A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The US-Syrian Thaw

Just a day after President Obama nominated Robert Ford as the first resident US Ambassador to Damascus since the Hariri assassination, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns has met with Bashar al-Asad. At a time when Syria, Israel, and Lebanon (primarily Hizbullah) have been talking about the possibility of war (See Qifa Nabki on the subject here), the US is clearly signalling a normalization with Syria, even as businessmen are finding new prospects opening up in Syria (see Syria Comment here).

Given the fact that the Syrians have been publicly saying for some time that they would be willing to resume negotiations with Israel, and that the demonization of Damascus by the previous US Administration seems to have actually strengthened Syria's regional position rather than weakened it, the new openings would seem to be welcome, and are in keeping with Saudi efforts to seek raise of re-integrating Syria into the Arab world (it being a country that used to boast of being "the beating heart of Arabism") and weaning it aweay from its Iranian alliance.

While there have been criticisms that sending an Ambassador back to Damascus is "rewarding" Syria, even Sa‘d Hariri has made the Damascus journey, and the lack of a resident ambassador for the past five years has meant that the US has had little influence in a key player. The Burns trip and the Ford appointment send useful signals, I think, and help dampen the belligerent comments from all sides lately.

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