“Engagement is Still On,” by Joshua Landis

Israeli soldiers on the Golan

Israeli soldiers on the Golan

Engagement is still on. The United States has invited Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal al-Mekdad to Washington. It is the first time in five years that the US has invited a high ranking Syrian official to make the westward journey. Washington’s desire to improve relations with Damascus has not come to an end, despite the claims of several Kuwaiti and Lebanese papers, which have been insisting that US engagement with Syria is over. Their false reports have been accompanied by a barrage of articles produced by Bush era diplomats proclaiming the failure of Obama’s engagement with Syria. These Syria bashers insist that Damascus only understands force and cannot produce anything positive because its DNA matches that of … well, the Devil. I kid you not. They really say things like this. Read Nicholas Noe’s excellent article: “Revenge rules for Middle East hawks.” He cherry picks their best accusations and demonstrates how silly their logic is.

The spark that set off this spin was the accusation by Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki that Syria was behind the mid-August car bombs that targeted several ministries in Baghdad. No regional leaders seem to take Maliki’s accusations at face value. Indeed, most top Iraqi officials have discounted their own Prime Minister’s claims. Andrew Lee Butters of Time Magazine explains why Iraqis believe that Maliki’s accusations are “politically” motivated.

Al-Hayat pointed out last week how US and Syrian officials continued to meet, despite Maliki’s efforts to stop engagement. It claimed that US officials were happy with the intelligence they had been getting from Syria as a result of engagement.

وعلمت «الحياة» من مصادر موثوقة أن الخارجية الأميركية عقدت اجتماعاً ديبلوماسياً مع الجانب السوري أخيراً في واشنطن، للاستماع إلى وجهة النظر السورية. وبدا أن الجهود الأميركية تنصب على التوفيق بين دعم واشنطن السياسي لرئيس الوزراء نوري المالكي من جهة، واحتواء الخلاف وحصره كي لا يهدد التعاون الأمني والاستخباراتي السوري – الأميركي.

The real problem for Obama’s Mid East policy is that Netanyahu is refusing to pursue peace. The lynch pin of Obama’s Middle East policy is Arab-Israeli peace. Everything else on his agenda flows from his promise that he can deliver on a two state solution. Syria will end its support for militant groups that fight Israel if it gets back the Golan and a credible effort is made to provide a modicum of justice for Palestinians. Iran would lose much of its influence in the region as a result. Ahmedinejad’s anti-Israel rantings would lose their purchase. As it is now, almost every Arab is hoping that Iran will get the bomb – if only to counterbalance Israel’s overwhelming military superiority. It is this superiority that allows it to scoff at both Syria and the Palestinians – and, indeed, scoff at the US. If America could only muster up the courage to apply international law – or something resembling it – to the border problems between Israel and its neighbors, a main source of anti-Americanism in the region would be relieved. Watch Queen Rania’s address at Yale University a few days ago on this subject. It is compelling.

But Obama will not pressure Israel to give up land. Fifty six US congressmen traveled to Israel during the summer recess in order to visit Israeli settlers and tell them that they are misunderstood and just regular folks. House Minority whip Eric Cantor headed the Republican group and House Majority leader Steny Hoyer, who has been to Israel 12 times, led the Democrats. The scale and seniority of the recent visits sent a clear message to President Barack Obama that he should not pressure Israel in any way or he will face bipartisan opposition, opposition that he will not be able to overcome. Tel Aviv insists that the real threat to peace in the Middle East is Iran. Dutifully, Cantor like the others, Democrat or Republican, followed his AIPAC script closely, expressing his concern about the “…focus being placed on settlements and settlement growth when the real threat is the existential threat that Israel faces from Iran .” Read this article by Phil Giraldi about the congressional trips to capture the breath-taking display of American lawmakers’ disdain for their president’s two-state policy. It doesn’t stand a chance. Netanyahu knows Obama will be paralyzed by congress. He is enjoying his power. One can only wonder whether the US president will have a better bargaining position with Israel once Iran has acquired a nuclear bomb?

