Syria Looking for Improved Relations with Obama Administration

Syria Looking for Improved Relations with Obama Administration

Syria expert Joshua Landis says both the Syrian government and the Obama administration are looking to improve relations, but the renewal of sanctions by the United States, designating the country as a rogue state, may prove an obstacle.

May 13, 2009 4:31 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Syria is a major part of the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East, says University of Oklahoma Professor Joshua M. Landis, who publishes the blog Syria Comment. "Syria is at the center because Syria has its finger on a number of issues that are key to America’s new approach to the Middle East: Lebanon, the Iraq border issue, negotiations with Israel and Hamas, as well as Iran," he says. The Syrian government would like to have improved relations with the United States, but just when the Syrians thought they were starting a dialogue with Washington, the Obama administration renewed sanctions against it, sparking anger. "They want the United States to stop treating Syria like a rogue state and start showing it respect," he says. As for Lebanon, where Syria has less influence than it had in the past, he says that the United States seems pleased that Syria has not interfered in the parliamentary elections which take place on June 7.

Recently, Syria has been visited by an interesting list of visitors, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, King Abdullah of Jordan, and a pair of U.S. officials--Jeffrey Feltman, acting assistant secretary of State for near eastern affairs, and White House National Security Council Middle East expert Daniel Shapiro--making their second trip in two months. Is Syria at the center of Middle East diplomacy?

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Syria is at the center because Syria has its finger on a number of issues that are key to America’s new approach to the Middle East: Lebanon, the Iraq border issue, negotiations with Israel and Hamas, as well as Iran. For the first time ever, there were small-scale joint military exercises between Turkey and Syria last month, which upset the Israelis. And Syria, of course, is a very important supplier of arms to a number of radical groups.

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What does Syria want?

There are several scenarios. The Syrians want improved relations with the United States. They want the United States to stop treating Syria like a rogue state and start showing it respect. This is where the U.S. sanctions, which were renewed last week [as they were about to expire], have become a real spanner in the works.

Let’s review U.S.-Syria relations. There have been these two visits by Feltman and Shapiro, after years of being ignored by the Bush administration. The second visit ended the day before Obama signed into law a renewal of sanctions against Syria that the Bush administration and Congress had put into effect.

I am told by authoritative Syrian officials that Feltman and Shapiro landed in Damascus to announce that Obama would be renewing sanctions the next day, and asked Syria not to pay any heed and to understand that this was pro forma. Yet there was no softening of the language: "The actions of the government of Syria in supporting terrorism, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining U.S. and international efforts with respect to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq pose a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States." This was the original language by the Bush administration, and it restates that and says because Syria hasn’t changed its behavior, this national security emergency has to go forward. The Syrian point of view was "Okay, we understand. But do something for us. Change the language. Say we are renewing this, but relations are improving and we hope that by the end of the year we can change this. Give us some hope; don’t just use the big stick."

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The Syrians were very upset by this, and one official said to me, "How dare they arrive on our doorstep, treat us this way, and then think that we’re going to then sit down and sign an agreement on the Iraq war?" I’m told that’s what the agenda for the meeting was: the Iraq situation, intelligence sharing and security issues. It was about sharing intelligence over the border and trying to put a serious stop to infiltration of fighters. This can be fixed, and the Syrians are ready to fix it. They were eager to sign this agreement and to start acting on it. But understand that all of this is now going to be reviewed in Syria.

Isn’t it just a coincidence that the sanctions came up for renewal at this time? If the White House had not renewed the sanctions, they would have disappeared.

I guess so. It’s just very bad timing. The Syrians are deeply insulted and feel like America’s not really changing anything. I think they were told not to worry about this; there’s not much that Obama can do right now, and he’s not prepared to take on a big battle about this kind of stuff at this moment.

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Where do we stand on the Syrian-Israeli negotiations for a peace agreement, including the return of the Golan Heights, captured in 1967, that were being mediated by the Turks but which broke off during the Gaza fighting in December and January?

Nobody knows. I’ve asked that question of the Syrians, and they say that it’s too early and we don’t know because [the new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is just settling in. They say we’re hearing contradictory statements out of him all the time. He recently said that he would never give the Golan Heights back. This doesn’t look promising. The Americans and Syrians haven’t really gotten to this discussion. I think this is a problem because Syria wants to have a larger agreement, encompassing the return of the Golan, in which America would make certain assurances about what it can do about the Golan. Of course Syria partially supports Hamas and Hezbollah, which America has defined as [sponsoring] terrorism but which Syrians define as national liberation and the right of Arabs to resist occupation. This is what undergirds the sanctions against Syria. America is asking Syria to stop supporting radical groups, but the United States can’t or doesn’t want to make any commitments about returning the Golan, and Syria can’t give up its only leverage against Israel without any assurances about the Golan. At the end of the day, there’s great distrust on both sides.

King Abdullah in an interview with the London Times after his meeting with Obama described a "57-state solution" whereby all the Arab and Muslim states would recognize Israel in return for Israel agreeing to a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders and the return of the Golan. This is an enlargement of the Arab League proposal. What’s happening on this negotiation front?

Obama says he wants peace with a new approach to the Islamic world. He’s stressed his interest in the greater Islamic world and will be giving a speech in Egypt next month. I think the Arab leaders are looking at that and thinking, "Let’s try to create context. Instead of letting the Americans create a proposal. Let’s tell them what we want." As you say, there’s this Arab peace proposal that’s been on the books since 2002 where all of the Arab countries agreed that they would recognize Israel within the pre-1967 borders if Israel returns the occupied territories. It was a unified statement by the Arab world. Now, America’s allies--Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan--who have been [unfazed] by the Netanyahu victory, are looking for a way to get back to the center of negotiations. They need something to work on to show their people that they’re moving ahead with a viable alternative.

Netanyahu’s notion is that we’re not ready to talk about land because there’s so much insecurity. The Palestinians and Syrians have to prove themselves by changing their regional alliances and showing that they’re in control of security.

Let’s talk about Lebanon, where there are parliamentary elections on June 7. After the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, an action blamed on Syria by the United States and France in 2005, Syrian troops were forced to pull out of Lebanon. What is Syria’s relationship with Lebanon like right now? Are they trying to influence the elections?

I think everything is running smoothly. The Americans have been very anxious that Syria would somehow intimidate the electorate and there would be violence during the election. Syria said there’s not going to be any violence and in fact things are going well. I think this is one issue on which Feltman and Shapiro were quite positive. I’m told they told the Syrians they were happy with what’s going on in Lebanon. The Syrian point of view is that it’s got all of its cards covered in Lebanon. The major Syrian concern over the last two years is that Lebanon not be used against it.

Who’s in the running to be prime minister?

Najib Mikati is a big industrialist who owns part of the Syrian telephone industry. He’s big money, and he has a lot of interest in getting along with Syria. He’s been prime minister before, and he did a good job. He could be the prime minister if the opposition prevails.

Is Saad Hariri, the son of the martyred former prime minister, trying to become prime minister?

Hariri would like to be prime minister, and should the March 14 coalition win, he might become prime minister. But if the election is close and the opposition wins, the notion has been floated that he’d become prime minister anyway. This would be a way to keep America happy and say "we aren’t spoilers who want to rub pro-American noses in the mud."


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