More Tooing and Frowing on Engagement with Syria


David Shenker accuses Syria (copied below) of trying to divide Washington officials because, as he explains, the Syrians came to Washington during the Jewish high holidays in the hope of talking only to Gentiles. He writes:

“Mekdad landed in Washington on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, a time when most Jews — including those employed by the US government — were in synagogue.”

I guess we are to assume that the Syrians have planted an anti-Jewish agent in the State Department to help them schedule meetings on Jewish holidays? Shenker assures us, however, that the sneaky Syrian plan is not working. They cannot turn Gentile against Jew in the Obama administration because the administrators in charge of the Levant – Shapiro, Feltman, and Mitchell – Jew and Gentile alike – are on the same page. It is heartening to hear that sectarianism is a Middle Eastern disease incommunicable on these shores.

Shenker argues that no one in Washington will dismantle sanctions before Syria has relinquished some cards.  Why? Shenker assures us that: “there is more agreement than disagreement on the nature of the Assad regime” among Obama administrators. Shenker believes that the Syrian regime is just bad and does not want peace for the Golan. We are all familiar with this tune.

Unfortunately, Syrians return this skepticism in spades. Syrians want to first see a decisive move by Obama on sanctions. Syrians are in agreement about the nature of the US administration – they are doubtful that it will dismantle sanctions even if Syria delivers on issues Washington wants. Syrians reason that just as Obama backed down on his pledge to stop Israeli settlement expansion because of staunch opposition in congress, he will back down on dismantling Syria sanctions, which are supported by a broad coalition of Jews and Gentiles in congress.

For WINEP, however, the key is that “Washington is showing little interest in pursuing a mediation role in Israeli-Syrian negotiations,” which means that Obama will not push Israel to return the Golan. If Shenker is correct, Obama’s stated goal of pushing for a conclusion to the Arab-Israeli conflict is all but dead. The Palestinian track is moribund. He backed away from his initial tough stance on settlement expansion in the West Bank after 56 congressmen flew to Israel in August to show support for Netanyahu against their own president. Their montra while there was “settlers are not a problem, Iran is.” If Obama will not seek a reversal to Israel’s occupation of the Golan, there is nothing left to advance.

So can Sarkozy make a difference?

Patrick Seale

Patrick Seale

Patrick Seale explains that President Sarkozy is not on the same page as the Obama administration on the topic of sanctioning Syria. He still believes that a two state solution for Israel and Palestinians can be pushed through, which would help resolve outstanding differences between Syria and France. He is willing to go hard on Iran in order to win a better hearing for his more generous policy toward Syria. France and Europe, however, have precious little power to influence either Israel or the US on the Golan or sanctioning Syria. So what can France hope to gain by being an advocate for Syria? It will get preferential treatment for French firms in Syria; it improve the environment for French schools in Syria and for its cultural policy of spreading the French language. French is being made an obligatory secondary language in Syrian schools, Seale explains.

Francois Burgat

François Burgat

Hopefully Sarkozy’s policy will also lead to an expansion of the IFPO – France’s premier institute for graduate studies and research in Syria. The director – François Burgat  – is extremely talented and unlike many academics is a gifted administrator with ambitious plans to expand the IFPO’s Arabic training program, which is the best in Syria, and possibly the entire Middle East. The IFPO remains the Mecca of academic life in Damascus for foreigners and many Syrians. If the IFPO can get a boost from Sarkozy’s policies, France will have done well.

Sarkozy’s Love Affair with Syria and Lebanon
by Patrick Seale

France seems intent on becoming the dominant external power in Syria and Lebanon – commercially, politically and culturally, says Patrick Seale.

In a series of diplomatic moves, France has managed to establish itself as the most influential external power in Syria and Lebanon, outdistancing other European countries, as well as the United States itself.

France’s courtship of Syria began in 2008 when President Nicolas Sarkozy invited President Bashar al-Asad to the launch of the Union for the Mediterranean in Paris on 13 July, followed the next day by his attendance at the high-profile 14 July military parade.

This was a major event marking Syria’s rehabilitation as a Middle East power that could neither be ignored nor isolated, as former U.S. President George W. Bush had attempted to do. In this past year, numerous ministers from Europe and elsewhere have made their way to Damascus, signaling the end of Syria’s isolation.

