DAMASCUS - In an interview to be published in Syria's Forward Magazine in
August, I asked veteran US journalist Seymour Hersh about the prospects of a
Syria-United States summit. Hersh replied, "If [President Barack] Obama met
with [President Bashar al-] Assad, it is very likely that they would like and
respect each other, and that could be the most important development of this
era. Both are young, self confident and widely admired by their people."
In 2009, Hersh penned an article in which he wrote: "Obama said that he would
be willing to sit down with Assad in the first year of his presidency, without
Several Internet-based articles emerged in recent months saying that a meeting
was being planned by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to be held in
Turkey. Theoretically, apart
from a storm of Israeli objections, nothing stands in the way of a Syrian-US
summit in Damascus. On the contrary it is much needed and would help solve a
bundle of misunderstandings accumulated during the eight years of the George W
The mood is ripe after Obama's June 4 speech in Cairo, and the Syrians would
receive him with a red carpet, at both an official and public level. When
recently asked by an Italian daily if he would like to meet his US counterpart,
Assad said, "Yes in principle, it would be a very positive signal." He quickly
added, "But I'm not after a souvenir photo. I hope I can see him to talk."
The Syrians like Obama, and this raises the chances of a successful Syrian-US
summit. They don't want him to fail in the Middle East, in sharp contrast to
what they wanted for Bush. In late May, Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem best
put it when he said, “We approve of President Obama, a lot.”
For his part, Obama was never anti-Syrian. Quite the contrary, he harbors views
that are sympathetic to Arabs and Muslims in general, and realizes that he has
plenty of room to cooperate with the Syrians when it comes to Iraq, Lebanon,
Iran and Palestine.
He has no pre-set stereotypes, and is interested in building on common ground
with the Syrians, and not - as Bush had been - in breaking Syria's alliance
with these groups. He actually sees this alliance as God-sent, especially
vis-a-vis-Iran, because Syria is a reasonable country that can help moderate
Iranian behavior. Obama ultimately wants dialogue and results on Iran's nuclear
file. He realizes that when all doors close between Tehran and Washington DC,
the only back channel will be Damascus.
He has been very smart on the latest disturbances in Iran, refusing to comment
so as not to harm the demonstrators and make them look like puppets of the
United States. He is nevertheless worried about how things are snowballing - on
all fronts - and knows that the only country that is close to Iran, which the
Iranians listen to although it does not have a history of anti-Americanism, is
Syria. The Syrians have already said that they are willing to use their
considerable influence in Iran to mediate between Tehran and Obama on the
On Lebanon, Obama is pleased at the latest election results, which resulted in
maintaining the status quo for the pro-Western March 14 Coalition in
parliament. Contrary to what Syria's opponents in Washington were saying, Syria
did not interfere to doctor results, in favor of its allies, the Hezbollah-led
opposition. It actually said that these were internal Lebanese elections,
welcoming the democratic choice of the Lebanese people.
"Sources from Damascus" were quoted in the pro-Syrian Beirut daily al-Akhbar,
saying that Syria was even ready to accept that Saad Hariri, who heads the
March 14 coalition, was the next prime minister of Lebanon. This approach
cannot but be welcomed by the Americans. Simply put, if Lebanon was one of the
reasons why the US was not engaging with the Syrians since 2005, then this
reason simply no longer exists. The French, after all, have realized that only
through Syria can real results be achieved in Lebanon. So has the entire
A Syrian-US summit would also add tremendous momentum to any peace talks in the
Middle East. The Syrians are saying that after what happened in Gaza in
December 2008-January 2009, it is impossible for them to return to talks with
Israel, be they direct or indirect, especially that they consider that Benjamin
Netanyahu is not a real peace partner.
The Syrians want Obama to pressure the Israeli Prime Minister to change course,
then chair an international conference, bringing all parties to roundtable
peace talks with Israel. Obama needs to prove to the Arabs that he can put the
words of June 4 - mainly on Israeli settlements and rights of the Palestinians
- into action.
This can only be achieved if he pulls the right strings with the hardline
Israeli cabinet, and acknowledge that the occupied Syrian Golan Heights are a
high priority on everybody's Middle East agenda, which must be returned to
their rightful owners, based on UN Security Council resolutions.
