The Obama administration's decision to return an ambassador to Syria after a four-year absence reflects the president's desire to start making good on a pledge to broaden American diplomacy to include dialogue with adversaries.
The move, announced formally to the Syrians Tuesday night, also hints at how seriously Obama takes both his initiative to spur Israeli-Palestinian peace and his intention to mend US relations with the Arab world.
"We've heard a lot of good language from Obama about our relations with Arab countries, most recently in Cairo, but he's actually done very little in terms of concrete steps," says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma and author of the SyriaComment blog. "So normalizing relations with Syria is a small demonstration that we really are changing our approach to the region."
Out, the move suggests, is the Bush administration's preference for ostracizing problematic countries and openly advocating regime change.
In, on the other hand, is a more pragmatic approach that sees US interests served by garnering information and intelligence from prickly or even adversarial relationships.
"This is a decision that was in the works for a long time and that is based on reality," says Aaron David Miller, a Middle East scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington and the author of various books on the region. "This is not a transformative event in US foreign policy, but it comes out of the perspective that diplomacy is learning more about what your interlocutor or opponent is doing."
President Bush removed the US ambassador from Damascus in 2005 over Syrian involvement in Lebanon, including a suspected Syrian role in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. The move sent a clear signal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad that the US found Syrian actions unacceptable, but it also complicated US efforts at eliciting Syrian cooperation in neighboring Iraq.
Obama's decision reflects US recognition that Syria will be a key factor if a comprehensive peace is to be reached in the Middle East, State Department officials say. That sentiment was reflected by Obama Middle East envoy George Mitchell's recent visit to Damascus, and in particular by Mr. Mitchell's statement that Syria plays an "integral role" in the quest for "comprehensive peace" in the region.
"Those were the magic words for the Syrians," says Mr. Landis, who returned Tuesday from Damascus. The Syrians were anxious to see a US ambassador return, Landis says, but not without reassurances of a new tone and recognition of Syria's interests, particularly with regard to Israel.
"'The Americans can't cherry-pick,' is what I heard," says Landis, "'They can't have what they want on Lebanon and Iraq without helping us get the Golan [Heights] back and reaching a peace deal with Israel.'"
Still, Landis says he expects the announcement to encounter objections from some forces on Capitol Hill who will see it as rewarding bad behavior and as putting Arab interests above Israel. "Washington has been split on this, and there are still a lot of people who are not eager to see this happen," he says.
Syria also has a strategic relationship with Iran, something the US would like to see weakened or even severed. Yet while the recent political turmoil in Iran may have played some role in the timing of the announcement, the Wilson Center's Mr. Miller says that the move would have come anyway.
"The Syrians have to be thinking about what the events of June 12 [Iran's contested presidential election] mean for their relationship, so this would seem an opportune time to move on what was already coming," he says. At the same time, "with Iran hot right now and given the ties between the two, it's critical we have a mission in Damascus that is up to speed."