The Road to Damascus Isn't Paved with Preconditions
by Charles Lemos, Tue Mar 03, 2009 at 09:47:11 PM EST
In her maiden voyage to the Middle East as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton announced today that the Obama administration will send two senior officials to Syria this weekend to begin discussions with the government of President Bashar Assad. Secretary Clinton, in Jerusalem for her first talks with Israeli officials, described the upcoming meetings with the Syrian government as "preliminary conversations" intended to explore whether Damascus is serious about a new relationship with the United States and rejoining the world community after years of isolation. From the New York Times:
The overture suggests how the Obama administration intends to tackle three interlocking challenges in the Middle East: the nuclear threat posed by Iran; long-simmering tensions between Israel and Syria; and the grinding conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Syria, regional experts say, could be the key to alleviating all three.
By seeking an understanding with Syria, which has cultivated close ties to Iran, the United States could increase the pressure on Iran to respond to its offer of direct talks. Such an understanding would also give Arab states and moderate Palestinians the political cover to negotiate with Israel. That, in turn, could increase the burden on Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, to relax its hostile stance toward Israel.
But in a region where even small steps take years to negotiate, officials sought to tamp down expectations of rapid progress. "It is a worthwhile effort to go and begin preliminary conversations," Mrs. Clinton said, noting Syria's wide influence in the region, as well as its troubled history with the United States. Yet, she cautioned, "we have no way to predict what the future of our relations with Syria might be."
The two emissaries are Daniel B. Shapiro, a senior director at the National Security Council, and Jeffrey D. Feltman, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and the State Department's top diplomat for the Middle East. And while these talks will be held in Damascus, US and Syrian diplomats met late last week. Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, met for nearly two hours with Jeffrey Feltman.
According to the Associated Press this was the first such high-level session since September and it came at the request of the Obama administration, which sought to discuss how to mend the relationship and possibly work together.
The State Department said it had invited Moustapha for the meeting to discuss a range of issues. They include U.S. concerns about Syria's support for anti-Israel organizations that Washington regards as terrorist groups; Syria's alleged nuclear program; its involvement in Lebanon; and its human rights record. U.S.-Syrian relations long have been tense, particularly since the U.S. ambassador was withdrawn by the Bush administration in 2005 to protest Syria's suspected role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria denied involvement but in the uproar that followed was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, ending a 29-year military presence. The United States has criticized Syria for supporting militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and accused Syria of not doing enough to prevent foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq. Syria has said it is doing all it can to safeguard its long, porous border.And while these serious issues are likely to divide Washington and Damascus, the diplomatic approach is a welcomed departure from the Bush Administration who ignored Syria at every turn. It seems that for now the road to Damascus isn't paved with preconditions and that might augur some progress on a variety of fronts.