The Obama Administration Reaches Out to Syria: Implications for Israel (JCPA) JERUSALEM CENTER FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS) David Schenker Jerusalem Issue Brief Vol. 8, No. 23 03/18/09)
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs Articles-Index-Top
- In early March, two senior U.S. officials traveled to Damascus for
the highest-level bilateral meeting in years, part of the new
administration´s policy of "engagement." Washington seeks to test
Damascus´ intentions to distance itself from Iran. While a "strategic
realignment" of Damascus is unlikely, in the short term the
diplomatic opening is sure to alleviate international pressure on
- The Assad regime made no secret of its preference for Barack Obama
last November. At the same time, Syrian regime spokesmen appear to be
setting preconditions for an effective dialogue, saying Washington
would first have to drop the Syria Accountability Act sanctions and
remove Syria from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.
- U.S. diplomatic engagement with Syria comes at a particularly
sensitive time, just a few months before the Lebanese elections,
where the "March 14" ruling coalition faces a stiff challenge from
the Hizbullah-led "March 8" opposition, and Washington has taken
steps to shore up support for its allies.
- Should the U.S. dialogue with Damascus progress, Washington might
consent to take on an enhanced role in resumed Israeli-Syrian
negotiations. However, U.S. participation on the Syria track could
conceivably result in additional pressure for Israeli concessions in
advance of any discernible modifications in Syria´s posture toward
Hizbullah and Hamas.
- Based on Syria´s track record, there is little reason to be
optimistic that the Obama administration will succeed where others
have failed. Washington should not necessarily be faulted for trying,
as long as the administration remains cognizant of the nature of the
regime. Damascus today remains a brutal dictatorship, which derives
its regional influence almost exclusively through its support for
terrorism in neighboring states and, by extension, through its 30-
year strategic alliance with Tehran.
In early March, two senior U.S. officials traveled to Damascus for
meetings with their Syrian counterparts. The visit - which followed a
series of conciliatory steps toward Syria by the Obama
administration - constituted the highest-level bilateral meeting in
years. Following the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese
premier Rafiq Hariri, the Bush administration withdrew its ambassador
in Damascus and limited its contacts with Syria. Taken in tandem,
these developments comprise the initial stages of the new
administration´s policy of "engagement."
Diplomatic engagement with Syria remains in its preliminary stages,
but the outlines of the policy are starting to emerge. Washington is
looking to test Damascus´ intentions on peace with Israel and
improved U.S.-Syria bilateral relations, two goals largely dependent
on Syria´s willingness to distance itself from Iran. To this end, the
administration is making diplomatic overtures and talking to Damascus
while publicly lowering expectations of what might be achieved.
Yet a "strategic realignment" of Damascus is unlikely; even modest
changes in Syrian policy could take months or years to discern.
Meanwhile, there are attendant risks: among them, the end of Syria´s
international isolation, and a potentially negative impact - i.e., a
Hizbullah victory - in the June 2009 Lebanese elections.
Regardless of whether the engagement results in improved U.S.-Syrian
ties, in the short term the diplomatic opening is sure to alleviate
international pressure on Damascus.
First U.S. Overtures toward Syria
In early February, in a reversal of a long-standing U.S. policy, the
U.S. Department of Commerce approved a license to sell Boeing 747
parts to Syria. The jets had been grounded for years due to lack of
parts. The Bush administration had denied the sales due to concerns
that these civilian aircraft were utilized to transport military
materiel from states like Iran and North Korea to Syria and
A few weeks later, the U.S. Treasury Department authorized the
transfer of $500,000 to the Children with Cancer Support Association,
a Syrian charity associated with President Bashar Assad´s wife,
Asma.2 Both decisions were seen as a softening of U.S. sanctions, and
an important U.S. diplomatic overture.
On February 26, a meeting was held at the State Department between
Syrian Ambassador to Washington Imad Mustapha and Acting Assistant
Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman. A few days
later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shook hands and exchanged a
few words with her Syrian counterpart, Walid Mouallem, at a
fundraising summit for Gaza in Sharm el-Sheikh, in what was seen as a
largely symbolic move.3 Then Clinton announced that Ambassador
Feltman and NSC Middle East Director Daniel Shapiro would be
traveling to Damascus.
However, the White House and State Department have taken steps to
lower expectations in Damascus.
The appointment of Feltman as chief interlocutor for the talks was a
grave disappointment for Damascus. Feltman, the former U.S.