Mark Landler, writing in the NYTimes: analyzes these “troubling” developments for Obama’s foreign policy. “In Israel,” he writes, ” a right-wing government took power, dealing a blow to Mr. Obama’s hopes.” What Landler does not explain is that one of the main reasons a right wing government was elected by Israelis is because of Obama’s pusillanimous response to the Gaza war in January 2009. By insisting that he would respond the same way as Israel in a similar situation, Obama signalled Israelis to vote for the right wing parties. In essence, he gave Israel carte blanche to solve its Palestinian problem by the use of brute force, which was the campaign promise of Netanyahu, rather than by territorial compromise, which Obama claims to support. Had Obama made it clear that Israel’s use of such lop-sided force in Gaza was unacceptable, Israeli voters may well have thought twice about voting for the far right. Obama might now be trying to work with a more understanding Israeli Prime Minister.

This brings us back to Engagement with Syria. So long as Israel occupies the Golan Heights, Syria and Washington will remain adversaries, and engagement will be very difficult and limited. The question that hovers over Syria-US relations today is whether the Obama administration will turn to the Syrian peace track in the hopes of salvaging something of its Middle East policy. There seems to be no positive movement on the Palestinian peace track, so Obama may be forced to look north.

So far the US has given Syria nothing of real substance as a result of engagement. It has sent officials to Damascus, causing a relaxation of the Bush era isolation policy, but it has refused to drop economic sanctions or to stop proscribing prominent Syrian officials. It has said it will resend an Ambassador but refuses to name a candidate or begin the process with congress.

Equally, Syria has been reluctant to grant the US any concessions of real substance. It has restarted intelligence sharing, but we can presume that nothing major has yet been shared. Lebanon remains paralyzed. Hamas and the PLO still won’t talk to each other. All of this could change, but it is clear that neither side is giving anything away for free.

Syria has only to look at Israel’s ability to undermine Obama’s policies in Palestine to know that US engagement with Syria is likely to remain narrow and difficult. The chances that Netanyahu will give up the Golan are very small. Washington cannot make it do so. In fact, Washington will remain Israel’s number one policeman, ensuring that the military balance of power in the region remains skewed firmly in Israel’s favor. Washington will continue to deny Syria its right to resist the occupation of its land and will persist in naming its efforts to do so, terrorism. Without being able to put the Golan on the table, Washington has only sanctions to trade for Syrian concessions – and even sanctions are subject to congressional approval. Obama has limited ability to maneuver.

The seeming failure of America’s Palestine policy means that Damascus, while hoping for the best, will expect little. US diplomats are constantly reminding Syrian officials that it is not in their power to rescind sanctions. They invoke the strength of the pro-Israel lobby in congress as an excuse for their impotence. What is Syria to make of this? Naturally, Syrian officials are loath to do favors for Americans who claim to be able to do little in return. Why spend Syrian diplomatic capital in Beirut, Gaza, or elsewhere? in exchange for honeyed words?

US-Syrian engagement is still on, even if it moves slowly. Sanctions give Obama some bargaining power with Damascus – bargaining power he seems to lack with Israel.

[End Landis analysis]

News Round Up
Foreign Direct Investment in Syria reached USD 2.1 billion in 2008, an increase of 70 percent compared to the previous year, according to UNCTAD. (Read the Syria Report)

(From L to R) Lebanons former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Saudi Petroleum Minister Ali al-Naimi, Yemens President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Saudi King Abdullah, Syrias President Bashar Al Assad and Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah attend the opening ceremony of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Jeddah

Siniora and Bashar al-Assad come together at the opening ceremony of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Jeddah.

Abdullah-Bashar talks ‘reflect warm relations’ : JEDDAH: The talks between Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah and Syrian President Bashar Assad in Jeddah on Wednesday were distinguished for their warmth and positive results, high-level Syrian. Also see: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “stole the spotlight” in Saudi: And even Siniora enjoyed a very warm 4 minute personal discussion with Asad.