The Union for the Mediterranean is one of Sarkozy’s pet projects. By means of major infrastructural projects, it aims to build bridges between the European Union and countries bordering the Mediterranean. The underlying hope is that such joint projects will serve to advance Arab-Israeli peace.

The Franco-Syrian love affair was taken a stage further this past week with a highly successful visit to Paris by Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem. It ended with what he described as a “very constructive” meeting with President Sarkozy. French sources speak not just of total confidence between the two countries, but of real “complicity.”

France describes Syria as a “key partner,” with which it enjoys “excellent bilateral relations in all fields.” France is to urge its EU partners to sign Syria’s Association Agreement with the European Union as soon as possible.

In Paris, Muallem, in turn, spoke of France’s important role in promoting Arab-Israeli peace, and in contributing to security and stability in both Iraq and Lebanon. France and Syria were agreed, he declared, that Lebanon should have a national government as soon as possible, but that the Lebanese alone should decide its composition. Syria and France wanted a government “made in Lebanon,” he said.

On the cultural front, a second French school is opening in Damascus, while the French language is to be made a compulsory subject in Syrian schools from the third grade up to university entrance.

Hardly had Muallem left the French capital than Sarkozy this weekend despatched Claude Guéant, the powerful secretary-general of the Elysée Palace, to Damascus, and Henri Guéno, his chief diplomatic adviser, to Beirut.

As well as courting Syria, Sarkozy, however, has been the sharpest European critic of Syria’s close ally, Iran — and in particular of Iran’s nuclear programme. This French position is evidently intended to reassure Israel.

What then is France’s game plan?

France seems intent on becoming the dominant external power in Syria and Lebanon — commercially, politically and culturally — a position it enjoyed between the two world wars, when it was granted a League of Nations Mandate over the two countries.

At the same time, Sarkozy is much concerned with safeguarding Israel’s security (although he has little sympathy for extreme right-wing members of Israel’s government, such as the racist and intemperate foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.) Sarkozy believes that the present situation is untenable and that strong international accompaniment, including guarantees for both sides, will be necessary if the Arab-Israeli peace process is to have a chance of success.

Sarkozy is determined to play a prominent role in crafting a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement — including the creation of a Palestinian state which, in his view, is the only guarantee of Israel’s long-term survival.

Worried that U.S. President Barack Obama may falter in his peace-making, Sarkozy believes that another summit meeting of the Union for the Mediterranean could be a fruitful way of bringing Israeli and Arab leaders together.

France lent its support to Turkey’s mediation between Syria and Israel, a mediation interrupted by Israel’s assault on Gaza last December/January. In Paris, Muallem declared that Syria was ready to resume indirect contacts with Israel, through Turkey’s good offices.

Syria’s greatly improved relations with France and other EU members have been matched by its broad reconciliation with the Arab world. Of this, the most prominent signal was President Bashar al-Asad’s recent visit to Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdallah is expected to pay a return visit to Damascus as early as this coming week.

In Paris, Foreign Minister Muallem made a clear profession of faith. “Syria,” he declared, “is an Arab country, and is proud of it. This is a reality we live with every day. We have close relations with all Arab states, including members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.” But, he added, Syria also had good relations with Iran, a country which had given firm support to the Palestinian cause since 1979.

“When the world boycotted and isolated Syria,” Muallem said, “some Arab and European countries followed suit. But Iran chose to strengthen its relations with us.” He added, however, that the security of the Arab Gulf was a red line for Syria. Iran needed to reassure the Gulf states that its nuclear programme was peaceful.

Regarding the West’s conflict with Iran over its nuclear programme, Muallem said: “We want a solution through negotiations and not by means of sanctions or confrontation.” On this subject alone, France and Syria do not see eye to eye.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.

Who Decides on the Levant in Washington?
David Schenker
Daily Star
October 6, 2009

Last week, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Feisal Mekdad travelled to Washington for meetings at the State Department and White House. While the Obama administration extended the invitation some time ago, the timing of Mekdad’s arrival seemed more than mere coincidence. Mekdad landed in Washington on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, a time when most Jews — including those employed by the US government — were in synagogue. For the Syrians, the fortuitous timing of the trip practically assured the absence of senior American Jewish officials from meetings at Foggy Bottom.

