DAMASCUS - The American media recently reported that United States Congressman
John Kerry had been channeling messages back-and-forth between Damascus and
President Barack Obama.
This "phone diplomacy" has succeeded, reports said, at narrowing the gap
between both countries, which appeared strained after the US renewed sanctions
on Syria last May. Apparently, one immediate result of engagement was the
decision to send George Mitchell, Obama's Middle East envoy, to Damascus. This
will take place after the upcoming Lebanese parliamentary elections, scheduled
for June 7, and Mitchell will discuss the Middle East peace process, which is
currently on hold due to resistance from the hardline cabinet in Israel, headed
by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Meanwhile, Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, spoke to the Israeli
newspaper Yediot Aharanot, describing a recent visit to Syria where he met with
Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem, saying: "There is greater flexibility than
in the past in Syria. Not on territory - it would be a mistake to think that
they have changed their position. They will not cede a single centimeter of
territory. But if Israel recognizes Syria's sovereignty over the entire Golan,
they will be willing to talk about what remains."
Another breakthrough was a phone conversation between Mouallem and his US
counterpart Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, where the Syrian minister said
that his country would welcome a visit by US Central Command officers to
Damascus this June, to discuss stability in Iraq.
Clinton and Mouallem have already met twice, in Shark el-Sheikh and Istanbul,
where they discussed common ground for Syria and the US in Iraq. In return,
Clinton promised to develop a joint "road map" for improving bilateral
relations between the two countries. Clinton reportedly said: "We will be
prepared to discuss with you all issues related to Syrian-American relations."
Although pleased at these developments, Syria did not officially comment on
President Barack Obama's speech  to the Muslim world, delivered in Cairo on
Thursday. Ordinary Syrians went to local coffee shops to watch the speech - a
ritual that is usually reserved for Hezbollah secretary general Hassan
While they usually applause and cheer Nasrallah's rhetoric, no clapping
accompanied Obama's speech, just smiling faces at a realization that something
was changing - fast - in Washington DC. Syria's state TV did not transmit the
speech live, but private Syrian channels, like al-Dunia, did.
Obama twice made reference to the Holy Koran, and spoke about women's rights,
education, democracy, and enhancing people-to-people relations between the
Muslim world, and the United States. He clearly strayed from previous rhetoric
by noting that democracy cannot be imposed on any nation, which his predecessor
had tried to impose on several Arab countries (Syria included) and spoke about
respecting popular choice in any elections - which the Syrians hoped, was in
reference to Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and Hezbollah in this
weekend's polls in Lebanon.
The Syrian audience smiled when Obama used strong words about the rights of
Palestinian statehood, saying: "It is also undeniable that the Palestinian
people - Muslims and Christians - have suffered in pursuit of a homeland ...
They endure the daily humiliations - large and small - that come with
occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people
is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian
aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own."
He then added, "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued
Israeli settlements." There was relief, accompanied by skepticism,
nevertheless, inherited from eight years of mistrust, brought about from the
era of former US president George W Bush.
Although many ordinary Syrians are willing to give Obama the benefit of the
doubt, since he sounded sincere when talking about the Palestinians, they doubt
if the US president can put his words into action. There is plenty of
resentment in the US Congress, after all, over Obama's stance on Israeli
Shelly Berkley (Democrat, Nevada) best put it saying: "My concern is that we
are applying pressure to the wrong party in this dispute. I think it would
serve America's interest better if we were pressuring the Iranians to eliminate
the potential of a nuclear threat from Iran, and less time pressuring our
allies and the only democracy in the Middle East to stop the natural growth of
Obama is yet to reduce sanctions, in order to really earn the admiration of the
Syrians, lift Syria from the State Department List of State Sponsors of
Terrorism and send an ambassador to Damascus to fill a post that has been
vacant since 2005.
Syrian-US relations were feared to have hit a dead-end when Obama renewed
sanctions on Damascus in mid-May, repeating the same words used by Bush when
sanctions were first imposed, in 2004. They immediately dismissed the sanctions
as routine legislation, claiming that even if he so wished, Obama could not
lift sanctions that easily, once they become embedded in US law.
A visit by two US officials, Jeffery Feltman and Dan Shapiro last week, helped
reduce Syrian worries, and so did the Mouallem-Clinton phone conversation. The
Syrians still believe that if Obama pulls the right strings, peace can be
achieved in the Middle East and that Syrian-US relations can be improved, given
that both countries share so many common objectives in Iraq, like disarming
militias, combating al-Qaeda, supporting the political process and helping
maintain a united Iraq.
Syria has said, time and again, that it is willing to cooperate on all of the
above, if it is treated as an ally, rather than an outlaw in the Middle East.
According to Joshua Landis, an American professor who is an expert on Syrian
affairs, "Syria has long insisted that the US must treat Syria with a modicum
of civility and respect if it expects to make progress on outstanding foreign
Although Obama made no reference to Syria in his speech, he did speak about
willing to sit down and speak to Iran, with no preconditions. He spoke about
Palestinian statehood, which was warmly received on the Arab street,
particularly in Syria. His praise of Israel was not new - and was even
expected, by ordinary Arabs. It was used as a pretext, however, by Osama bin
Laden to dismiss the US president hours before the speech was delivered,
accusing him of being no different from Bush.
Certainly more people were listening to Obama in Syria and the Arab world than
those who paid any attention to Bin Laden. Most Arabs reasoned that from where
things stood under Bush, the only way to go in Arab-US relations was up. Things
could never have gotten worse for the Middle East, and in testimony to that,
the Arabs wanted someone who could inspire them to hope for a better future.
Obama did just that with his Cairo speech.
Striking a realistic tone shortly before his appearance in Cairo, the US
president spoke to the BBC and said, "It is my firm belief that no one speech
is going to solve every problem. There are no silver bullets. There are very
real policy issues that have to be worked through that are difficult. And,
ultimately, it's going to be action and not words that determine the path, the
progress - from here on out."
1. 1. For the full text of Obama's speech, click
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.