Syrian rappers hop to controversy
2009-09-25, Al Jazeera

Sham MCs, a collective of nine rappers, and their debut album Crossword has provoked more than a few cross words in Damascus.This is the modern crashing head-on into the traditional. The album launch was held in a centuries-old, traditionally …

George Moukhtar, Syria’s fabled goal keeper of the national team in the seventies, passed away. All of us above 40 used to be big fans, and were sad to hear the news.

The Pulse

Ynet reports that Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, sent a postcard to Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon saying “We said that we will not place stumbling blocks in front of any effort to achieve an independent Palestinian state in the 4 June 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital.”

Turkish Chief Rabbi Haliva Met with al-Assad September 24, 2009

Turkish Rabbi Yitzchak Haliva reportedly met with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Kav HaChadash reports.

It appears Turkey’s prime minister invited religious leaders from Turkey to join him and al-Assad in Saudi Arabia to mark the end of Ramadan.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan explained he wanted local religious leaders to get to know the Syrian leader. Rabbi Haliva met with Assad together with Erdogan. Assad reportedly told the rav there is Jewish community in Syria, resulting in the rabbi replying that he is aware because his community sends them matzos for Pessach. In addition, he plays a vital role in providing “religious services” like schita and bris milah.

The rabbi reportedly called on the Syrian leader to do everything possible towards advancing peace with Israel to bring an end to the orphans on both sides. The Turkish leader added that he is doing his utmost towards achieving this goal.


Authoritarianisms, Regime Resilience and State-Society Relations: Comparing Political Change in Syria and Iran: Deadline 30 October 2009

Steven Heydemann (U.S. Institute for Peace and Georgetown University) and Reinoud Leenders (University of Amsterdam) are pleased to invite you to submit a proposal for writing a paper within the framework of a joint research effort on Authoritarianisms, Regime Resilience and State-Society Relations: Comparing Political Change in Syria and Iran. The paper is to be presented in a project workshop and will be considered for publication in an edited volume or a special edition of a major academic journal. The project is part of the Knowledge Programme Civil Society in West Asia based at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.*

“American ambassador will return to Damascus” mideastwire.com

An-Nahar, a Lebanese daily reported on September 18, 2009, carried the following opinion piece by Sarkis Naoum: “An Arabic media outlet carried a few days ago news…about the relations between Syria and the USA saying that these relations are reverting back to being cold after they had started to take a positive direction when President Obama began implementing a policy of dialogue with Syria,the news about calling off the return of American ambassador to Damascus is totally untrue as the State Department in Washington is still looking for the most fit diplomat to represent the US in Damascus, and this is not an easy task…as many have refused this mission for many reasons including the closure of a school that used to host children of American diplomats in Syria by the Syrian authorities…In short, all this means that Obama’s administration will send an ambassador to Damascus in the near future…but this does not mean that the ambassador will be able to carry out his administration’s expectations as his ability is dependant on the openness of the “Syrian administration”…

“In the meantime, Washington might slow down its dialogue with Syria while trying to make [Syria] understand that luring [the US] into a deal on the expense of Lebanon will not be possible…”

In the Pulse

“In the indirect negotiations last year between Israel and Syria, mediated by Turkey, Syrian President Bashar Assad asked the Israelis for tangible answers in relation to six topographical coordinates. Essentially, this means that Assad asked the Israelis to draw the border. As Ofer Shelah in Ma’ariv reports:
At issue is not the somewhat vague “Rabin deposit,” certainly not promises that Ron Lauder gave in Netanyahu’s name. At issue are negotiations from a year ago, and if they resume, will be from a point from which there is no return. Therefore, the decision on whether to renew the negotiations is almost identical to a decision to conclude it with an agreement.

A key player in any future Israel-Syrian dialogue is IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. Ashkenazi, former OC Northern Commander and a member of the Shepherdstown talks under Ehud Barak has been intimately involved in the Syrian track. Apropos Shepherdstown, according to Shelah:
The chief of staff shares the feelings of quite a few people-that an historic opportunity was missed. Ashkenazi was among those who shaped the concept that the IDF presented at discussions: an agreement with Syria could be the central factor in fundamentally changing around the situation in the region, from Beirut to Tehran.
In his closer, Shelah intimates:

There is no reason to think that his position has changed: the IDF is talking, at this time, of the fact that Syria’s deteriorating economic situation-it will soon, it seems, change from an oil exporter to an importer-is only pushing Assad more toward the West and creating another opportunity to remove it from the circle of hostility against Israel and isolate it from Iran.

