Posted by Joshua on Thursday, March 5th, 2009
John Kerry seems to have his finger on the pulse of US – Syrian relations. His visit to Damascus last month preceded improved relations. Kerry is now saying that the US can “loosen sanctions on Syria” in order to nudge along improved relations in the region. He continues to see improved ties with Syria as a means to isolate and weaken Iran, but believes this need not occure as a precondition.
Haaretz quotes Kerry: “We should have no illusion that Syria will immediately end its ties to Iran,” Kerry said, “but that shouldn’t threaten us as long as their relationship ceases to destabilize the region.” “It benefits Syria if Assad looks west for new relationships,” Kerry said. “The sanctions can always be tightened again if Syria backtracks,” he said.
One friend wrote me this:
John Kerry effectively said to President Assad: “are you serious about Iran? We all know they want nuclear weapons. Are you really going to stand with Iran against the world on this? The time is coming for you to choose.”
Apparently President Assad urged the Americans not to force Iran alone into a corner on the issue, saying it would be counter-productive.
The Americans are angry that Syria didn’t ‘give’ them anything concrete and, as you know, the Syrian’s felt the same. Despite the upbeat-ish public statements I got the feeling no-one really felt upbeat. And also the feeling – I suppose unsurprisingly – that the Americans still believe they are fundamentally right on Israel/Hamas/Hizbollah and that Syria is fundamentally wrong and does not have a legitimate case, even on its own terms.
It is easy to believe that the Americans are not serious about a peace deal and are working on “senario two” — damage control and seeing what they can get without the Golan and only sanctions on the table.
Kerry also said something to Assad to the effect that; if you come clean with the IAEA about your nuclear programme, we can make that problem go away. Do the right thing.
All of which sounds less like a meaningful conversation, and more like the Americans issuing orders. Perhaps not a new era of dialogue and liberal foreign policy after all?
Here is my op-ed in the National
Friends in need
By Joshua Landis
The National – Op-Ed (March 6, 2009)
What distinguished Kerry’s speech, delivered at the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution, were the specifics of how far the United States should go in achieving these goals. He left his meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad convinced that it was time for a direct U.S. role in Israel-Syria talks, which the Bush administration had resisted.
The talks could be nudged along by loosening sanctions against Syria, Kerry said, and by not expecting an immediate transformation in Damascus.
“Loosening certain sanctions in return for verifiable changes in behavior could actually benefit U.S. businesses, and the sanctions can always be tightened again if Syria backtracks,” Kerry said.
Notwithstanding “Syria’s long-term interests” being with the West, Kerry said, “We should have no illusions that Syria will immediately end its ties with Iran.” Much of the rationalization for U.S. engagement with Syria until now has been the prospect of peeling it away from Iranian influence.
On West Bank settlements, Kerry said U.S. policy opposing expansion for decades has “existed on paper alone.”
“Nothing will do more to make clear our seriousness about turning the page than demonstrating — with actions rather than words — that we are serious about Israel freezing settlement activity in the West Bank,” Kerry said.
Assad invited to Saudi Arabia
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal was in the Syrian capital of Damascus on Wednesday, and held talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, indicating an improvement in the relations between the two Arab countries. Syrian state-run news agency SANA quoted Assad as telling the Saudi Minister that “Arabs should find a way to handle their disareements cordially.”
During the meeting, Prince Saud also extended an invitation on behalf of Saudi King Abdullah to Assad for visiting the kingdom, the Syrian state-run agency reported.
Building healthy ties with Syria: Prince Saud
Saudi Gazette, 27 February 2009
Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Foreign Minister, said Thursday the Kingdom wanted to build “healthy” new ties with Syria, two days after his Damascus counterpart paid a landmark visit to Riyadh.
“There will be other visits between Syria and Saudi Arabia,” Prince Saud told reporters following talks with his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner. “We hope for a reconciliation between Syria and Saudi Arabia on healthy foundations,” he said.
“Divergences on Arab issues are behind us, buried,” Prince Saud said and described Tuesday’s visit by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moallem “very positive.”…
In response to a question, the Saudi Foreign Minister described the statements by Iran over the Kingdom of Bahrain as worrying….
“Britain will talk to Hizbullah,” in Haaretz
“We should have no illusion that Syria will immediately end its ties to Iran,” Kerry said, “but that shouldn’t threaten us as long as their relationship ceases to destabilize the region.”
“It benefits Syria if Assad looks west for new relationships,” Kerry said.
