A series of meetings between U.S. and Syrian
diplomats, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her counterpart,
Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, at the United Nations over the past week is
stirring speculation that Washington may at last be moving toward engaging
Instead of focusing on specific issues of special interest to the U.S. –
mainly Washington's demands that Syria crack down hard against the infiltration
of Sunni extremists into Iraq and stop supplying Hezbollah in Lebanon – the
discussions also reportedly covered other topics as well, notably Damascus's
appeals for Washington to involve directly itself in a burgeoning peace process
between Syria and Israel.
Both Damascus and Tel Aviv have called for U.S. engagement as a way of furthering
year-old indirect talks that have been mediated by the Turkish government.
While Rice has publicly blessed the process, hawks within the administration
of U.S. President George W. Bush, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney's
office and a deputy national security adviser in charge of the Middle East,
Elliott Abrams, have opposed any additional involvement.
"Nothing is a breakthrough, and I'm not sure that there will be,"
Rice, who met with Moallem on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New
York Friday, told Bloomberg TV Monday. "But it's time to talk about some
of the changes that are taking place in the Middle East."
While the Rice-Moallem contact reportedly lasted only 10 minutes, her chief
regional deputy, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch,
met with the Syrian official in a longer meeting Monday, according to the Wall
Street Journal, which suggested that the talks portended a "potential
thaw" between Washington and Damascus.
''I consider this a good progress in the American position," Moallem
told the Journal in a reference to his meeting with Rice. "The
atmosphere was positive. We decided to continue this dialogue."
Still, some observers voiced skepticism that the meetings signaled a major
shift in Washington's willingness to seriously engage Damascus in the nearly
four months before President Bush leaves office.
"It's clearly time for a rethink of [Syria] policy, and I think Rice
and others in the administration are trying to shepherd it forward," said
Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma who publishes
the widely read Syria Comment blog.
"Rice is definitely open to it – and the whole Department of Defense
has been kicking for this for a long time – but she can't get it past
the White House."
He noted that Bush himself had referred to Syria as a ''sponsor of terrorism''
in his speech to the General Assembly just last week.
As with Iran and North Korea, the split between administration hawks and realists
over Syria is a familiar one. While Rice's predecessor, former Secretary of
State Colin Powell, argued for engaging with Damascus both before and after
the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the hawks – then led by Cheney and
Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld – favored a policy of ''regime change''
against the government President Bashir al-Assad.
Amid charges that Syria was facilitating the smuggling of Sunni extremists
into Iraq, Washington's hostility toward Damascus grew steadily after the invasion
and climaxed after the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik
Hariri which the U.S. blamed on Syria.
The administration, which offered strong support to the subsequent "Cedar
Revolution" in Lebanon, withdrew its ambassador from Damascus as part
of a much more comprehensive effort to weaken and isolate Assad. During the
month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah the following year, Abrams, presumably
with Cheney's backing, reportedly assured Israeli policymakers that Washington
would have no objection to their expanding hostilities into Syrian territory.
Rumsfeld's resignation in November 2006 and his replacement by the more realist
Robert Gates – not to mention the stunning deterioration in Washington's
regional position resulting from the war's outcome, the routing of Fatah by
Syria-backed Hamas in Gaza, and the growing sectarian violence In Iraq –
tilted the balance of power within the administration.
Over the strenuous objections of neoconservatives and other hawks, Rice invited
Syria to take part in last November's Annapolis Summit that launched the formal
resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestine Authority (PA).
It was shortly after the meeting that Turkey began mediating indirect peace
talks between Damascus and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert,
reportedly centered around the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights
in exchange for Syria's agreement to normalize ties and cut its links to Hezbollah,
Hamas, and Iran.
While, according to virtually all accounts, those talks made major progress,
they have been suspended since early September pending the formation or election
of a new Israeli government. Olmert, who last week resigned as head of the
ruling Kadima Party due to a corruption scandal, is currently serving as a
In addition, Damascus has long insisted that a final peace accord could be
reached only if Washington strongly endorsed the deal and normalized ties,
something that the White House, despite the urging from the State Department
and several former senior U.S. diplomats – including the ex-head of the
American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – has so far ruled out.
Meanwhile, however, Washington's efforts to isolate Syria have eroded significantly
in recent months. Hezbollah's victory over pro-Western forces in Beirut last
spring followed by the Doha Accord that gave pro-Syrian forces there a virtual
veto over major policy decisions marked a major political defeat for Washington's
At the same time, the replacement of French President Jacques Chirac, Washington's
closest ally in isolating Assad, by Nicolas Sarkozy dealt another major blow.
In July, Sarkozy became the first West European leader to host Assad – at
the annual Bastille Day celebration, no less – since Hariri's death. Sarkozy
followed that up with a visit to Damascus earlier this month where he offered
to co-sponsor Israeli-Syrian peace talks when they resume. At the same time,
Assad announced several moves seemingly designed to appease Washington; among
them, sending ambassadors to both Lebanon and Iraq.
Whether the past week's meetings suggest that the balance of power within
the administration has shifted should become clearer in the coming weeks, particularly
if Washington sends an ambassador or senior-ranking official to Damascus, as
has long been urged by Syria.
According to Landis, the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, pressed
the White House last December to go there himself but was rebuffed. Now head
of U.S. Central Command and a White House favorite, Petraeus could decide to
renew his request which, if granted, would likely be seen as evidence of serious
Saturday's car-bombing that killed some 17 people in Damascus itself could
bolster the Pentagon's long-standing case that greater intelligence cooperation
with Syria could serve the interests of both countries. Most analysts have
pointed to Sunni extremists, possibly tied to al-Qaeda, as the most likely
"With its Lebanon policy a shambles and its efforts to isolate Syria
defied by France, Turkey, and Israel itself, it really doesn't make sense for
the White House to continue stiffing the Syrians," said Landis. "It's
really just pure stubbornness at this point."
(Inter Press Service)