Severe drought affects 1.3 million in Syria
By Dania Akkad | Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, from the September 18, 2009 edition

More than 800,000 people have lost their livelihoods in a four-year dry spell exacerbated by climate change and rising food prices. Almost half of them live in urban makeshift camps.

Deraa, Syria – The acute drought that has driven an estimated 300,000 Syrian farmers, herders, and their families to abandon home for makeshift urban camps may not be the worst in the region’s history; the Fertile Crescent has often experienced cycles of drought.

But now climate change, an exploitation of water resources, and higher food prices brought about by the global financial crisis have all severely sharpened the impact of this dry spell, now in its fourth year. The numbers of Syrians affected – an estimated 1.3 million, 803,000 of whom have entirely lost their livelihoods – point to a serious humanitarian crisis.

With Syria’s population expected to triple by 2025, the severity of the drought presents yet another challenge for a leadership isolated internationally and struggling at home to maintain a broken state system while slowly introducing capitalism.

“It’s going to underline for the everyday person the vulnerabilities and inadequacies of the Syrian state,” says Joshua Landis, codirector of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies.

What to Read on Syrian Politics,Foreign Affairs. By STEVEN HEYDEMANN,

Obama Aides Started Group Pressuring Siemens on Iran
By Lorraine Woellert

Sept. 22 (Bloomberg) — A group co-founded by two of President Barack Obama’s Middle East advisers is pressuring corporations to abandon business with Iran as the U.S. prepares for talks aimed at keeping the country from developing nuclear weapons.

United Against Nuclear Iran will launch television and print advertising today to coincide with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s trip to New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly. The group lists Dennis Ross, a National Security Council adviser, and Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy on Afghanistan, among its founders; both have now severed ties with it.

The New York-based group wants Congress to ban government contracts to companies, such as Munich-based Siemens AG, that do business in Iran. It has told businesses they can avoid protests and letter-writing campaigns if they sever ties.

“When we run a campaign, companies come squealing,” said the group’s president, Mark Wallace. “I’m not out to get these companies, we just want them to change their behavior.”

Obama’s strategy, in contrast, stresses diplomacy backed by a threat of stricter sanctions if Iran doesn’t cooperate.

“The president is trying to approach this thing with some degree of nuance and sophistication,” said William Reinsch, president of the Washington-based National Foreign Trade Council, which represents the largest U.S. exporters.

‘Harder Line’

The advocacy group’s approach is “designed to try to force him into pursuing a much harder line than he’d like,” Reinsch said. ….

Aluf Benn in Haaretz Thanks to FLC

…. Two major differences were apparent Tuesday between Obama’s summit and those hosted by his predecessor, George W. Bush (in Aqaba in 2003 and in Annapolis in 2007). The Bush administration put an emphasis on synchronizing statements and agreements between the two sides. As soon as the summits were over, the Israelis and Palestinians were sent on their way to hold talks on their own – with American supervisors.

However, Obama does it differently. He read his statement as a command directed at the two sides, and not as a joint statement. The president is planning to lead active American mediation efforts, spearheaded by his Middle East envoy George Mitchell. The envoy’s first task will be relaunching the peace talks.

In his statement, Obama explained that the Americans are not interested in suggestions raised by Israel which mainly benefit Netanyahu. He also made clear that Washington does not accept Abbas’ refusal to enter into talks until Israel completely halts settlement construction. The President is satisfied with Netanyahu’s (so far privately made) promises to limit construction, and places the resumption of peace talks at the top of his priority list.