On Iraq, the Syrian and US presidents would certainly have plenty to discuss,
as Obama prepares for his troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities and towns in the
summer of 2009. Syria has said that it is willing to help the Americans achieve
an "honorable exist" from Iraq. No details were given to this proposal, made by
Foreign Minister Mouallem in 2008-2009.
Assad and Obama can discuss the "honorable exist" since they happen to agree
that Iraq must remain united, militias should not be allowed to roam the
streets of Iraq, the Sunnis should be re-incorporated into the political
process and al-Qaeda should be exterminated because it threatens not only Iraq
and the US, but as Syria as well, and the entire neighborhood. How Iraq should
look in the months and years to come, along with counter-terrorism cooperation,
are two points where there is plenty of common ground between Syria and the US.
Obama can reach back to see how much was achieved when his predecessors came to
Damascus - or met the presidents of Syria on neutral territory. The first to
make the journey was Richard Nixon in June 1974, hoping to divert world
attention from the Watergate scandal back in Washington DC. Large and friendly
crowds greeted him on June 16 in Damascus and his visit was seen as an end to
many years of US bias towards Israel.
Nixon's secretary of state Henry Kissinger did not welcome the Syria visit,
fearing that president Hafez al-Assad would discuss regional affairs directly
with the US president, bypassing and destroying all the shuttle diplomacy he
had conducted with the Arabs since the war of 1973.
Kissinger had based his entire Middle East policy on evading these questions,
believing that it was essential to say one thing to Israel and another to the
Arabs. As Assad started asking questions on the final borders of Israel and UN
resolutions, just before Nixon was about to reply Kissinger interrupted: "Mr
President. We have to leave. Our time is up. The plane is waiting."
Again Nixon tried to answer Assad but he was interrupted once more by
Kissinger, prompting him to ask: "Henry, don't you want me to speak?" Kissinger
nodded, saying that these issues should be discussed only in Washington DC.
Less than one month later, under the threats of impeachment, Nixon resigned
from the presidency on August 8, 1974, and was replaced by Gerald Ford.
Jimmy Carter came to power and invited then-president Hafez al-Assad to the US,
but the latter curtly refused, prompting Carter to meet him in neutral Geneva.
The two men got along immediately, and Carter said that both were "countrymen"
who with a twist of fate and determination had made it to top leadership posts
in their countries.
Since then, Carter has enjoyed an excellent relationship with the Syrians, and
today is often consulted by the Obama administration. Writing in his memoirs
many years after his 1977 meeting with Assad, Carter recalled: "Kissinger and
others who knew Assad had described him to me as very intelligent, eloquent and
frank in discussing the most sensitive issues. I invited the Syrian leader to
come and visit me in Washington, but he replied that he had no desire ever to
visit the United States. Despite this firm but polite rebuff, I learned what I
could about him and his nation before meeting him."
Carter then added, "During subsequent trips to Syria, I spent hours debating
with Assad and listening to his analysis of events in the Middle East ... he
seemed to speak like a modern Saladin - as though it was his obligation to rid
the region of foreign presence while preserving Damascus as the focal point of
modern Arab unity."
Speaking to Syria's Forward Magazine last December, he added, "I'm carrying
Assad's good greetings to Obama" and prophetically added that there are "better
times ahead" for the US and Syria because, "My hope and my belief are that
there are enough compatibilities between the two parties to reach a final
Then came the Bill Clinton visit of 1994. By then, the Syrian and US presidents
were heavily involved in peace talks regarding the occupied Golan Heights.
Assad had met him first in Geneva in January 1994. They met again at the
funeral of King Hussein of Jordan in February 1999 and a final meeting took
place, which also failed to produce a peace deal, in March 2000, less than
three months before the Syrian leader's passing.
There are plenty of transcripts in Washington DC on what took place during all
of these meetings between Obama's predecessors and the president of Syria. All
of them confirm that when the Syrians are treated with the respect that they
deserve, not as outlaws in the Middle East, and when the Golan issue is raised
in a serious manner, the Syrians are willing to listen and help hammer out
Clinton, Carter and Nixon are still around to tell the story, and they can tell
Obama that nothing helped push Syrian-US relations better than getting on Air
Force One and flying to Damascus to meet the president of Syria.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.