American-Syrian Relations

From Enemy to Friend?

The relationship between the USA and Syria seems to have relaxed under the presidency of Barack Obama. But US policy has so far been restricted to cautious advances, writes Kristin Helberg

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad (photo: AP/DW)
No more sordid isolation? Syria's President Al Assad has visited Europe for the second time in just a few months

​​The relationship between Syria and the US has for years been tense. The previous US President George W Bush placed the Syrian regime on his list of rogue nations, imposed economic sanctions in 2004 and recalled the US ambassador to Syria in 2005. This year, since Barack Obama took office, five delegations from the US congress have already visited the Syrian capital.

After meeting the Syrian President Bashar Al Assad they praised the atmosphere of open discussion. At the beginning of March Washington sent its first official envoys to Damascus: Jeffrey Feltman, leader of the US State Department's Middle East department, and Dan Shapiro, President Obama's security advisor. They were sent to explore the situation, and held talks with Syrian foreign minister Walid Al Muallim, which they described as "constructive".

Crisis management instead of a comprehensive solution

Samir Al Taqi, head of the Orient Center for International Studies in Damascus, still remains sceptical however, as to whether Obama's government will really succeed in influencing the Middle East conflict: "The Syrians are ready to help improve the situation in the Middle East if a serious move is made, if there's a genuine peace process," says the political advisor. He believes, however, that the Americans are more interested in crisis management at the moment and in easing the conflict slightly, rather than in a comprehensive solution.

France's President Sarkozy and his Syrian counterpart Al Assad (photo: picture alliance/ dpa)
Back on the international diplomatic parquet: France's President Sarkozy received his Syrian colleague in Paris in July 2008

​​Al Taqi sees the reason for this reticence in the Americans' list of priorities. Washington is more interested in Iran, Afghanistan and the Gulf than in the Israeli-Arab conflict, Al Taqi says. The Syrian government must therefore remain cautious and hold its cards close to its chest.

This applies particularly to Syria's alliance with Iran. The British Syria expert, Peter Harling, of the "International Crisis Group", describes the original US plan to lever Damascus out of its close partnership with Tehran as naive and sees the Obama regime as less naive. Washington now wants simply to influence the dynamics of the Syrian-Iranian relationship, and this has shifted anyway, he says; Syria is attempting to intensify its contacts with other partners, for instance Turkey, Qatar, France and other EU member states, without at the same time breaking off its relationship with Iran.

New momentum for the Association Agreement

Syria's relationships with European states received a boost recently when President Assad and his wife visited Austria and Slovakia, accompanied by an unusually large delegation. This was Assad's second European trip following years of isolation.

US President Barack Obama and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad (photo: AP)
"Not as naive as the Bush administration": US President Obama now wants simply to influence the dynamics of the Syrian-Iranian relationship, not break it

​​In summer 2008 the French President Nicolas Sarkozy invited the Syrian leader to Paris for the Mediterranean Summit, thus paving the way for Assad's return to the fold of the Western states. Syria has now come close to achieving one of its most important foreign policy aims: the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU, which would lead to free trade and a closer partnership with Europe.

For many years it had remained on ice due to political tensions; but now the final draft is complete and awaits the signatures of the twenty-seven EU member states. The ratification now depends on the Austrian and Slovakian presidents' agreement.

Syria, moreover, is seeking more intensive economic collaboration with Europe, as the Syrian economy urgently needs sustainable investment by European firms. For this reason Assad choose to bring representatives of around fifty Syrian businesses, the Syrian economics minister and Abdallah Dardari, his right-hand man when it comes to rebuilding the Syrian economic system. There is a reason why Assad chose Austria out of all the EU states: Vienna never turned its back on Damascus even in times of crisis, and a state visit to the Austrian capital has been on the Syrian president's to-do list for some time.

Europe's unconditional obedience

But Damascus hopes' for a greater European involvement in the Middle East conflict have not to date been realised. In a recent interview with the Austrian newspaper Die Presse Assad spoke of the Europeans' "unconditional obedience" towards the USA. If, every time European politicians held promising talks in Damascus, they continued simply to go home and wait to see what the US did, it would be better to discuss the issues directly with US representatives, not with Europeans, Assad stated explicitly.

As for direct peace talks with Israel, Damascus insists that Washington play a mediating role. Last year Syria and Israel held indirect talks with the assistance of Turkey, but the new right-wing government in Israel has made the return of the Golan Heights to Syria more unlikely than ever, says Janbulat Shakai, political editor of the Syrian daily Al Watan:

"Although we now have a US government seeking dialogue with every country in the world, we have a far-right government in Israel with a foreign minister who will only offer peace in return for peace and not land for peace." Thus no-one in Damascus is expecting a breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli conflict – with or without Obama.

A closer relationship between Syria and the EU does however seem plausible. The Association Agreement is no longer likely to come into force before the summer, but it could well be high on the European agenda in July, when Sweden takes on the EU presidency, a country which places much greater significance on dialogue with Europe's southern neighbours than the current holder, the Czech Republic.

Kristin Helberg

© Deutsche Welle / 2009

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