April 14-20, 2009
The US decision to renew sanctions on Syria hit Damascus hard, Bassel Oudat reports from Damascus
Last Thursday, United States President Barack Obama renewed sanctions on Syria. The announcement came only one day after Jeoffrey Feltman, acting US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, and Daniel Shapiro, National Security Council senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, concluded a visit to Damascus. US State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the measure was prompted by US concern over Syria's policy. He reiterated the claim that Syria backed "terrorist groups" in Iraq and failed to play a positive role in the Middle East.
The sanctions involve an embargo on all transactions with Syrian government banks suspected of providing financial services for terrorists, along with restrictions on US exports and the continued freezing of assets owned by Syrian government and officials.
The decision came after two congressmen called on the US administration to renew the sanctions. In a carefully coordinated bipartisan initiative, Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Eliot Engel sent a letter to Obama saying that Syria was still trying to destabilise the region. Only hours earlier, Feltman and Shapiro had returned from Damascus, where they had talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem lasting for two and half hours.
The whole thing was a big disappointment for Syrian leaders who had spoken of imminent rapprochement and cooperation with the US. For the past few weeks, the Syrian state-run media has been saying that the US wanted Syria to help out with regional issues and that the Americans were changing their tone about Syria. Now, it seems that the Syrian optimism was misplaced.
High-level Syrian sources did mention, however, that what they called a Syria-US rapprochement was worrying to Israel. The assumption in Damascus of late has been that the Americans know that Syria is a key country in the region and cannot be sidestepped. Optimistic about imminent rapprochement, Syrian officials made statements reassuring the public that Damascus wasn't about to compromise its principles and was under no pressure to do so.
Days before the sanctions were renewed, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad urged Washington to open a direct or indirect dialogue with Hamas and Hizbullah, promising to facilitate such talks. "Should the US need our help, we would be prepared to provide it," the Syrian president said. He added that, "peace cannot be reached while Hamas and Hizbullah are left out of the peace process."
The US State Department turned down Al-Assad's call for US negotiations with Hamas and Hizbullah. US officials said the two groups Al-Assad mentioned were "terrorist organisations" and that Syria should tell them to change their policies first.
Al-Assad's hopes for mediation between Washington and its adversaries in the region were crushed on more than one occasion. The Syrian leader called on Washington to open a dialogue with Iran. "Politics are all about being realistic and talking to influential parties before moving on to positive or negative action," he said. Some of Al-Assad's aides noted that the remark was an offer of mediation, but again, the Americans weren't interested.
A Syrian source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Damascus was confident that it can work towards a comprehensive settlement in the region in which the Iranians, Syrians, Americans, and Europeans may take part. Tehran trusts the Syrians, and the agreement of the US administration to such proposal would have been a first step towards normalising Syrian-US relations, the source said. The US administration turned down the Syrian proposal.
Some observers believe that the Syrians have misread the Americans. But they shouldn't have. Although the new US administration has been engaged in intensive talks with the Syrians, it never abandoned its position that the Syrians have to make serious concessions before relations between the two countries go back to normal. Washington insists its conditions have not been met in full.
Following his recent visit to Damascus, Feltman described his talks with the Syrians as "constructive". The acting assistant secretary of state reiterated Obama's pledge to follow up on the Arab-Israeli peace on all tracks, including the Syrian-Israeli one. He added that the visit aimed to bridge outstanding differences.
In fact, the rapprochement between Syria and the US hasn't yet gone beyond an improvement in rhetoric. Washington still expects Syria to change its policy on Iraq. It accuses Syria of facilitating the missions of terrorists groups. And it sees Damascus as a potential threat to Lebanon's security and stability. Washington says that Syria must sever its ties with "extremist" groups in the Middle East, including Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. And it wants the Syrians to distance themselves from Iran.
Relations between Washington and Damascus deteriorated after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the assassination of Rafik Al-Hariri in 2005. Washington imposed sanctions on Syria in 2004 and recalled its ambassador from Damascus in February 2005.
But the Syrians have been trying hard to improve relations. A few weeks ago, the Syrian prime minister visited Baghdad with a big delegation, hoping to change relations between the two countries, especially with regard to economics and trade. Damascus signed a security agreement with Baghdad and agreed to exchange ambassadors with Lebanon.
The Syrian government sent an ambassador to Beirut and promised not to interfere in Lebanon's next elections. Damascus said that it has no problem with the government of Mahmoud Abbas and that it was ready for direct talks with Israel with US mediation. Only last week, the Syrian president said that Hamas and Hizbullah will not launch any military operations against Israel from Syria.
Since Obama took office, there has been a remarkable thawing of tensions between Washington and Damascus. Several US congressmen and diplomats came to Damascus to listen to Syria's point of view and explore any shared interests the two countries may have. The Syrians welcomed the effort, saying that they were all for improved ties with Washington.
The fact that the US administration imposed more sanctions on Syria doesn't mean that things have gone back to square one. Before leaving Damascus, Feltman voiced the hope for continued dialogue with Syria. It is generally thought that the Americans explained their reasons for renewing the sanctions to the Syrians before making a public statement on the matter.
Washington seems to think the ball is now in Syria's court. US diplomats say that Syria will be rewarded if it changes its policy in a significant way. But considering the many concessions Syria has already made, there is not much left to pay the piper.