Ambassador to Lebanon who served in Beirut in 2004-2007, embodies
Washington´s support for the Cedar Revolution. Indeed, at one point
during his tenure in Lebanon, Walid Mouallem allegedly told UN
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that Feltman "should leave [Lebanon],"
and offered to send the ambassador on a paid vacation to Hawaii.4
The Obama administration has also issued a number of statements
highlighting the barriers to improved bilateral ties with Syria. For
example, State Department Spokesman Gordon Duguid issued a statement
that focused on ongoing U.S. concerns with Damascus,
including "Syria´s support to terrorist groups and networks, Syria´s
pursuit of nuclear and nonconventional weaponry, interference in
Lebanon and a worsening human rights situation."5 The nuclear
reference came just after the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) Board of Governors released a damning report about Syria´s
alleged nuclear facility in Kibar.6
The administration also sought to downplay expectations of immediate
progress on the Syria track. Despite repeated calls by the Assad
regime to return the U.S. Ambassador to Damascus,7 Duguid told VOA on
March 3: "It would in a normal relationship be unusual to not have an
ambassador in place....We have not had a normal relationship for some
time. We are working with the other foreign policy agencies in the
U.S. government to develop a better relationship or the means for a
better relationship with Syria, but this cannot be unreciprocated."8
Duguid´s comments closely echoed those of Secretary Clinton, who also
emphasized the administration´s requirement for tangible responses to
U.S. overtures. As Secretary Clinton said during her announcement of
the Feltman-Shapiro trip to Damascus, the U.S. doesn´t "engage in
discussions for the sake of having a conversation...there has to be a
purpose to them, there has to be some perceived benefit accruing to
the United States and our allies."9
The official U.S. feedback from the Feltman-Shapiro trip to Damascus
was positive, but not overly so. Feltman described the meeting with
Syrian Foreign Minister Mouallem as "constructive," but during a
subsequent press conference he qualified this, saying, "we have areas
where our interests overlap, we have areas where our interests
differ....This is part of a process and we will see how this
Syria Braces for Engagement
The Assad regime made no secret of its preference for Barack Obama
last November.11 Since Obama´s election, Syrian President Bashar
Assad has been making conciliatory statements toward Washington.12 At
the same time, however, Syrian regime spokesmen appear to be setting
preconditions for an effective dialogue. Indeed, several Syrian
journalists with close ties to the regime have written that if
bilateral talks are going to be productive, Washington would first
have to drop the Syria Accountability Act sanctions and remove Syria
from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.13
Syria´s response to the administration´s preliminary overtures has
proved mixed at best. After the 747 licenses were announced, for
example, Damascus looked to parlay the unilateral U.S. concession
into diplomatic gains with Europe. Following the license
announcement, Syrian Minister of Transportation Yarub Badr told SANA
that he hoped this step would "be positively reflected in the ongoing
negotiations with Airbus," suggesting that in light of the shift in
Washington, Europe - which has until now declined to sell airplanes
to Syria - might now proceed with Airbus sales.14
Likewise, although Damascus appeared pleased that a stream of high-
ranking U.S. legislators traveled to Syria in February for meetings
with President Assad, the government-controlled press was extremely
critical of some of the visits. On February 19 - shortly after
Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) visited Syria and just before the
scheduled visit of Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs
Chairmen John Kerry and Howard Berman - the Syrian government press
The Syrian daily Al Watan criticized Cardin for "fail[ing] to
distinguish between terrorism and resistance," asking, "Are these
groups [Hamas and Hizbullah] terrorists? We think not." The
government press also took Cardin to task for attempting to "drive a
wedge between Iran and Syria." If the bilateral relationship is to
improve, the article stated, "changes in Washington, and not
Damascus, must occur." If Senator Kerry and Congressmen Berman "harbor
[ed] similar views," Al Watan suggested, they "should not bother
traveling to Damascus."15
Syria has also expressed its displeasure with the selection of
Ambassador Feltman as the point-man for administration engagement.
