Will Syria play key role in Obama's Mideast peace efforts?

US envoy Mitchell was in Egypt Thursday, and arrives in Damascus Friday. Syrians hope for a new rapprochement under an Obama administration.

Bassem Tellawi/AP
Syrian women watch a speech given by US President Barack Obama June 4 in Cairo, from a cafe in Damascus. His administration says it is looking for Syria to play a positive role in the region.

US envoy George Mitchell is expected to arrive here on Friday in President Obama's most high-profile effort yet to seek rapprochement with Syria – one that could benefit both countries.

With Mr. Obama pursuing an ambitious Middle East agenda – seeking to withdraw US troops from Iraq, reach an Arab-Israeli peace settlement, and counter Iranian nuclear ambitions – the administration says it is looking for Syria to play a positive regional role in meeting these goals. Damascus, meanwhile, has long claimed that it wields important influence in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon, as well as with the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

"For years we've been hearing accusations from top officials in Washington that the Syrians are the main destablilizers in the region," says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst. "Those who can destabilize can theoretically also stabilize. So Syria can play an important role in helping find solutions to problems in the region."

On Thursday, Mr. Mitchell met with officials in Egypt and Jordan. He reportedly urged Arab nations to reopen Israeli diplomatic missions and take other steps to normalize relations and restart the Israeli-Paliestinian peace process.

On Fricay, Mitchell will be the highest-level US official to visit Syria since the Obama administration came to power promising new regional dialogue.

"This administration is committed to a broad-based comprehensive peace dealing with all the different players in the region," says US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly. "And we decided this was an appropriate time for Senator Mitchell to go to Syria."

That marks a radical departure from the Bush administration, which placed Syria under sanctions in 2004, accusing it of encouraging violence in Iraq and Lebanon, supporting terrorism, and fueling regional instability. In 2005, the US ambassador to Syria was withdrawn from Damascus and high-level contact between the two countries was suspended.

But Syrians are wary, still stinging from Mr. Obama's unexpectedly harsh rhetoric in renewing sanctions last month. The country represented an "unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States," the president said.

Having anticipated a more dramatic improvement in relations under Obama, many locals are frustrated at the lack of substantial progress.

"We're not interested in a photo shoot with George Mitchell," says Mr. Moubayed, who has been involved in Syria-US talks. "Engagement needs to be followed by actions."

Syrians wonder: Is change really coming?

There have been some openings of late, including Obama's willingness to allow Syria to buy spare parts for Boeing aircraft despite sanctions. But Moubayed says the essence of American policy has not changed under the new president.

Although Jeffrey Feltman, the acting assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, and National Security Council Senior Director Daniel Shapiro visited Damascus last month, their second trip since Obama came to power, there is still no American ambassador in Syria. Moreover, US officials recently renewed accusations that Syria is facilitating the flow of Al Qaeda-linked insurgents across its borders into Iraq, a claim that Damascus denies.

And then there was the renewal of sanctions.

While the step did not surprise Damascus, there was disappointment at the harsh tone of Obama's directive. Syrian officials had expected a softening of rhetoric indicating that Syria policy was under review.

"We all knew that this was coming. Once sanctions become embedded in US law it becomes very difficult to not renew them," says Moubayed. "But Obama could have used a different language; he could have reduced sanctions."

US disappointed with Syria

According to Andrew Tabler at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the slow progress of reengagement reflects continuing US disappointment at Syrian policy.

"The list of issues between the United States and Syria has never been longer," he says, pointing to American demands that Syria prevent the flow of fighters into Iraq, support Lebanese stability, and come clean about an alleged covert nuclear program. "The reason [the administration] uses the same language is that there hasn't been a lot of progress on these issues."

Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency found a second instance of man-made uranium particles that had not been declared by Syria, according to the BBC.

Signals of reengagement

Even so, there are signs that the pace of reengagement is now picking up.

Mitchell's visit comes on the back of a recent phone conversation between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, during which they discussed improving bilateral relations. Additionally, Syria has agreed to host a military team from US Central Command to confer on Iraqi issues.

Mitchell, who will meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is expected to push these talks forward, while also seeking to draw Syria away from Iranian influence and testing the ground for a renewal of peace talks between Syria and Israel that were cut off last year.

"Talking to Syria isn't obviously an objective per se. It's really what you can achieve through dialogue with Syria," says Peter Harling, a Damascus-based analyst for the International Crisis Group. "This administration is very conscious of the fact that all issues and conflicts in the region are correlated, are linked to each other, so it's really about the impact that engagement has on other files [issues]."

For their part, Syrian officials say they are willing to engage but that the US must now take more substantial steps towards improving ties, such as sending an ambassador to Damascus, dropping sanctions, and playing a more balanced regional role.

In exchange, Syria says it can help secure Obama's regional goals.

"We just want America to be neutral," says Suleiman Haddad, chairman of the Syrian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, noting that with Syria's help a "just and comprehensive" regional settlement can be secured.

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