sami Moubayed, a Damascus-based author, political analyst and editor of the English-language monthly Forward, says that politically engaged Syrians are looking toward the future, when administration neocons will be long gone.

“The Syrians realize that relations with [the Bush] administration can be minimal, at best,” he wrote in an email from Syria.
But as the official American position to Syria has remained openly hostile, American politicians on both sides of the aisle have bucked the Bush administration to reach out to Syria in the last two years. Nancy Pelosi traveled to Syria to meet with officials there in 2007, to the Vice President Dick Cheney’s chagrin. In June, Senators Chuck Hagel, a Republican, and John Kerry co-authored an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for greater engagement with Syria. David Patraeus has said that greater involvement with Syria is necessary for the sake of security coordination in Iraq. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he met with Walid al-Mouallem in September. Even conservatives like former secretary of state James Baker have advocated for greater peaceful U.S. engagement with Syria.

The split between the administration and the rest of the U.S. political culture was obvious during the visit this July of an unofficial Syrian delegation to Washington. The delegation, which included Moubayed, met with American politicians, journalists and policy advisors to talk about what is at stake in possible Syrian-Israeli talks.

In a telling moment, Moubayed says, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch backed out of a meeting with the unofficial delegation. Moubayed suspects that withdrawal was a result of White House pressure. Incidents like those make Syria advocates long for a new cast of officials.

“Our trip to Washington was aimed at meeting those who were going to become important as of January 2009 – taking into account that in less than six months, someone like Welch would have began his march into history – for now,” Moubayed wrote.

“There are plenty of Americans who are advocating for a better relationship,” Ajjan said. “But in the U.S. it’s a political issue where Republicans aren’t in favor of talking to Syria and Democrats are. It’s become a stupid political football game.”
“We have to differentiate … between the [Bush] administration, whose policies have not changed, and mainstream U.S. politicians of the political elite in Washington, who are convinced that dialogue is what helps solve problems with Syria, and are very critical of the administration for its no-talk policy towards Syria,” Moubayed wrote. “The political elite has been calling for engagement with Syria since 2005.”

Advocates Try to Seize the Moment

Even with the discouraging signs from the administration in its last days, activists are trying to make sure that conditions are right for a new U.S. engagement with Syria once Obama is sworn in.

That was the impetus behind Ajjan’s recent trip to Damascus. Betting on the possibility that everything will change with a new U.S. president, Ajjan traveled in October to Syria, where his grandfather was born, to speak as “an independent advocate” at a Syrian thinktank and spread the word that Syrians should prepare themselves for a very different United States come November.

“In Syria there’s no bipartisan issue — there’s just the regime [view] and something else, and I’m trying to provide that something else,” he said, adding that the next U.S. president will put better relations with Syria on the agenda. “It is as much about the ego of the president as it is about what he’s said in his campaign.” Helping promote peace is a chance for a legacy for any president, he said.

On the American side, similar efforts are being made.

While stressing that the Arab American Institute (AAI) did not have a specific “ten-point plan” recommendation for the White House, an analyst at the influential Washington-based organization said she is deeply concerned about the lack of U.S. engagement with Syria.

“Everyday that we don’t talk to Syria is a missed opportunity,” said Leigh O’Neill, a government and relations and policy analyst with Arab American Institute. “Our general attitude is to advocate for robust dialogue, especially if the only other alternative is sanctions, which traditionally don’t work.”

Bush, O’Neill added, has done very little to help these goals.

“Bush can take absolutely no credit for any kind of overtures between Israel and Syria,” she said. “The United States is conspicuously absent. George Bush’s legacy in the Middle East is a total disaster. To take credit for restarting the diplomatic tract … is just wrong.”

But the end of the Bush administration will not remove every obstacle to a new policy. Pro-Syria advocates say that it is not just Bush-Cheney ideologues who are to blame for the administration’s sour attitude. Saudi and Lebanese lobbies in Washington are far more powerful than Syria’s, which means that Arab voices frequently work at cross-purposes.

Syria lobbyists “seem to be united”, Moubayed wrote, “but face a united and strong anti-Syrian team, composed of the neocons, lobbies from Lebanon loyal to Harriri and Saudi Arabia. These people have more clout and money, and are influencing opinion within political circles in D.C. That is why the anti-Syrian team remains stronger than those who are calling for engagement, despite strong realities, related to Iraq for example, of how useless it has been not to deal with Syria.”

Ajjan takes a similar view, but also thinks that influence is short-lived. “The influence of the Saudi royal family on the Bush administration is huge,” he said. “But those ties are gone” once Bush is out of office.

Pro-Lebanon lobbyists, who are often deeply critical of the Syrian regime, are popular with many policymakers in Washington, O’Neill said. “They use all the buzzwords that policymakers – neocons or otherwise – want to hear,” she said.

Compounding the problem for Arab-American activists is that, after 9-11, protecting their domestic image has been much more pressing than specific foreign policy agendas. Campaign events for John McCain during which “Arab” was used as a slur have highlighted that problem. AAI’s most visible advocacy during the presidential election focused on addressing such incidents and including Arab-Americans in the political process.

Nevertheless, optimism is the order of the day in the pro-Syria camp.

On November 14, Syrian officials at the United Nations said they are “heartened” by Obama’s plan to withdraw troops from Iraq. They also said they received word that an attack like that on Abu Kamal would not occur again.

“This counter-productive policy of isolation is beginning to thaw,” proclaimed Joshua Landis in his influential blog, Syria Comment, after Rice met Mouallem in September. Landis, who is the Co-director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, has labored tirelessly since 2004 to promote a different American understanding of Syria. The blog has brought together influential Syrians, Americans and Israelis.

“Syria is expecting change with Obama’s election,” Landis wrote on November 5. “The Syrian people were overwhelmingly in favor of Obama. The Syrian leadership are Obama fans as well….”

As they wait out Bush’s last days in office, activists like Landis can only hope that nothing derails their efforts before January.


NB: The byline for this piece is not secret. If you need that information, post a comment and I will email you.

One thought on “Inauguration exclusive: the audacity of hoping for a better U.S. policy toward Syria

  1. January 20, 2009

    On this day of great hope. there is hope that you could become that activist to the Obama presidency for ‘this much maligned country of Syria’.


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