Several well-known regime surrogates have recently written quite
critically of Feltman. On February 25, the head of the regime-
affiliated Data and Strategic Studies Center in Damascus, Imad Fawzi
Shueibi, wrote in the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat that "Feltman wants the
preservation of the ‘neo-conservative´ wing in the new
administration, but the former ambassador doesn´t understand the new
political language...he is simply playing outside of the current
American diplomatic field."16
Another regime proxy, Chatham House associate Rime Allaf, complained
that "with messengers like [NSC Middle East Director] Daniel Shapiro
and Jeffrey Feltman, President Obama seems to be warning the Syrians
that he is more willing to play by George W. Bush´s rules than to
turn over a new page."17
U.S. Policy Considerations
U.S. engagement with Damascus is largely focused on exploring the
possibility of splitting Damascus from Tehran. In the unlikely event
this succeeds, several strategic benefits would accrue to Washington.
Presumably, the strategic reorientation of Damascus would entail an
end to Syrian support for Hamas (and other Palestinian terrorist
organizations), Hizbullah, and the movement of insurgents into Iraq,
dramatically improving the situation for Washington´s friends in
Baghdad, Beirut, and Jerusalem - including both Fatah and the
government of Israel.
Such a development would also have a profound impact on the Arab
system, tilting the regional balance away from the Syria-Iran-Qatar
axis in favor of the more moderate, pro-West policies advocated by
U.S. allies in Cairo, Amman, and Riyadh, all of whom are concerned
about Tehran´s progress on the nuclear front. In short, should
Damascus shift away from Tehran´s orbit, the region would be a more
hospitable environment for Washington.
Thus far, the administration is trying to engineer this split without
undercutting its allies in Beirut. In this regard, U.S. diplomatic
engagement with Syria comes at a particularly sensitive time, just a
few months before the Lebanese elections, where the "March 14" ruling
coalition faces a stiff challenge from the Hizbullah-led "March 8"
opposition. To insulate March 14 from the potentially negative
consequences at the polls of a perception of U.S. abandonment,
Washington has taken steps to shore up support for its allies.
For example, before and after traveling to Damascus on March 5, 2009,
Feltman and Shapiro stopped off in Beirut for meetings with March 14
leaders. During February, the administration also issued a series of
statements and made several phone calls to its Lebanese allies. To
mark the fourth anniversary of the Hariri assassination, both the
U.S. president and secretary of state issued statements in support of
Lebanese sovereignty - a codeword for March 14 - and the
administration pledged an additional $6 million in funding for the
international tribunal prosecuting the killers of former Lebanese
premier Rafiq Hariri. (Syria is the leading suspect in the murder.)
On February 14, Secretary of State Clinton and CENTCOM Commander Gen.
David Petraeus phoned March 14 leader Saad Hariri, the son of the
slain former prime minister. In Beirut in March, Feltman described
the establishment of the court as an "important step towards ending
impunity for political assassinations in Lebanon and as a concrete
sign that Lebanon´s sovereignty is non-negotiable."18
In late February/early March, the U.S. Department of Defense hosted
Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) Chief of Staff General Jean Khawaji,
where he met with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike
Mullen and CENTCOM Commander David Petreaus, and toured U.S. defense
facilities. He also received assurances - sure to rile Hizbullah and
Syria, if not Israel - that Washington would provide the LAF with
U.S.-made Raven unmanned aerial vehicles. A statement issued
following a dinner for Khawaji by Mullen stated that U.S. assistance
to the LAF "remain[ed] a cornerstone of U.S. policy on Lebanon."19
Administration measures to reassure Beirut will become increasingly
important should any momentum develop on the bilateral U.S.-Syria
track. Washington will be looking closely for changes in Syrian
behavior - and likely setting benchmarks, calibrated to reciprocal
U.S. measures to either alleviate pressure and/or enhance relations.
In this context, one area where Syria can generate a lot of goodwill
with the Obama administration will be negotiations with Israel.
Where Israel Fits In
In addition to a hoped-for strategic realignment, Washington´s
engagement with Damascus is also driven by the desire to advance
Syrian-Israeli peace.20 At present, given the Hamas-Fatah split in
the Palestinian Authority, in both Israel and Washington some see the
Syrian track to be more realistic and appealing.
For Israel, Washington´s newfound interest in potentially brokering
negotiations is a novel, if not necessarily welcome, development.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was said to have wanted Bush
administration mediation on the Syria track, but the administration -
which had already concluded that the Assad regime was essentially
irredeemable - was not amenable. In the absence of Washington, Olmert
settled for Ankara. However, should the U.S. dialogue with Damascus
progress, Washington might consent to take on an enhanced role in
resumed Israeli-Syrian negotiations.