Whether the timing was planned or happenstance, it highlighted an ongoing theme in Washington’s diplomatic engagement with Damascus. Since the inauguration of the Obama administration, in an effort to improve its diplomatic position, the Assad regime has sought to determine its American interlocutors. Indeed, from day-one, Damascus expressed concern with the appointment of the National Security Council’s senior Middle East adviser, Daniel Shapiro, and the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, two allegedly Jewish “hardliners” on Syria. (While Shapiro is, in fact, Jewish, Feltman is a Protestant).

Later, the Syrians sought to sideline Feltman and Shapiro in hopes of conducting talks with the administration’s peace envoy George Mitchell, who Damascus presumably believed would be more sympathetic. More recently, Syria’s ambassador in Washington, Imad Mustafa, suggested during an interview with the London-based Saudi daily Ash-Sharq al-Awsat that President Barak Obama himself would determine Washington’s Syria policy by “using his executive authority to freeze the implementation of the important clauses in the sanctions laws [affecting Syria].”

Despite Syrian efforts to shape the environment of the engagement, regardless of the individual interlocutor, the Obama administration has presented a unified front it its representations to Damascus. While the Syrians have succeed to some extent in blurring the three tracks of the United States’ engagement — the Iraqi border security initiative led by US Central Command, the Lebanon and Syrian-support-for-terrorism basket headed by Feltman, and Mitchell’s peace process track — Damascus has not driven a wedge in what has been, to date, a fairly coherent policy.

Today, while there appears to be some minor divergence of opinion in the Obama administration regarding Syria, there is more agreement than disagreement on the nature of the Assad regime and what is required to move ahead. The policy is based on the widespread administration consensus that despite conciliatory US gestures, until now Damascus has done precious little to reciprocate. Eight months on, the administration — which came to office on a platform of engagement — has been chastened.

Notwithstanding Syrian efforts to shuffle the deck, the key administration actors focused on Lebanon and Syria today remain Feltman, Shapiro and Mitchell. Dennis Ross, who months ago shifted from the State Department to the NSC, does not appear to be actively involved in the Lebanon-Syria portfolio. Within the military, the commander of Central Command, General David Petraeus, and, to a lesser extent, the top commander in Iraq, General Raymond Odierno, have also emerged as key voices on Syria. Despite philosophical divergences in approach — Petraeus, for example, is said to favor senior-level talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad — the administration is under no illusions as to the chances for success.

…..Based on the lack of progress on all the key issues, however, significant US concessions to Damascus — such as the lifting of these sanctions — remain off the table. Meanwhile, at least in part due to the lack of bilateral US-Syria progress, Washington is showing little interest in pursuing a mediation role in Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

As with Iran, the Obama administration engagement initiative with Syria has yet to bear fruit. In spite of the Assad regime’s efforts to divide and conquer Washington’s Syria policymakers, for the time being at least, the administration continues to read from the same sheet of music. Stuck with Feltman, Shapiro, and Mitchell, and a coordinated US policy on Syria, Damascus, if it truly wants to improve relations with Washington, may actually have to change some of its policies.

George Ajjan writes: A great documentary for all Syrian Americans: Mustapha Akkad:  From Aleppo to Hollywood

Syria To Raise $4B On Local, Intl Mkts
By Maria Abi-Habib

ISTANBUL (Zawya Dow Jones)–Syria plans to raise $4 billion through a mixture of bonds and loans on local and international markets, the country’s central
bank governor said Tuesday. The money will be used mostly for energy projects but also for other infrastructure plans, Adib Mayaleh told Zawya Dow Jones in an interview.
“Through a partnership with the European Investment Bank, or another institution, we will (raise) $2 billion externally,” Mayaleh said. “The loans will be raised from international banks in one year.”

Mayaleh added that over the next three years, the central bank plans to issue $1 billion worth of bonds to local Syrian banks and another $1 billion will be raised on international bond markets. “Maybe in a year we’ll issue the $1 billion bond…on international markets,” he said. Syria is slowly opening up its economy to international banks. The move to
raise capital will help boost the country’s profile internationally, said Mayaleh.

