Posted by Joshua on Saturday, March 7th, 2009
Predictions are that the US will announce an ambassador for Syria in the coming weeks and military sharing will begin. The only thing that could forestall this is if the US decides to withhold an ambassador until the June 7 elections in Lebanon are completed to America’s satisfaction. This would be silly, however, because the language coming out of Foggy Bottom is that diplomacy is not a reward doled out for good behavior, or as Mr. Feltman put it on Friday while speaking in Lebanon: engaging Syria “is a tool of our diplomacy” and “not a reward.” Rather the US seeks “to use engagement in order to address issues of mutual concern.” Washington has a lot of mutual concerns with Syria: Arab-Israeli Peace, a Palestinian unity government, border issues with Iraq, Lebanon, intelligence sharing on al-Qaida, Kurds, relations with Iran, arming Hizbullah, and the list goes on. The need to engage is BIG.
Rami Khouri in the Daily Star (Thanks FLC)
“…What we have going on, I suspect, is that the two leading proponents of Western arrogance in the form of colonialism and neocolonialism – the United States and the United Kingdom – have recognized that their approach has failed, and that they are better off having normal diplomatic talks and negotiations with the three leading centers of resistance to them, namely Iran, Syria and Hizbullah. The pace of change in American policies, in particular, has been impressive since President Barack Obama took office six weeks ago, though it will take some time for the results of the current shifts to materialize….
One of the fascinating sub-plots of what is occurring is the temporary sidelining of Israel, which had long seriously influenced, if not often effectively dictated, American contacts and policies in the Middle East. It is noteworthy that the US and UK in various degrees are talking with Iran, Syria and Hizbullah, when Israel had worked overtime for some years to prevent such normal contacts. It is probably only a matter of time before the US, UK and others open talks with Hamas also….
What does this mean? For one thing, it means that the United States is becoming more humble,….. this means the US is also engaging with the rest of the world on a more normal basis, which requires negotiating relationships with other countries based on mutual interests…”
Mr. Assad has said that he has long wanted to improve ties with the United States but that he was hampered by the Bush administration.
Speaking in Lebanon on Friday, Mr. Feltman said that engaging Syria “is a tool of our diplomacy” and “not a reward.”
He said that the United States had a long list of bilateral and regional concerns with Syria. The visit “is an opportunity for us to start addressing these concerns and using engagement as a tool to promote our objectives in the region,” he said.
Imad Moustapha, Syria’s ambassador to the United States, said that he noticed a change in the Americans’ tone in his recent meeting with Mr. Feltman in Washington. “They’ve given up on the idea of Syria has to do this and that,” he said, characterizing current discussions as an “in-depth exploratory dialogue” by the Americans after the failure of their past policies.
“We found a lot of common ground today,” the acting secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs said without elaborating.
But he struck a conciliatory tone.
“The Syrians have concerns with us as well. I’m sure the Syrians will be looking at choices we will be making in the future just as we will be looking at choices Syria is making,” he said.
Feltman said the talks in Damascus “built on” the February 26 meeting he had in Washington with Syrian ambassador to the United States Imad Mustafa.
He added they were “consistent with the message” from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who “have stated the desire to use engagement with all countries in the region in order to address issues of mutual concern.”
The high-level visit to Damascus was a “concrete example of that commitment,” he added.
Feltman called for patience when asked if the Obama administration wanted to revive Turkish-brokered indirect talks that began between Syria and Israel last year — to which the administration of former President George W. Bush was lukewarm.
“The United States wants a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace,” Feltman said, stressing peace and not process.
“There will be a Syrian-Israel track at some point.”
But “at this point, though, we need to be a bit patient” as Israel worked on forming a new government after elections last month, he said.
George Mitchell, the main Middle East envoy, was focusing for now on the Palestinian-Israeli track of the negotiations, but “his mandate does include comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace,” Feltman said.
“So we do want to see forward momentum on the Syrian-Israeli track at the time when the parties are ready … for this.”
Besides the envoys and Muallem, the talks involved the U.S. charge d’affaires in Damascus Maura Connelly, Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad and Bussaina Shaaban, President Bashar al-Assad’s adviser on political and media affairs.
The group met for three and a half hours before Feltman had a private meeting with Muallem.
Feltman added that he and Shapiro would return to Beirut on Sunday for more talks with Lebanese authorities before heading back to the United States via Europe.
Syria’s ambassador to Britain, Sami Khiyami, told the BBC before Saturday’s meeting: “Syria is the gateway to peace in the Middle East.
“I think the American government, Mr Obama personally, has to take care of the aspirations of the Arab peoples and not only of the Israeli people.”
The last senior US official to visit Damascus was Richard Armitage, then deputy secretary of state, in January 2005.
The choice of envoys seems to signal that Washington is taking a tough but serious approach to its engagement, says BBC’s correspondent.
Dan Shapiro’s bio is here on Sourcewatch: “Shapiro’s ascendance coincided with Obama’s emphasis on proving his pro-Israel credentials in the form of several speeches in front of Jewish audiences. … He is a longtime political operative in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, particularly with Democratic members of Congress. Shapiro worked briefly at the United States National Security Council during the Clinton administration under Sandy Berger. He then worked first as legislative advisor and then deputy chief (mostly on foreign policy issues) to Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). He is touted as: “… a foreign policy specialist with particular expertise in the Middle East.”  In 2007, Shapiro emerged as an advisor/strategist (“work on Middle East issues and Jewish outreach”) for Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and was named vice president of Timmons and Company, a Washington D.C. lobbying firm with cable-industry clients.
James D. Besser writing February 16, 2007, for The Jewish Week outlines the effect Shapiro’s recruitment will have:
With millions of campaign dollars at stake as well as votes in a handful of key primary states, the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is poised to dramatically increase its Jewish outreach. That includes the recruitment of top Jewish donors and advisers, and an expected major speech on Israel and the Middle East that a Democratic insider said “will set the baseline and establish Sen. Obama as a reliable, strong supporter of Israel.”
“Thirty years ago, Syria was lagging behind but today the Syrian elite is sick and tired of that,” says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. “Their hearts are not in the socialist struggle, their hearts are in getting the stock market up and running and getting rich.” Landis says Syria would not suddenly stop supporting Hamas and Hizbollah but a deal could be struck in which Damascus renounced support for Iraqi insurgents – now that the Obama administration has set a troop withdrawal timetable – in return for the lifting of US sanctions.