DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) – The United States and Syria are exploring the possibility of a new era of better relations after years of tension but questions remain over just how much common ground exists between the two.
A key sign that President Barack Obama is seeking better ties is the flurry of Congressional delegations that have passed through Syria this week including one headed by Sen. John Kerry, who is scheduled to meet President Bashar Assad on Saturday.
The State Department also announced Friday it has scheduled a meeting next week with Syria’s ambassador to the U.S. to discuss outstanding differences between the two countries, the first such meeting in months.
The Congressional delegations led by Democrats, like Obama, are carrying the new message that America wants to engage countries it’s been at odds with if they’re willing, as Obama puts it, to unclench their fists.
On the face of it, the visits are proof of America’s willingness to do away with the former Bush administration’s policy of isolating Syria.
For example, when former President Jimmy Carter and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came to Syria in 2007 and 2008 respectively, the Bush administration chastised them, saying their visits hurt U.S. interests. But the Congress members stopping in Syria this week,
including Kerry, and two other delegations headed by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, of Maryland, and House Foreign Affair Committee Chairman Rep. Howard Berman, of California, will find a White House that’s ready to listen when they return home. There are concerns that new American openness toward Damascus may only be cosmetic, because the long-standing differences between the countries haven’t changed much.
Syria’s ambassador to Washington described the Congressional visits to Damascus as being “of extreme importance and depth.” But he stressed he was still waiting to see if the visits change “the manner of dialogue between us and America.”
“Let us see what are the goals we all want to reach, where we agree where we disagree … what are the easy and difficult obstacles, things that we can postpone until later,” Imad Mustapha told The Associated Press in Damascus. He said the U.S. was still re-evaluating its policy toward Syria.
Mustapha is to meet with Jeffrey D. Feltman, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, according to State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid, in the belief that direct engagement with Syria will advance U.S. interests.
“Our concerns include Syria’s support to terrorist groups and networks, Syria’s pursuit of nuclear and nonconventional weaponry, interference in Lebanon and a worsening human rights situation,” he said.
Already during their trips to the Mideast, Kerry and Cardin repeated the previous American language demanding Damascus change its ways in terms of its ties to Iran and backing of militant groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian Hamas.
“We’re looking for actions, and we will have a good frank discussion about what those expectations are,” said Kerry, of Massachusetts who heads the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, during his stop in Beirut earlier this week.
Sateh Noureddine, the managing editor of Lebanon’s As-Safir newspaper, which is supportive of Syria, said Kerry’s message indicated that optimism over budding U.S.-Syria relations was exaggerated.
The U.S. is seeking “a conditional dialogue, not openness,” and it is too early to tell its outcome, he said.
U.S.-Syrian relations grew tense after Damascus staunchly opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of neighboring Iraq. Relations soured further when the Bush administration pulled the U.S. ambassador out of Syria in 2005 to protest Syria’s suspected role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Damascus denied involvement in Hariri’s death, but in the uproar that followed, it was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, ending a 29-year military presence.
The United States also wants Syria to stop supporting militants, control its border with Iraq, and help stabilize Lebanon. Washington also would like Syria to step back from its close relations with Iran, a longtime ally. But Syria refuses to stop backing Hamas and Hezbollah and insists it’s doing all it can to safeguard its long, porous border. It also says it’s willing to help stabilize Iraq and cooperate with Lebanon, pointing to its recent establishment of diplomatic ties with Beirut.
Assad also has sent signals he wants to work with Washington. In an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian published this week, Assad said he was impressed by Obama’s friendly gestures and welcomed the U.S. delegations to Syria. But he also said he’s still waiting to see results.
“We are still in the period of gestures and signals. There is nothing real yet,” he said.
Syria has already taken other steps that indicate it is ready for a new relationship with Washington. Last year, it held indirect peace talks with the United States’ top Mideast ally, Israel, though Syria put the talks, held through Turkey, on hold to protest Israel’s recent offensive in Gaza against Hamas militants.
Syrian political analyst Imad Shueibi was optimistic that U.S.-Syria relations would change from a period of “the wrestling of wills to the sharing of wills.” “What is happening is not just checking the pulse,” he said of the Congressional visits. “It is an attempt to define the possible horizons in the relations ahead.”