Mayaleh said earlier Tuesday that the country will raise foreign ownership limits in Syrian banks to 60% from 49%. The move will help “Syria’s economy open up internationally,” he said.

Comments (56)

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51. Shami said:

And btw, WD ,most of the old churches that you see in Syria are from the Ottoman era.
You should visit what was once the christian districts of Istanbul,Aleppo ,Smyrna ,Mardin,Damascus,Hama,Homs,Jerusalem,Nazareth,Acre in order to get an idea of the power of the Ottoman christians.Until the end of the Empire ,50% of Istanbul inhabitants the capitale of the empire remained christians ,they lived in the most beautiful palaces on the bosphorus as neighbors of the ottoman sultans,these palaces(and their surrounding mosques,the one you can see in Alex’s site , istanbul page ) have been built by armenian architects ,the Balyan brothers among others.
One of the most importan composer in the classical syrian music is the Stambulian Armenian Tatyos Efendi :

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October 11th, 2009, 3:48 am


52. Shami said:

they lived in the most beautiful palaces ….i meant the rich among them , a minority of privileged christians for sure but in general as Corm noticed ,the christians were richer than the muslims in the ottoman cities.

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October 11th, 2009, 7:08 am


53. Shami said:

JERUSALEM, Oct. 11 (Xinhua) — Turkish military decided to cancel a joint air force drill with Israel scheduled to begin on Monday, due to opposing Israel’s military operation against the Palestinian Gaza Strip last winter, Israeli newspapers reported Sunday.

“The exercise was postponed due to a Turkish decision to change the composition of the participants and not allow the Israel Air Force to participate,” local daily The Jerusalem Post quoted a statement from the spokesman office of Israeli army as saying.

The international air force exercise, dubbed Anatolian Eagle, had been scheduled for this week with Turkey, the United States, Israel, Italy and NATO forces as participants, said the report.

In recent years, Israel and Turkey have carried out several military exercises alongside the United States in the Mediterranean Sea.

But Turkey informed Israel last week that Israel was banned from the drill because Ankara was afraid that the Israeli planes that took part in the Israeli Operation Cast Lead in Gaza may join the drill, Israeli defense sources told the daily.

Instead of an international exercise, Ankara decided to carry out the drill alone. “Anatolian Eagle Exercise will be executed as planned between Oct. 12 and 23, (but) multinational participation is postponed,” a statement of the Turkish military said.

The cancellation of the joint drill is seen by Israeli media as another sign of the “continued tensions” between the two countries.

Analysts said that the deterioration in bilateral relations in part because of a perceived Israeli failure to address the peace process more seriously, and a new direction of Turkish foreign policy with Israeli-Palestinian conflict topping the agenda in the Middle East.

Comments since earlier this year from Turkish leaders are far more critical of Israel, particularly in the wake of Israel’s major operation in Gaza last winter.

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October 11th, 2009, 8:54 am


54. why-discuss said:


I never denied that they were positive aspects to the ottoman empire, especially toward minorities. Nevertheless post war Turkey was not particulary sympathetic to christians and arabs and it was often confrontational. It is only recently, under a turkish government more inclined religiously that there is change. For the good of everybody, I am sure.
As for Iran, I just don’t understand why a “ideological rafidi theocracy, by definition it’s an enemy” and an ideological wahhabi theocracy is not? please enlighten me. On what basis do you make such assertion? is it based on your perception that a certain sect in Islam detain the truth and the others are heretics? I consider this attitude as wrong, arrogant and damaging.
In the 21 th century political affiliation are based more on economical and national interest not on love or hate based on religion: this concept must be eradicated for countries in the region to grow. We have seen the result of such primitive perceptions in the destructive civil war in Lebanon.

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October 11th, 2009, 8:58 am


55. MONTAGNARD said:


You got my curiosity going with your comment in 51 above:
“You should visit what was once the christian districts of
Istanbul, Aleppo, Smyrna, Mardin, Damascus, Hama, Homs, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Acre” (Acca).

Have you visited Alquds, Alnasrah, Acca? and when?

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October 11th, 2009, 2:22 pm


56. Shami said:

Montagnard,i didnt visit occupied Palestine yet ,but i can and i will visit it inshallah ,even under occupation.

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October 12th, 2009, 12:55 am


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