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    Middle East
     Jun 6, 2009
The audacity of hope, from Cairo
By Sami Moubayed

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 [1] 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 Nasrallah.

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 settlements.

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 their settlements."

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 policy issues."

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 here.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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