“The sanctions can always be tightened again if Syria backtracks,” he said.
Selon les chiffres publiés par le bureau des statistiques US, les échanges entre la Syrie et les Etats-Unis ont atteint 760,9 millions de dollars en 2008, en hausse de 61 % sur un an.
Iran’s Ahmadinejad calls for stronger alliance with Syria
Khaleej Times, 1 March 2009
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Sunday called for a stronger alliance with Syria in a bid to resist Israel and its allies over the Palestinian crisis.
In a meeting with visiting Syrian Prime Minister Mahmoud Naji Otri, Ahmadinejad praised the two countries’ position on the international and regional issues, particularly the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
‘Recent developments in the world proved that Iran and Syria were moving on the right track insisting on the need of resistance against enemies,’ the Iranian leader said.
Tehran does not recognize Israel and is the main supporter of the Islamist Hamas movement which controls Gaza.
Israel and the United States have accused Iran of training Hamas militants in Gaza as well as providing them financing and weapons. Tehran however insists it only gives spiritual and political support to anti-Israel militia groups both in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon.
‘If Iran and Syria have an eminent position in the region, it is because of their resistance based on their correct decisions,’ Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying by the website of state television IRIB.
Iranian Vice President Parviz Davoudi, in a separate meeting with Otri, urged Damascus to be more on alert about their political enemies’ tricks, saying: ‘Both countries (Iran and Syria) should be active in supporting unity among all Palestinian groups and the reconstruction of Gaza.’…
Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by major Western countries, has recently agreed to conciliatory talks with the secular Palestinian Fatah movement, whose representatives were expelled from Gaza by Hamas in June 2007.
Damascus is easing entry visa restrictions to Iraqi tourists after 17 months of strict regulations that barred most from entering. SANA says the Syrian Immigration Department’s new regulations require tourists to be part of a group and enter the country only through Damascus International Airport. Tourists should have a return ticket, at least $1,000 in cash, and should leave their passports at the tourist office after arrival. The Syrian move comes after the improvement of security conditions in Iraq and amid an international financial crisis that makes Syria in need for tourists and money.
US Overtures Could Force Syria Into Tough Choices
Reuters, 1 March 2009
U.S. President Barack Obama has signalled he wants a dialogue with Syria that could further rehabilitate Damascus internationally but also force it to choose whether to loosen ties with Iran and anti-Israeli groups.
“If the (Obama) administration could somehow engineer the strategic realignment of Syria — away from Iran toward the peace camp — it would prove a real blow to regional militants,” David Schenker, a senior fellow at Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in a research note.
Syria would find it harder to maintain backing for militant groups and its longstanding alliance with Iran if the United States normalised ties and sought to broker peace between Israel and Syria, as it did for almost a decade until 2000.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week it was too early to predict a thaw in ties after a senior U.S. official met Imad Mustafa, Syria’s ambassador in Washington.
But Mustafa said the meeting could herald a new chapter in ties and that Syria was open to discuss all issues.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said direct U.S. involvement is vital in any peace talks with Israel aimed as securing the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights…
TURKEY/ISRAEL: Gaza tensions strain relations
Oxford Analytica, 27 February 2009
EVENT: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on February 24 chided Israeli prime minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu for disregarding the Palestinians’ right to statehood and repeated his call to include Hamas in talks.
SIGNIFICANCE: Erdogan’s continued support for Hamas, and his criticism of Israel’s likely next leader, will hamper efforts by both sides to contain the fallout from his high-profile clash with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month and further strain ties between the two.
ANALYSIS: The Turkish public’s reaction to Israel’s war in Gaza has been for the most part one of outrage. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has reflected this by engaging in harsh criticism of Israel and expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people — and therefore with Hamas). Tension between the two countries peaked on January 29 in Davos, where Erdogan stormed out of a panel discussion on the Gaza crisis following a strongly-worded response to Peres’s lengthy defence of Israel’s offensive.
MEDIATION EFFORTS: Part of Erdogan’s anger stems from the fact that Israel launched its operation on the heels of Turkey’s efforts to initiate direct talks between Syria and Israel.
DAMAGE CONTROL: Immediately after the spat, both countries rushed to strike a reconciliatory note.
CONCLUSION: Erdogan’s vocal support for Hamas and his temperamental behaviour on the international scene may jeopardise the AKP government’s delicate relationship with the West. However, on the domestic front, Erdogan’s indignant attitude towards Israel has resonated with the majority of the Turkish people and boosted his popularity at a crucial moment ahead of next month’s local elections…