U.S. participation on the Syria track could conceivably result in
additional pressure for Israeli concessions in advance of any
discernible modifications in Syria´s posture toward Hizbullah and
Hamas. However, Obama administration statements to date have been
focused on the need for changes in Syrian policy. In the absence of
confidence-building measures, it seems unlikely that Washington will
press for unilateral Israeli moves, especially if the government of
Israel continues to insist on the strategic reorientation of Damascus
away from Tehran. In any event, given the chasm dividing Syria and
Israel - particularly regarding the status of Damascus´ bilateral
relations with Iran - U.S. participation is far from a guarantee of
The attitude of Israeli prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu
toward a robust U.S. role in this process is less clearly defined. In
1998, during his previous tenure as prime minister, Netanyahu did
pursue secret negotiations with Syria - and allegedly agreed to cede
the Golan Heights back to Syria.21 During his election campaign in
2009, however, Netanyahu pledged not to return the territory to Syria
for a peace treaty. Nevertheless, Netanyahu has said that he would be
willing to talk to Syria to try and convince Damascus to end support
for Hamas and Hizbullah.22
In Israel, the notion of "returning" the Golan to Syria is quite
unpopular and would have difficulty receiving Knesset approval. A
leading Israeli diplomatic analyst pointed out that achievement of an
agreement would not only entail the strategic realignment of
Damascus, but "would depend on the willingness of the United States
to offer Syria sweeteners, in the form of recognition of its status
in Lebanon, seeing to the closing of the international investigation
of Syrian involvement in the murder of the former prime minister
Rafik Hariri, and provision of economic aid."23
However, there is no indication that the Obama administration would
ultimately be willing to "cede" Lebanon to Syria in order to seal a
deal. Furthermore, the Hariri Tribunal is not subject to a unilateral
U.S. decision to absolve Syria if Damascus participates in peace
negotiations; nor does there appear to be any U.S. sympathy for such
a move at this time.24 Differences between the U.S. and Israel could
eventually emerge on these matters, but likely not in the near
The Obama administration has taken the first steps to engage
Damascus. These steps have been cautious, careful to balance outreach
efforts with precarious U.S. interests in Lebanon. In Damascus, the
new U.S. initiative is being viewed with both smugness - that the
Assad regime has outlasted yet another U.S. president and his
policies - and disappointment that the Obama administration has
proven, at least thus far, more tenacious in its defense of Lebanese
allies and in demands for changes in Syrian policies than had been
In the coming months, Washington will continue to talk with Syria and
test the regime´s intentions. Given the high bar set by Secretary of
State Clinton, if Washington remains committed to its principles, it
will be difficult to envision significant short-term progress. At the
same time, the more invested the U.S. becomes in engagement - even in
the absence of tangible progress - it will become increasingly more
difficult to extricate from the process. Over time, this could lead
to an erosion of the high standards currently articulated by the
administration, and to unwarranted diplomatic gains for Damascus.
For the U.S. and Israel, as the process of engagement continues, the
key will be to keep expectations low. Based on Syria´s track record,
there is little reason to be optimistic that the Obama administration
will succeed where others have failed. Washington should not
necessarily be faulted for trying - and Israel should not retreat
from its quest for peace with its neighbors - as long as the
administration remains cognizant of the nature of the regime.
Damascus today remains a brutal dictatorship, which derives its
regional influence almost exclusively through its support for
terrorism in neighboring states and, by extension, through its 30-
year strategic alliance with Tehran. Changes in Syria´s unhelpful
policies will not result from Washington convincing the Assad regime
of where its interests lie, but rather through a transformation in
Regrettably, given the regime´s demonstrated will to remain in power,
this kind of dramatic transformation is unlikely. Instead, changes in
Syria will come incrementally, if at all. Based on this dynamic, the
question for Washington is no longer whether to talk to Damascus,
but - in the absence of real progress - for how long.
1. Under the terms of the 1944 International Civil Aviation
Conference convened in Chicago, states are obligated to sell airplane
parts for indigenously-produced equipment to ensure "safety of
flight." But the Syrian airplanes technically didn´t fit into this
category, because they were grounded. The U.S. has offered to sell
Tehran parts for its own Boeing 747s. Because Iran has a 747 in
military service, however, Washington has indicated that to ensure
that the parts are not being utilized for non-civilian purposes, the
Iranian repairs should be made in Germany.