Comments (56)

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51. Off the Wall said:

To my fellow Syrian expats on SC

Occasionally on the pages of SC and more often on other blogs we face the accusation of sitting comfortably and enjoying luxurious life be it in the west or in the gulf countries while discussing the pains and suffering of our country as if such disqualifies us from making any opinion. Independent of where each one of us stands on the political spectrum, I urge all of us not to fall into this “guilt” trap, whose aim is primarily to make whatever argument each one of us make seem irrelevant. I myself have fallen into this guilt feeling for far longer that I should have, and it was SC and all of you that took me out of that stupid feeling and gave me a renewed sense of belonging and of value. I urge you all first to refrain from using this argument to silence your interlocutors and to avoid falling in the trap of becoming defensive when such argument is hurled against you. No matter what you are, or where you stand, your voice matters, and your argument must and should be made.

Sorry for the seemingly patronizing tone, but I had to say that. Now, back to my couch, which seem to illicit some strange responses today 🙂

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October 3rd, 2009, 6:02 pm


52. Akbar Palace said:

we face the accusation of sitting comfortably and enjoying luxurious life be it in the west or in the gulf countries while discussing the pains and suffering of our country


I may have missed it, but what are the “pains and suffering” of your country, Syria? Can you list them in order of importance?


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October 3rd, 2009, 6:21 pm


53. Off the Wall said:

I meant to say affairs

For pains and suffering, please use the search system coded by Alex. In fact it can help you avoid the customary repetition and remind you of answers you have repeatedly received to your repeated questions. I tried it, and it has kept my own comments in check.

On a personal note, while I am not concerned at our rare agreements, i am getting a little concerned of my own adoption of your no-prisoners taken style every once in a while. I guess on that, I owe you thanks 🙂

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October 3rd, 2009, 6:33 pm


54. jad said:

Dear OTW,
What you wrote in #51 is touching, and I can see the honesty in every word there, I’m just surprised that you really think of the ‘repeated’ ‘boring’ ‘primitive’ comments we read on SC.
For me, all comments that has nothing new, productive, proved by numbers is nothing but ‘3lak’ and I wont even bother myself replying to it rationally.
I discover that the two letter of B and S will be more efficient and I’m being genrouse writing them to whoever deserve them.
And that is my take!

I think you may be right, you defiantly hit a nerve..wink wink…

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October 3rd, 2009, 7:53 pm


55. why-discuss said:


In terms of the Arabs, I see Iran and the extremists who will never accept the State of Israel, and the Arab Moderates who are privately happy when the extremists make life difficult for Israel and who are also afraid to stick their necks out to foward the peace process.

I disagree with you about putting moslems extremists and Iran in the same category. Iran does not claim or rejoice of the murder of jews or Israelis and their regular army never killed Israelis, did they? Moslems extremists (some coming from Iran too) want to terrorize and kill enough Israelis as to force the others to leave (the Talibans are doing the same now with the ‘occupiers’ in Afghanistan, it is a war of attrition)
What Iran say they want is the cancellation of the state of Israel as it is now and the return to pre-1948 status because they believe the division of the land done then was unjust and non-democratic as it was forced on the palestinians without asking their opinion. They add that the UN should then call for a referendum for the people who are now on these lands (Jews and Arabs) to decide about the kind of state they want. It may seem an utopia but this is what they want to see. Ahmadinejad’s declaration have been intentionaly amputated and distorted: ‘Cancel’ is not ‘annihilate’ or ‘wipe from the map’.

I agree with you about the extremists who would not accept the State of Israel and the hypocrisy of the ‘moderate states’

I think I fit in the last category. I am neither a stategist nor a politician so I have no precise idea how to get there. There is so much suspicions, resentments, arrogance, hatred, blood, money interests involved that I find the eventual tasks to reach that goal discouragingly daunting. The petty politicians in the present local and international scene lack the abilities, the vision and the power to come up with a valid plan. I believe it may takes decades before we see some harmony in the region.

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October 3rd, 2009, 11:45 pm


56. “Syria continues Westward shift as US works to curb Iran’s regional influence” « Iran in the World said:

[…] will keep US-Syria rapprochement “limited” and allow Tehran to justify its nuclear aspirations (Syria Comment).      Chris Phillips points out that Turkey’s important role in […]

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October 5th, 2009, 11:20 pm


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