2. "Syria Says U.S. Permits Money Transfer to Charity," AP, February
3. At a subsequent press conference, when asked about the handshake,
Mouallem relayed that the meeting was "short but very pleasant," and
that he was "happy it happened." See Alex Spillius, "Hillary Clinton
and Syrian Counterpart Shake Hands as Relations Look to Improve,"
Telegraph, March 3, 2009.
4. See Michael Young, "Some Common Sense from Javier Solana," Beirut
Daily Star, July 5, 2007. http://docs.google.com/Doc?
docid=dfxt6s27_136f56q36&hl=en. For a longer treatment of the topic,
see Tony Badran, "When Syria Threatened Feltman," Across the Bay,
January 17, 2009. http://beirut2bayside.blogspot.com/2008/01/when-
5. Robert Burns, "U.S. to Prod Syrian Envoy on Terrorism, Nukes," AP,
February 20, 2009.
6. "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement with the Syrian
Arab Republic," IAEA Board of Governors, February 19, 2009.
7. See, for example, Bashar Assad´s comments in his February 17,
2009, interview with the Guardian. Ian Black, "Assad Urges U.S. to
Rebuild Diplomatic Road to Damascus," Guardian, February 17, 2009.
obama. Syrian Ambassador to Washington Imad Mustapha echoed this line
during an interview with the Lebanese Ad Diyar on March 4, 2009,
saying, "If Washington sends a new ambassador to Syria, this would
enhance its dialogue position. If it does not take such a step, then
it is its problem." "Syrian Ambassador Says U.S. Wants to Build
Strong Relations with Syria," NowLebanon, March 4, 2009.
8. Meredith Buel, "U.S. Sends Envoys to Syria," VOA News, March 3,
9. Sue Pleming, "U.S. to Send Two Envoys to Damascus as Ties Warm,"
Boston Globe, March 3, 2009.
10. Natasha Mozqovaya and Barak Ravid, "Clinton: U.S. to Push for
Israel-Syria Reconciliation," Ha´aretz, March 9, 2009.
11. See discussion of the Syrian position in Schenker, "Decoupling
Syria from Iran: Constraints on U.S.-Syrian Rapprochement," Jerusalem
Issue Brief, December 3, 2008.
12. See, for example, a February 17, 2009, interview with the British
13. See for example, Sami Moubayed, "Abu Hussein´s Invitation to
Damascus," Asia Times, November 7, 2008.
14. "U.S. Trade Department Agrees to Provide Spare Parts for
Rehabilitating Syrian Airlines, SANA, February 9, 2009.
15. Wadah Abdel Rabo, "Al Matlub min Suriyya," Al Watan, February 19,
16. Imad Fawzi Shueibi, "Bidaya Sakhina Lihiwar Mubashir...," Al
Hayat, February 25, 2009. http://www.daralhayat.net/actions/print.php
17. Rime Allaf, "Sending Mixed Signals," NYT Blog, "Talking to
Syria," March 4, 2009.
18. "Feltman´s Message to Syria: Lebanon is for the Lebanese,"
Naharnet, March 6, 2009.
OpenDocument. See also, "Muthakira al tafahum fi ‘ahda lagna thathiya
yukhrig al tawafiq ‘ala al ta´adilat," An Nahar, March 6, 2009.
19. "Washington to Provide Army with Unmanned Aerial Planes,"
Naharnet, February 27, 2009.
20. During her trip to the region in March 2009, Secretary of State
Clinton said, "The importance of this track, the peace effort, cannot
be overstated." See "Clinton Encourages Israel, Syria Contacts," YNet
News, March 7, 2009. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-
21. Aluf Benn, "Can Israel Make Peace with Syria without Leaving
Golan?" Ha´aretz, February 28, 2009.
22. Lally Weymouth, "Netanyahu´s Middle East Outlook," Washington
Post, February 28, 2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-
23. Aluf Benn, "Can Israel Make Peace?"
24. This school of thought - which appears to be prevalent in some
influential corners of the Israeli military establishment - raises
the question of whether Israel would also advocate cutting a deal on
Syria´s alleged violation of its Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)
David Schenker is a senior fellow in Arab politics at the Washington
Institute for Near East Policy. From 2002 to 2006, he served in the
Office of the Secretary of Defense as country director for Syria,
Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories. He is a member of
the Board of Advisers of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at
the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. (Copyright © 2009 JCPA.
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